Nick Clegg speaks at his party's spring conference in York earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Lib Dems revolt over Clegg's refusal to cut taxes for the poorest

Lord Oakeshott and the liberal Centre Forum are demanding a cut in the National Insurance threshold, rather than another cut in income tax.

There is no coalition policy of which Nick Clegg is prouder than the increase in the personal tax allowance. Having achieved the original target of £10,000 (from a starting level of £6,475 in 2010/11) a year earlier than expected, Clegg has been pushing George Osborne to go further - and will get his wish in the Budget tomorrow. The Chancellor is likely to announce that the tax threshold will rise to £10,500 next year and perhaps even to £10,750 if he's feeling generous. Given the Lib Dems' limited success in government (no AV, no House of Lords reform, no mansion tax), Clegg is understandably keen to claim credit for a policy that voters overwhelmingly support and that David Cameron rejected as unaffordable during the first 2010 leaders' debate ("I would love to take everyone out of their first £10,000 of income tax, Nick. It's a beautiful idea, it's a lovely idea - we cannot afford it"). For Clegg, the increase due to be announced in the Budget is a step towards the Lib Dems' new target of a £12,500 tax allowance by the end of the next parliament. 

But not all in his party share his enthusiasm for continually hiking the tax threshold. By definition, as the policy continues, it becomes increasingly less progressive. The five million workers who earn below £10,000 will gain nothing from another rise, but all of those earning up to £120,000 will be better off (the personal allowance is tapered away at a rate of 50 per cent after £100,000 - a stealth tax introduced by Alistair Darling).  It is those in the second-richest decile who receive the most in cash terms from the policy (mainly due to the greater number of dual-earning households), followed by the richest tenth (who receive marginally less due to the tapering away of the allowance). As a percentage of income, it is middle-earners who gain the most, with those at the bottom gaining the least.

For these reasons, an increasing number of Lib Dems are calling for the party to support progressive alternatives to raising the tax threshold. The Centre Forum, the party's favourite think-tank, has proposed increasing the National Insurance threshold, which currently stands at £7,748, to help low-earners. As the IFS recently noted, aligning the NI threshold with the personal allowance would "cut taxes for 1.2 million workers with earnings too low to benefit from an increase in the personal allowance, would benefit only workers, and would simplify the direct tax system."

The reliably contrarian Lord Oakeshott has echoed this demand, stating that "Raising the income tax starting point to £10,000 is a great Liberal Democrat manifesto achievement but we should declare victory and move on, or we'll become victims of our own success. We've lifted 2 million out of income tax but left 1.2 million of them paying National Insurance contributions from around £7,750 a year." The Guardian reports that his concerns are shared by his political ally Vince Cable, who has also noted "the diminishing returns of the policy for the low paid." 

Other alternatives to raising the tax threshold include cutting VAT (which is paid by all and hits the poorest hardest) and raising in-work benefits such as tax credits. As the IFS noted, increasing the level at which the latter are withdrawn by 20 per cent would be "a bigger giveaway in entitlements to working families in the bottom three income deciles than the gains to that group of raising the personal allowance to £12,500, despite costing £10 billion per year less". 

But all of these measures lack the headline-grabbing potential of another cut in income tax. With the Tories considering making their own pledge to raise the personal allowance to £12,500, Clegg is determined not to relinquish ownership of the policy. But as he continues down this path, the divide between him and his party's redistributionists is one to watch. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle