Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in York last weekend. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the Lib Dems' £12,500 tax allowance promise is a smaller pledge than it sounds

Inflation alone will ensure that the allowance rises to over £11.3k and minimum wage workers will still be paying tax.

Since the weekend, when the Lib Dem faithful gathered in York for their spring conference, quite a few column inches have been filled with frothy speculation about Nick Clegg’s likely longevity as Liberal Democrat leader. Nothing, however, has been written about the new twist he gave their proposed tax policy (Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack being the honourable exception). Clegg’s remarks may have sounded like a passing aside – but they were fiscally and politically significant.

The context was that Clegg – like Danny Alexander – spent the weekend seeking to highlight the Lib Dems' flagship commitment to remove minimum wage workers from income tax in the next Parliament via a personal tax allowance (PTA) of £12,500. The not-very-hidden-message was that this will be top of their demands in any future coalition talks.

It is an odd policy in many ways. I’ve written before about why it isn’t what it’s billed to be. It’s not a tax cut for the lowest paid (the 5 million lowest earners don’t’ get a penny); nor is it really about lifting people out of income tax (roughly 10 per cent of the cost of the policy goes on this). It isn’t targeted at those on the minimum wage (the clear majority of whom are part-time workers who don’t pay income tax); and it’s certainly not well designed to reach those fabled "hard working families" (just 15 per cent of the gain goes to working families in the bottom half of the income distribution). In a world of Universal Credit (UC), it’s an even more regressive than people realise: millions of low and middle income working families will have most of their gains immediately withdrawn via a lower UC entitlement. And there is no policy justification whatsoever for raising the PTA once again while leaving the national insurance threshold at a far lower level – a point that even senior Lib Dems concede in private. But none of this is new.   

What might have been news, however, was Clegg’s apparent clarification that the aim of Lib Dem policy for the next Parliament is to “stick at £12.5k” (£12.5k being around the earnings of a full-time minimum wage worker in 2015). I’m told this really means setting the goal of a PTA of £12.5k by the end of the Parliament in 2020; in exactly the same way that in 2010 Clegg made an allowance of £10k the lodestar for 2015.

The details really matter here. Reaching an allowance of £12.5k by 2020 is very much less ambitious than moving straight to a PTA of £12.5k in 2015/16, and dramatically less stretching than committing to uprate a £12.5k allowance in line with increases in the minimum wage over the next Parliament (which is the implied logic of the policy). Even without further increases in the PTA in next week’s Budget, or indeed in Budget 2015, we would expect inflation alone to ensure that the allowance rises to over £11.3k by 2020 (the default for the PTA is that it rises in line with CPI). Inflation is the friend of those seeking to boast of a higher income tax allowance.

The extra cost of going from £11.3k to £12.5k by 2020 is about £6bn over the next Parliament (more if UC doesn’t come in). But moving straight to a PTA of £12.5k in 2015/16 would cost over double this amount. And uprating a £12.5k allowance in line with the minimum wage would cost far more still. Indeed, Clegg’s remarks suggests he’s realised that this continued link to the minimum wage, the stated justification for choosing £12.5k in the first place, would not only cost an exorbitant amount, but it would also mean that the Low Pay Commission (who determine the minimum wage) would in effect be in charge of a central element of tax and fiscal policy. And that was never going to happen.

So the defining commitment at the heart of the Lib Dem manifesto is actually likely to be to raise the PTA by a bit over a thousand pounds more than it would have otherwise gone up by over the whole of the next Parliament. Regardless of whether you think this is a smart or silly thing to promise, what is beyond doubt is that it is a smaller pledge than many realise. (And it’s also a different pledge to that being advertised: a £12.5k PTA in 2020 would mean a full-time minimum wage worker will still be paying income tax in every year of the next parliament.) 

Now, £6bn over the Parliament is still an awful lot of money. All the more so when most of the gains go to those households who are better off, and more than ever in a period of sustained austerity when every taxcut will require another tax rise or, more likely, yet deeper spending cuts that will overwhelmingly hit the poor. But the lower than expected cost is highly relevant to potential 2015 coalition talks. It means the Lib Dem tax plans are likely to represent a less insurmountable barrier to a deal with either of the other main parties than some might think. Clegg seems to have watered down his top demand for future coalition talks without anyone noticing.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation 

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Donald Trump vs Barack Obama: How the inauguration speeches compared

We compared the two presidents on trade, foreign affairs and climate change – so you (really, really) don't have to.

After watching Donald Trump's inaugural address, what better way to get rid of the last few dregs of hope than by comparing what he said with Barack Obama's address from 2009? 

Both thanked the previous President, with Trump calling the Obamas "magnificent", and pledged to reform Washington, but the comparison ended there. 

Here is what each of them said: 

On American jobs

Obama:

The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift.  And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth.  We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.  We'll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost.  We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.  And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

Trump:

For many decades we've enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.

One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind.

Obama had a plan for growth. Trump just blames the rest of the world...

On global warming

Obama:

With old friends and former foes, we'll work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.

Trump:

On the Middle East:

Obama:

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. 

Trump:

We will re-enforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.

On “greatness”

Obama:

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned.

Trump:

America will start winning again, winning like never before.

 

On trade

Obama:

This is the journey we continue today.  We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth.  Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began.  Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week, or last month, or last year.  Our capacity remains undiminished.  

Trump:

We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our product, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.

Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body, and I will never ever let you down.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland