All the things I could do if I had a little money. (Image: Flickr/fsecart)
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Raising the personal allowance: more expensive than you'd think, and not as progressive as they say

One of the announcements from yesterday’s budget was the Chancellor setting the path of income tax bands from 2015/16 to 2017/18. The personal tax allowance, the amount of income that can be earned before paying the 20p basic rate of income tax, will rise to £11,000, and the higher rate threshold, that amount earned before paying the 40p higher rate, will rise to £43,300. 

This sounds significant, but is a substantially less generous policy than the one mooted earlier in the week, of an £11,000 personal allowance this year, not in 2017/18. Because tax bands are up-rated by inflation anyway, delaying the £11,000 by two years substantially reduces the benefit to taxpayers. In the absence of any policy intervention, the personal tax allowance would be expected to rise to around £10,760 in 2017-18. This means the announced measure is a rise of just £240, and a benefit of £48 in reduced tax for basic rate taxpayers, rather than the £80 they would receive had it been implemented this year. The rise in the higher rate threshold is £400 higher than where it would fall if increased in line with inflation.

One suspects the chancellor turned away from the idea of an £11,000 personal allowance sooner because the OBR have substantially revised down their expectations of inflation. This increases the cost of an £11,000 personal allowance, since the gap between where it would fall under inflation-uprating and £11,000 is larger. Nonetheless, putting up tax bands faster than inflation is not cheap. The modest increases proposed in yesterdays budget will, by the Treasury’s own reckoning, cost close to £1.5bn.

Also important is that the OBR’s downward revision of inflation makes both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives tax ambitions, of a £12,500 personal allowance by 2020/21 and, in the Conservatives case, a £50,000 higher rate threshold, much more expensive. At the time of the Conservative party conference last Autumn, this package of tax cuts was costed at around £7.2bn. Factoring in the impact of lower inflation, this has risen closer to £9bn. With the Coalition setting out a fairly gentle path of rises out to 2017/18 yesterday, the assumption has to be that the remaining £6.5bn of tax cuts will be back-loaded in the remaining years of the parliament.

The Coalition have justified their expensive tax cut strategy by highlighting how many workers have been lifted out of tax in this parliament. But, as has been consistently pointed out, those on middle to high incomes benefit the most from personal allowance increases. And those on the lowest earnings do not benefit at all, as they aren’t earning enough to pay tax anyway. Our distributional analysis of yesterday’s announcements (see below) illustrates this regressive pattern.

As the personal tax allowance has continued to rise above inflation, this latter group is growing in size. Using generous and expensive tax band up-rating as a strategy to support those on low incomes hasn’t just run out of road, it was flawed from the outset. Many commentators have pointed out that a rise in the threshold at which employees start paying NICs would be a better use of similar funds. Even better would be using this money to make Universal Credit and other in-work benefits more generous, since that would be much more tightly targeted at those on low incomes, and have little to no benefit for those higher up the income distribution.

 

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad