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Conservatives offer a five-year freeze in tax cuts: will it have any effect?

The Conservatives' unworkable bribe sounds too good to be true - because it is.

The Conservatives will today seek to reclaim the political agenda with a promise to outlaw any rises in income tax, VAT or national insurance for the next five years. That’s on top of an extra £8bn a year, a cut and a cap in train fares. . . and they’ll do all this while moving the budget into surplus by 2020.

Presumably, if the polls haven’t moved by next Tuesday, they’ll throw in a free unicorn for every adult in a swing seat. 

I don’t know where to start with this, honestly. The pledge is obviously crazy – what happens if you outlaw tax rises, and say, a bank collapses? Or the Eurozone needs a cross-country stimulus to prevent sucking the whole continent into recession? Or Britain’s defence needs are suddenly radically different?

Will it work? As one Labour MP observed recently, “people like free stuff”. People who’ve had a fairly awful half-decade or more like free stuff even more.

More importantly, it’s the first Tory message of the short campaign that can be broken down into a pleasing goodie for a two-minute news bulletin. Repeated over and over again for the campaign’s final seven days, coupled with further warnings about the SNP, it might be enough for the Conservatives to blunt Labour’s advantage in England and Wales and remain in office.

But will it? Visiting the Welsh marginals last week, the number one reason people gave for backing the Conservatives was that they needed time to finish the job, something I'm told is a repeated refrain on the doorsteps. If there is money available for a freeze in tax rates and further spending, it doesn't sound as if the mission is half-done and Labour are too big a risk. It sounds as if the good times are here again, and maybe it's time to give Miliband a crack of the whip. 

David Cameron and George Osborne have spent the last five years saying that there is no money left, that we have to tighten our belts, that the recovery is either just around the corner, or too fragile to risk Labour’s extra borrowing and more debt. That appeals to what one Conservative describes as the country’s “Blitz spirit” – and means that, for all the pain of the last few years, people are still inclined to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt. And it's not so long ago since the coalition's final budget, when Osborne had the opportunity to hand out tax cuts - but didn't. It's one thing for the Tories to have a message that is attacked by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but quite another to have a policy that runs contrary to everything they've done and said for the last five years. Far from turning the election in their favour, they may have just tilted the battle in Miliband's direction.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.