What does Labour offer on tax now? Photo: Getty Images
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Don't be fooled. The country needs and wants a honest debate about tax

Labour's chastening defeat has led some to claim the party is abandoning its commitments on tax. But that's a myth.

Has Labour, as Janan Ganesh claimed recently, ‘quietly given up on that which used to define it’? The article – and the wider argument – was based on wrongheaded assumptions about Labour – and taxation more generally.

By arguing that Labour’s focus on taxing ‘The Rich’ was insufficient in either generating enough revenue or honouring the principle of solidarity’, he suggests that Labour has turned away from its – apparently - high tax roots. According to Ganesh, ‘voters do not wish to pay more tax and do not assume that the tax they already pay is a proxy measure of their goodness as people’.

But Ganesh is wrong: the dividing lines on tax and redistribution between the parties remain clear, and it is the Labour party that has stayed on the right side of the debate.

Firstly, the pervasive narrative of Labour as the party of high taxes must be better understood for what it is: mythology. The article refers to Labour’s offer in 1992 as a classic example of self-righteousness over higher taxes, a pervasive political myth on the right. Yet, its manifesto was full of sound and perceptive tax proposals: who knew that the Conservatives’ celebrated personal allowance extensions had their roots in Labour’s 1992 manifesto which pledged to ‘take 740,000 taxpayers out of taxation altogether’? Furthermore, it promised to leave the basic and higher rates of income tax unchanged, and to abolish the iniquitous ceiling on National Insurance, which continues to this day (where earnings under £815 a week pay 12% in NICs while earnings over £815 pay only 2% in NICs). Mythology is of course persuasive and important: but these tax policies expose the hollow scaremongering that inaccurately overshadows Labour’s economic credibility.

Secondly, Ganesh interprets the taxing of bank bonuses, increasing the top rate of income tax, and the introduction of a ‘mansion’ tax as ‘petty politics’, echoing accusations from the Telegraph of Labour’s politics of ‘pure class envy’: yet, this analysis demonstrates how far the political right underestimates the significance (and popularity) of taxing wealth.

Labour’s election tax proposals were designed to promote exactly the ‘universalism and solidarity’ that Ganesh suggests it has abandoned. Taxing wealth properly addresses the UK’s chronic inequality, and Labour’s proposals attempted to grapple with the question of fairness in the system (the moral question of how we tax) alongside the dominant concern of revenue raising (the economic question of how much we tax). While Conservatives might dream of becoming the ‘workers’ party’ in ‘taking people out of tax’ through personal allowance extensions, the policy has further entrenched inequality in the system, with the reform disproportionately benefitting the wealthiest. Meanwhile, the Equality Trust has shown that while the wealthiest 10% of taxpayers pay 35p in every pound of their income in all forms of tax, for the poorest 10%, this figure is 43p. As such, the inherent, institutionalised injustices of the tax system require a radical overhaul with a focus on entrenched wealth: this, via examples such as a tax on property wealth, was exactly Labour’s offer last month.

Ganesh is partly right when he says that ‘by international standards, Britain is not overtaxed’, as, unlike low and middle wages, entrenched and unearned wealth remains chronically under-taxed. And this is important not just for the warped caricature of a party that taxes for tax’s sake: it has huge economic consequences too. Indeed, the OECD has demonstrated that societal inequality erodes economic productivity, knocking an estimated 9% off cumulative growth in the UK between 1990 and 2010. Reforming the tax system in favour of fairness and distribution is in the interests of all those professing commitment to a strong economy. Indeed, Labour’s ‘mansion tax’ seems less far-fetched when compared to the International Monetary Fund’s promotion of a one-off wealth tax of 10% in developed countries to wipe out public debt. And while the politics of revenue raising matters here (with Labour’s mansion tax plans estimated to raise £1.2bn), the politics of fairness and distribution are morally crucial too.

Finally, Ganesh’s implicit assumption of the public’s disengagement with taxation is unfounded. Blindly presenting all tax as intrinsically ‘bad’ is to misunderstand people’s continued connection to it. Most people are not inherently against taxes if they are collected fairly, used transparently, and if all contribute a fair share - hence the public’s outrage at tax avoidance. And while the tax burdens on low to middle income earners clearly need to be lessened, parties of all stripes must rid themselves of the idea that talking tax is toxic.

Public attitudes research shows distinct support for taxes when linked to high quality public service, with significant support for the introduction of a high value property tax and even increases in personal taxation to fund the NHS. Furthermore, forthcoming Fabian Society research on public attitudes to taxation indicates the desire for a more transparent tax system, with greater information and honest debate about the tax people pay. Indeed, it was precisely this attitude that secured public confidence when Gordon Brown introduced the ‘penny increase’ in National Insurance Contributions to provide funding for the NHS (following discussion in the Fabian Society’s Commission on Taxation and Citizenship in 2000). All parties must do more to engage with this sort of open discussion on tax.

Mythologies surrounding Labour’s history and public attitudes continue to distance the party (and indeed all parties) from the brighter reality on tax, that the public can handle (and indeed desperately want) honest, open discussion on the subject. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies identified during the election, this sort of debate is chronically missing, whether it’s about how we tax, or how much we tax. And it would be wrong to let such scaremongering frighten progressive politicians from engaging with these debates over the next five years, debates which we all deserve to be part of.

Daisy Srblin is a Research Fellow at the Fabian Society and is working on a forthcoming publication on public attitudes to taxation, for publication in Summer 2015 as part of the Future of Tax project.

 

 

 

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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.