Harriet Harman, Labour's acting leader, has caused a storm with her remarks on welfare. Photo: Getty Images
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Harriet Harman's right: Labour has to offer an alternative, not just opposition

Harriet Harman has thrown down a gauntlet. Here's how I'd pick it up, says Stella Creasy. 

Harriet Harman has thrown down the gauntlet– to do more than be angry about George Osborne’s choices. She has a point. The public need more than an analysis of the damage he’s doing – or despair that as we are out of office we cannot define what we think is fair until 2020. To win we have to be a government in waiting, prepared not only to make difficult but also different decisions about Britain’s future. 

As deputy leader I would help us ensure we are not just an opposition, but an alternative. We do not have to wait until the next election to start. It is right to ensure employers pay a proper living wage and to support apprenticeships. It is also right we balance the national books- every penny we pay on debt repayments is money we could invest in public services. But increasing inequality will do nothing to help our economy or our society- making it harder, not easier for people to succeed is a costly mistake this Chancellor fails to recognise.  Currently Osborne plans to cut tax credits for those working hard but in low paid and insecure jobs. Rightly, many worry this will lead to an increase in child poverty. Cutting tax credits when our economic recovery is predicated on consumer spending rather than increasing productivity also risks plunging not only families into debt, but our national finances back into a tailspin. 

Whilst this government has a majority, it does not have the monopoly on the options– the value of the parliamentary process is that by our amendments and our arguments we can show how our alternative reforms would instead deliver fairness and prosperity for all. 

So what shape could our agenda take? Previously, Osborne made big play of closing the loophole exempting tax haven companies and other non-residents from capital gains tax on the sale of residential property. Curiously he left it open for commercial property. Almost nowhere else in the world exempts foreigners from tax on selling real estate. This is not only the fair thing to do, but also brings us in line with the US, Canada, Australia, and the rest of Europe. Ensuring CGT applies to all sales could save the funds needed to protect tax credits as we move to a higher wage economy. This in turn reduces the need for them in the first place.

There are other loopholes well overdue closing. Managers of private equity funds and some hedge funds receive most of their remuneration as "carried interest". This can run to hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds, but for historic reasons it's taxed as a capital gain at 28 per cent rather than as income at 45 per cent. There's a clear case for equalising the treatment so that fund managers pay the same rate of tax as other high earners. 

The budget also increased the amount of tax relief you could claim for renting out a room, whilst cutting housing benefit for under 21s. Under-25s already make up a third of homelessness and there is a real danger these changes could make things even worse. The Government’s own figures suggest this costs little to implement- doubling the threshold for those who take in a tenant on housing benefit could help reduce the welfare bill by saving us money in our overheated private rental sector. So too overpayments within the tax credit system cost us £5.6bn. Using credit referencing before someone applies could save money, debt collection agency fees and heartache for many asked to repay mistakenly paid funds at a later date.

Finally, many focus on inheritance tax, as increasingly it is paid by the middle classes and avoided by the wealthy. Yet last year the National Audit Office identified that the biggest loophole is "business property relief". If you're seriously wealthy, and your wealth is in a trading business, BPR can help you escape inheritance tax altogether. It's supposed to help small businesses, but the use of this exemption has been rising at an astonishing rate – 50% since 2008 and much faster than the value of inheritance tax actually paid. Last year it cost £565m - restricting it to small businesses could save enough to ensure those with larger families were not penalised by tax credit changes.

These are just some examples of how Labour can tell a different story about the choices to be made on tax and benefits –where to save, how to spend and how our choices are fairer and socially just. That’s why it is right the next leader is given support to define the combination of proposals we put forward. But so too, it shows we don’t have to be stuck shouting ‘trap’ when faced with brutal Conservative plans. Opposing legislation without using the potential of public scrutiny misses our chance to use parliament to fight back. By putting forward our ideas and using the coming months to campaign for what we offer- support for those who work hard and protection for the most vulnerable to get Britain on track- we can put Osborne on the spot instead.  Let’s not wait until 2020 to show we are a government in waiting- let's get cracking now. 

 Stella Creasy is standing for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party www.stellacreasy.org.uk

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder