Not as progressive as he likes to make out. Photo: Getty Images
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How does Labour move on from tax and spend?

Voting against further increases to the personal allowance would expose George Osborne's rhetoric for what it is.

Last week saw publication of the Conservative Government’s first Finance Bill. It’s through the Finance Bill that the Tories will give legal form to the tax measures announced in their Summer Budget.

And they make an ignominious start. True, they never promised us a Rose Garden. But, I beg your pardon, the Conservative Manifesto did promise not to increase rates of income tax. And the very first clause of that very first Bill breaks that promise by busting the ‘Tax Lock’ to permit a 7.5 per cent increase in income tax paid on dividends.

Nor was this the only tax promise to fail to survive the nine weeks from General Election to Summer Budget. The Tories also pledged to “increase the annual tax charges paid by those with non-domiciled status, ensuring that they make a fair contribution to reducing the deficit.” But the Budget gave us no increase in the annual charges. Instead we have some fairly modest changes which will remove the benefit of the status from those unlikely to have been entitled to claim it in the first place.

But, “over-firm” though the Manifesto commitments may be revealed to be, and with a second reading today, the task before Labour is to work out before the Committee stages in September where it stands on the Finance Bill measures.  

I’ll offer some thoughts in the coming days.

And I’ll assume Labour wants to shrug off the clothing of tax and spend and ask, instead, how it might wear its new garb whilst enhancing Labour values?  To do so is to accept, for the time being at least, the Conservatives’ narrative around the ‘right’ size of the state. Revisiting that question can await another day.

The first measure Labour should oppose is the proposed rise in the personal allowance.

Cameron spoke last month on the need to end the merry-go-round of “people working on the minimum wage having that money taxed by the government and then the government giving them that money back – and more – in welfare.”

But raising the personal allowance is medicine that gets nowhere near where the trouble is. There are several reasons why this is so. But most important: however high you raise the personal allowance, employers still have to deduct tax on income – in the form of National Insurance contributions – and pay it over to government.

As things stand, someone on minimum wage could work 31 hours a week before she had to start paying income tax. But she could only work 23 hours before paying National Insurance contributions.

If you really want to end the “ridiculous merry-go-round” you don’t focus on income tax which kicks in at 32 hours but on National Insurance contributions which kick in at 24 hours.

It’s just the wrong solution.

Raising the personal allowance is terrible policy for other reasons too.

It’s regressive: the lowest earning 46 per cent of adults already earn too little to pay income tax. Raising the personal allowance does nothing to help them. Indeed, those who presently benefit most in cash terms are, as IFS has identified, the second richest decile in the income distribution.

With the lower half of the adult income distribution already outside income tax the scope for helping the poorest through the tax system is limited. Tax credits are the sharpest way to target help at those who need it most. If, for reasons of ideology, you’ve discarded them from your tool box you’re left with blunter instruments. But here are two.

Council tax is highly regressive. In 2013/14, even net of Council Tax Support, it represented a staggering 13.5 per cent of the earnings of the poorest 20 per cent of households and only 1.9 per cent of the richest (source ONS) (6.4 per cent/4.3 per cent/3.1 per cent for intermediate quintiles). The case for spending part of that £4bn a year cost of raising the personal allowance to £12,500 on reducing this unfairness makes itself.

Compelling, too, although better understood, is the argument, already made above, for raising the level at which workers become liable to pay National Insurance contributions. If you spend that £4bn on raising the point at which you start to pay 12 per cent National Insurance contributions you can benefit those in work who earn £8,060 and above, reaching much further down the income distribution curve. Then you really will start to get people off the roundabout.

Of course, whatever you propose, the reality is that the Tories will press ahead, regardless, with increasing the personal allowance. And it is far, far too early to begin to formulate manifesto policies for 2020. But even at this stage in the electoral cycle there is work to be done in exposing the reality of Osborne’s One Nation rhetoric: a suite of tax policies which do nothing for the poorest and distribute their fruits to those who need them least. 

Jolyon Maugham​ is a barrister who specialises in tax. He advised the Labour party on tax policy, and blogs regularly on taxation here.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues. 

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If only I could wangle a job in the John Lewis menswear department I’d get to say, “Suits you, sir”

I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

So now that I have made the news public that I am even deeper in the soup than I was when I started this column, various people – in fact, a far greater number than I had dared hope would – have expressed their support. Most notable, as far as I can tell, was Philip Pullman’s. That was decent of him. But the good wishes of people less in the public eye are just as warming to the heart.

Meanwhile, the question is still nagging away at me: what are you going to do now? This was the question my mother’s sisters would always ask her when a show she was in closed, and my gig might have been running for almost as long as The Mousetrap but hitherto the parallels with entertainment had eluded me.

“That’s show business,” she said to me, and for some reason that, too, is a useful comment. (I once saw a picture of a fairly well-known writer for page and screen dressed up, for a fancy-dress party, as a hot dog. The caption ran: “What? And give up show business?”)

Anyway, the funds dwindle, although I am busy enough to find that time does not weigh too heavily on my hands. The problem is that this work has either already been paid for or else is some way off being paid for, if ever, and there is little fat in the bank account. So I am intrigued when word reaches me, via the Estranged Wife, that another family member, who perhaps would prefer not to be identified, suggests that I retrain as a member of the shopfloor staff in the menswear department of John Lewis.

At first I thought something had gone wrong with my hearing. But the E W continued. The person who had made the suggestion had gone on to say that I was fairly dapper, could talk posh, and had the bearing, when it suited me, of a gentleman.

I have now thought rather a lot about this idea and I must admit that it has enormous appeal. I can just see myself. “Not the checked jacket, sir. It does not become sir. May I suggest the heather-mixture with the faint red stripe?”

In the hallowed portals of Jean Louis (to be said in a French accent), as I have learned to call it, my silver locks would add an air of gravitas, instead of being a sign of superannuation, and an invitation to scorn. I would also get an enormous amount of amusement from saying “Walk this way” and “Suits you, sir”.

Then there are the considerable benefits of working for the John Lewis Partnership itself. There is the famed annual bonus; a pension; a discount after three months’ employment; paid holiday leave; et cetera, et cetera, not to mention the camaraderie of my fellow workers. I have worked too long alone, and spend too much time writing in bed, nude, surrounded by empty packets of Frazzles and Dinky Deckers. (For those who are unfamiliar with the latter, a Dinky Decker is a miniature version of a Double Decker, which comes in a bag, cunningly placed by the tills of Sainsbury’s Locals, which is usually priced at a very competitive £1.)

I do some research. I learn from an independent website that a retail sales assistant can expect to make £7.91 an hour on average. This is somewhat less than what is considered the living wage in London, but maybe this is accounted for in the John Lewis flagship store in Oxford Street. It is, though, a full 6p an hour more than the living wage in the rest of the land. Let the good times roll!

At which point a sudden panic assails me: what if employment at that store is only granted to those of long and proven service? God, they might send me out to Brent Cross or somewhere. I don’t think I could stand that. I remember when Brent Cross Shopping Centre opened and thought to myself, even as a child, that this was my idea of hell. (It still is, though my concept of hell has broadened to include Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush.)

But, alas, I fear this tempting change of career is not to be. For one thing, I am probably too old to train now. By the time I will have been taught to everyone’s satisfaction how to operate a till or measure an inside leg, I will be only a few months, if that, from retirement age, and I doubt that even so liberal an employer as John Lewis would be willing to invest in someone so close to the finish line.

Also, I have a nasty feeling that it’s not all heather-mixture suits with (or without) the faint red stripe these days. The public demands other, less tasteful apparel.

So I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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