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20 June 2013

Will anyone break the tax taboo?

The planned pace of cuts is unachievable. All parties need to talk about tax rises.

By George Eaton

The new Resolution Foundation report on public spending (of which more on The Staggers later) is a reminder of the grim inheritance that awaits whichever party wins the 2015 election. Based on Osborne’s current fiscal envelope, which Labour has said it will use as its “starting point”,  the next government will have to increase the pace of cuts by 50% between 2016 and 2018 in order to meet the deficit target. Departmental spending will be reduced by an average of 3.8%, compared to 2.4% in 2010-15 and 2.7% in 2015-16. Should the ring-fences around health, international development and schools spending remain, some departments will have had their budgets more than halved by the end of the programme (which, based on recent form, is likely to be further extended to 2020), with a 64% cut to the Foreign Office, a 46% cut to the Home Office and a 36% cut to defence. 

Tasked with delivering a Tory majority in 2015, Osborne has pushed the bulk of austerity into the years after the election. But as both the Resolution Foundation and the IFS now argue, the forecast cuts are implausible. At some point, if they are to eliminate the structural deficit (one that exists regardless of the level of output), which stood at 4% last year, our politicians will need to talk about tax rises. Even to maintain the current level of cuts (as opposed to a more aggressive pace), the next Chancellor will have to raise taxes by £10bn.

But, as in the past, both Labour and the Tories appear determined not to broach this subject. Osborne perpetuates the myth that as much as 80% of the remaining consolidation can be achieved through cuts, while Labour talks only of possibly reinstating the 50p rate and introducing a mansion tax (partly in order to fund the reinstatement of a 10p rate), which wouldn’t even raise half of the £10bn required. 

In practice, both parties will almost certainly raise taxes on all earners immediately after the election (as new governments so often do), but will they have the decency to warn us in advance? During the 2010 election, David Cameron repeatedly stated that the Tories had “absolutely no plans to raise VAT”.

We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT. Our first Budget is all about recognising we need to get spending under control rather than putting up taxes.

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That first Budget, of course, saw VAT increased from 17.5% to a record high of 20%, a move Osborne and Cameron had been planning all along (you don’t raises taxes by £12.5bn on a whim). 

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If this insult to democracy is not to be repeated, the parties must avoid colluding in the conspiracy of silence that so often affects tax. It should not be beyond our political class to engage the public in a reasonable debate about how best to raise new revenue. A land value tax; aligning income tax and capital gains; a higher top rate; a penny on income tax; all of these options should be discussed. But if recent history is any guide, don’t count on our politicians doing so.