My column in this week’s magazine explores how “progressive” this new coalition government of “liberal Conservatives” and Liberal Democrats actually is. Progressive is, of course, a notoriously nebulous, woolly and, therefore, contested term.
My argument is that a progressive political philosophy has to be defined, at its core, by its attitude towards the poor and — especially — towards the gap between rich and poor, and the need to reduce that gap.
One of the more progressive measures suggested by the coalition government is the proposal to raise capital gains tax (CGT), currently set at 18 per cent on all gains above £10,100 a year, to a level closer to that of income tax — potentially up to 40 or even 50 per cent.
To tax unearned income is essential to tackling inequalities in income and wealth. It is, therefore, an inherently progressive policy.
But will the coalition buckle under pressure from the Thatcherite back benches? Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has told BBC News that “it’s not actually an argument between the coalition partners, as I understand it, it’s an argument between a few Conservative backbenchers and others”.
He also said:
It’s very important that we have wealth taxed in the same way as income. At present it is quite wrong and it is an open invitation to tax avoidance to have people taxed at 40 per cent or potentially 50 per cent on their income, but only taxed at 18 per cent on capital gains. It leads to large-scale tax avoidance. So, for reasons of fairness and practicality, we have agreed that the capital gains tax system needs to be fundamentally reformed.
He’s right, of course. But whether or not he — and the other Liberal Democrats in this new government — are able to stick to their guns on CGT, and resist the right-wingers, will be a crucial test of the coalition’s progressive credentials.