Attempting to predict the issues that are likely to feature in a future general election is as foolhardy as it is difficult. However great the plans of those competing, however well honed their message calendars, the one thing we all know for certain is that events come along like storms in the desert and change the political landscape before our eyes.
But we speculate anyway, and occasionally we get it right. Probably the surest prediction we can make about the issues likely to be at play in the 2015 general election is that tax policy will feature heavily. Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday makes that as close to a certainty as possible.
The official Liberal Democrat response to Miliband’s speech was dismissive of his overall proposals: the Liberal Democrats in government have reduced the income tax paid by those on the lowest incomes by more in three years than Labour did in thirteen.
And the analysis of the speech by the Institute for Fiscal Studies supported the party’s assertion that the Lib Dem policy of raising the threshold at which people begin to pay income tax is a less complex and more effective way of helping the low paid than re-introducing the 10p rate.
Yet despite criticising the content, Liberal Democrats will be secretly rather happy with the Labour leader’s speech, for two reasons.
First, it shifts the political debate to the area where the Lib Dems are at their strongest: tax policy. For whatever else the party has done in government, it is the implementation of a £10,000 tax-free allowance that is cutting through the fog and being recognised by voters as a distinctive achievement.
In the run-up to the next general election, Liberal Democrats will want to talk of little else. Raising the threshold further – to the level of the average earnings of those on the national minimum wage – is already party policy. The party reasons that the combined message of having delivered the £10,000 threshold and seeking to go further in the next parliament is a very strong one indeed.
The second reason Liberal Democrats will be pleased with the speech is Miliband’s embrace of a mansion tax. You might think that the party would be annoyed by Labour’s blatant theft of one of its key policies, but actually the reverse is true.
The mansion tax is embedded in the minds of the public as a Lib Dem policy. It is unlikely that a random conversion to the merits of the idea will convince voters that if they want a mansion tax they should vote Labour. So by adopting the policy Miliband’s main achievement is to remind voters of the mansion tax, and to increase its importance in the political debate over taxation. Why would Liberal Democrats not welcome such a boost for one of the party’s most distinctive policies?
Labour’s adoption of the policy also helps when it comes to negotiations in the event of another hung parliament, particularly if (as looks distinctly possible) the arithmetic allows for an arrangement between the Liberal Democrats and either Labour or the Tories. Most party members will not welcome Miliband’s change of heart because it is more likely to lead to a Labour-Lib Dem government. Contrary to popular belief, only a small number of party members would actively prefer that option.
Most Liberal Democrats would prefer to enter into an arrangement with whichever party agrees to implement more Lib Dem policies. And just as Labour’s warmer feelings towards electoral reform strengthened the Lib Dem hand in 2010 sufficiently to force the Tories into agreeing a referendum on the alternative vote, so the party’s embrace of a mansion tax makes it more likely that the policy will be implemented if Liberal Democrats end up in government, be it with Labour or the Tories.
Whether Miliband’s speech does Labour any good in the long-term remains to be seen, but Liberal Democrats should welcome it: there is every chance it will help Clegg’s party even more.
Nick Thornsby is a Liberal Democrat member and activist. His own blog can be found here