Seaumus Milne is one of my least favourite columnists, to the extent that I rarely bother reading more than the byline of his articles. I bit this week though, although I needn’t have bothered.
His article “A mania for tax cuts at any cost defies public opinion” gets the current political situation pretty much ass-backwards. His overall thesis, that the main political parties are all trying to outdo each other in cutting taxes at the expense of public services, simply isn’t true. Certainly both Clegg and Cameron have recently made speeches about cutting waste, but that is hardly new. Four years ago, all three parties were jumping on this particular bandwagon and it didn’t particularly go anywhere.
But then he outdoes himself by claiming that what the public want is fairer taxes, not lower taxes:
There’s a powerful case, backed by most voters, for taxes to be cut for the low paid and raised sharply on corporate profits and the wealthy. But all three major parties cower before the corporate elite, even as the financial edifice they have erected is crashing all around us, and instead are holding public services to ransom because of their refusal to countenance tax justice.
I’m not particularly disputing the claim that the public want fairer taxes, but it has to be said that Milne provides little actual evidence. What’s more, the public is notoriously contrary in this area. There were several reasons for the Lib Dems axing their 50p income tax rate on incomes over Â£100,000: one of them was that the policy was not as wildly popular as it had been assumed. Partly this is because it was perceived by some as a “tax on aspiration”. By contrast, the public lapped up George Osborne’s (now unfunded) pledge to cut inheritance tax, despite the fact that the only beneficiaries were the richest.
But more to the point, there is a party that is not only committed to tax justice but has spelt out how it would do so: the Liberal Democrats. Whichever way you look at it, lowering income tax by 4p in the pound while raising tax allowance, and paying for it by a combination of environmental taxes and raising taxes on the rich, is an example of tax justice. Milne knows this is our policy because he has read (or has purported to have read), Clegg’s Policy Exchange speech a couple of weeks ago. So why is he misrepresenting the party in this way? Is it too much to expect a bit of honesty from columnists? Or should we simply accept that the facts should never be permitted to get in the way of a good old fashioned leftist rant?
My suspicion is that tax justice is about to become the latest bandwagon that all parties are going to jump on, with varying degrees of genuine commitment. The cutting waste froth will come and go, as it always does (which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to cut waste; just that the civil service will always make it as difficult as possible for us to do so). So Milne will get his wish, but I doubt his efforts this week will have had much to do with it.