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The politics of increasingly small differences

It’s reached the point where you need a high-powered microscope to detect the differences between the major political parties. If there are any, they are at sub-atomic level as the much-heralded speech on the economy by Ed Miliband demonstrates.

The economy is in crisis, in its deepest recession since the 1930s. People have stopped spending because they don’t have the money. Retail sales fell last month and not just because of the bad weather.

Most ordinary people are either repaying debts or simply don’t have the income. If you have a job, your wages are falling in real terms; if you’re unemployed your benefits are miserly and also declining.

ConDem austerity policies have made a bad thing worse. But then they are also caught up in the crisis not just of the British economy but of the global capitalist system. Yesterday Germany and France reported deep contractions in their economies, for example.

Corporations are ripping off the taxpayer while the privatised utilities, rail networks and supermarkets are banging up prices like there is no tomorrow. Meanwhile, the supermarkets have never bothered to check whether beef is actually horsemeat. 

People are angry, fed up and increasingly desperate for a solution.

Enter the Labour leader Miliband. Did he promise a cut in train fares, control of soaring private rents or a return of gas and electricity to public ownership? Did he hell! All he came up with was the return of a 10p tax rate for the low paid scrapped by the previous Labour government and a so-called “mansion tax”.

One big ConDemLab nation

The Tories are thinking of introducing the tax rate and the Liberal Democrats are in favour of the mansion tax. So forgive me for declaring Miliband’s speech to be a prime example of the politics of small differences. As the Independent noted:

What was striking was the overlap with either existing Coalition plans or proposals from one or other of its members. Even the repeated references to “working people” sounded suspiciously similar to the Tory pre-occupation with “strivers”.

It’s not as if the sums even add up. A 10p tax rate for low earners would cost the Treasury about £7 billion. The best estimates for the revenue for a tax on high value homes is £2 billion, according to experts at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), which noted:
"To have observed lower starting rates of tax being introduced and abolished by governments of both complexions over the last three decades and then to propose the same thing again suggests a remarkable failure to learn from history." The same aims, the IFS added, could be achieved by increasing personal tax allowances.

On the mansion tax proposals, the IFS described the idea as a bandage over the regressive council tax system which under-taxes valuable properties. "Rather than adding a mansion tax on top of an unreformed and deficient council tax, it would be better to reform council tax itself to make it proportional to current property values," the think tank said.
Perhaps Labour will abandon the mansion tax proposal –  which is widely viewed as a bid to cosy up to the Liberal Democrats in case the next election is a stalemate – when it realises that several of its MPs will be in the firing line.

David Miliband’s home is in the £2 million-plus bracket which Labour intends to use as a benchmark. So is deputy leader Harriet Harman’s home in Herne Hill, south London, which she bought with a cheap mortgage provided by her husband’s union (she also has another home in Suffolk).

And then there is the wealthy Labour MP for Feltham and Heston, Seema Malhotra who won a by-election in the relatively poor West London constituency. The market value of her home in fashionable Chelsea is reputedly over £3 million.

Finally, there is Ed himself. He lives in a house, in the name of his wife, which is valued at up to £2.3 million – a rise of £700,000 in the three years since it was purchased. Yes, they are all in it together. One big ConDemLab nation.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
15 February 2013

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