Tom Harris MP has written a post today about tax and inequality. Judging by all the question marks scattered throughout the piece, he seems to be uncertain about many things, especially the principal dilemma under consideration:
“How should a modern, left-of-centre political party which has been in power for more than 12 years respond to the growing gap between rich and poor?”
As well as this he asks questions such as:
“We know how to bring the richest down, but once we’ve done that, how do we use that money raised to benefit the poorest?”
“So why has incomes equality increased? And is it the inevitable consequence of a booming economy, as the UK’s was until the global recession started to bite?”
“More to the point, does anyone seriously believe that if the Tories instead of Labour had been in power since 1997, incomes equality would have been narrower than they are today?”
Some fellow Labourites may be concerned that a Labour MP and former government minister does not appear to have a very clear idea of why inequality in Britain has increased or of how it can be addressed.
However, rest assured that Tom isn’t completely clueless! After all, he is very certain of some things:
“Tony Blair and – let’s not forget – Gordon Brown put a great deal of effort into reinventing Labour as a low tax party. As a result, we won three general elections in a row…”
There’s an element of truth here, of course, but if Tom’s above statement formed the basic argument of an A-Level politics essay on ‘Why Labour Won Three Elections In a Row’ I think it would be generous to give it higher than a B - grade.
One other very plausible explanation for New Labour’s electoral success during that period is that the opposition party were exhausted, divided, and correspondingly unpopular, making it relatively straightforward for Labour to retain power even as voters deserted it over the years. In a similar way, the polls today suggest a lack of widespread enthusiasm for the Conservatives but a collapse in Labour support makes a Tory victory seem sadly likely.
It could also be pointed out that Labour’s healthiest victories in 1997 and 2001 were won whilst promising some increased taxes – the Windfall Tax and the rise in National Insurance. At the heart of the party’s manifestos were commitments to increase spending on education and on the NHS.
So maybe Tom shouldn’t be so certain that ‘it woz low taxes wot won it’. Such a simple explanation, as convenient as it is for Tom’s view that taxing the rich is a bad idea, is not compelling.
I’m also far from convinced insisting that things would have been worse under the Tories or that growing inequality was probably an inevitable consequence of a booming economy is going to satisfy the concerns of those who care about economic inequality – many of whom are Labour activists and supporters and whose campaigning efforts will be needed to keep Labour MPs in office.
Let’s give Tom credit. At least he is thinking about inequality and facing the difficult questions, even if it is depressing to see that he doesn’t have many answers about what to do and that there is apparently a lack of a ‘party line’ over inequality.
Tom’s final demonstration of certainty is:
“The Tories, of course, will be rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of this debate within the party, and praying that we come down unequivocally on the “soak the rich” side of the argument. Personally, I’d rather we stay in government.”
But from the perspective of anyone who cares about inequality, what’s the point in keeping ’us’ in government if ’we’ have achieved such unsatisfactory results over 12 years, are not sure why this has happened, and have no idea how to rectify the situation in the future?
Personally, I’d rather Labour MPs like Tom started looking at how redistributing money from the rich to the poor can be done efficiently and effectively and then used all the influence they have to make sure the government is carrying out appropriate policies. He could look at providing free childcare, free school meals, raising tax credits and thresholds.
I’d rather they were doing this than demonstrating a total lack of direction over the issue of inequality (exasperating for Labour activists, I suspect), giving succour to right-wing arguments over taxing the rich (very pleasing for the Tories, I’d guess), and seeming to blindly prioritise re-election and the retention of power for its own sake (nauseating for voters in general).
Of that I’m certain.