“If there were an election tomorrow we would…”
It’s been one of the phrases of conference so far. This week we’ve learned that if there were an election tomorrow, a Labour government would keep the top rate of income tax at 50p, would spend the 4G phone licence income on house building – and of course, we’d introduce our famous five point plan for jobs and growth.
All of these policies are perfectly sensible, and, indeed, if there were an election tomorrow, I’d be delighted to see a Labour government do any or all of the above.
But there isn’t going to be an election tomorrow.
Because of this bald fact, these “Look at what you could have won” pledges can become a little confusing and even store up future problems.
Let’s say we come into government in 2015, the tax rate has been 45p for two years, and the IFS say raising will raise a pretty small amount of income (and incidentally give us a higher rate of tax in the £150k-£1m income bracket than the socialist paradise of France*).
Is our position that a 50% tax rate was perfectly suited to fiscal years 2010-14, but a more doubtful proposition for 2015 onwards? Actually, it might be. So we’re studiously not saying exactly what we’d do in 2015.
Or take our housing announcement today, which is a very sensible, smart policy for the next year.
But if George Osborne spends the £3 billion we get from 4G on a tax cut, would we still do the house building programme? Perhaps not, because, after all, the money would be gone. But what if he used it to pay down the deficit? Would that mean there was fiscal space to spend that money?
The same type of “we wouldn’t start from here” approach is visible in our approach to the NHS bill. As I understand it, our position is perfectly sensible.
We wouldn’t have done the NHS Act, so we wouldn’t have legislated like this, but we think some parts of the NHS reform bill will be more or less workable and we don’t want yet another big re-organisation, so we’ll try to change the worst bits without yet more upheaval to the system.
However, because we were so committed to stopping the bill we have pledged to repeal it, we’ll do this by repealing the whole NHS reform act, but replace it with something not so different it causes major organisation issues. A sort of “Repeal and replace” bill.
I pay attention to these things, and this strikes even me as a bit.. complicated, though, as I say, perfectly sensible.
I understand the political desire to explain what a Labour government would do if transported into power immediately.
It helps give a sense of clarity to our objectives, an edge to our opposition, doesn’t undercut the policy review,and on the economic side, gives a real clarity to our economic alternative.
I’d also add that the economic policies are also costed, limited, and defined, all of which is really important.
So I can see how such “look at what you could have won” policies hep win the argument now.
However, I’m less sure they will help come 2015, when impressions we have left about what we will do will be compared to the actual results of the policy review.
Is their potential for NHS campaigners be a bit disappointed to discover our position is not as radical as all that?
Will those, like Jackie Ashley in today’s Guardian, who appear to think the pledges I’ve mentioned are definite manifesto commitments be disappointed and angry when they discover they may be more.. flexible than that**?
In my view, the most impressive moments of conference so far have come from the post 2015 pledges – whether on pensions, the banks, on regulators, or – best of all – the zero based spending review.
These pledges have been tighter, more sharply defined and more significant that the “look at what you could have won” policies.
Yes, they’re more modest, smaller in scale, targeted, less headline grabbing, but they’ve shown what a Labour government might really do to help - not what we would be doing if we’d won the last election, which I seem to vaguely recall we failed to do.
*Sidenote: Comparing rates on income tax can be error-strewn, but I’m assuming that the 45% rate for French income tax means the effective tax rates would be lower roughly to the £900k point compared to the 50p tax. Then the 75% tax kicks in, but there are exemptions for some types of income, so it’s hard to know at exactly what point that would make France more expensive than Britain for those earning huge sums.
**Jackie Ashley says “we do already know from Miliband that the top tax rate of 50p would be restored.. and the NHS changes reversed”.
Parsing the relevant quotes, I’m not sure we do know this, because of the “wouldn’t start from here” clauses I discuss, but the fact that Jackie Ashley thinks she knows this is important, because it means that we have given a definite impression.