Rich man, poor man: the two-nation policies of the Conservative government

New tax plans will help the middle classes, but do nothing to address inequality

shifty osborne


The Queen’s Speech has launched the new Conservative government’s policies. Prime minister David Cameron described the legislative programme as ‘the bold first step of a one nation government … for working people that will bring our country together’. So what are the policies?

The government will legislate so that people working 30 hours a week on the National Minimum Wage will not pay income tax. In addition, there will be no rises in Income Tax rates, Value Added Tax (VAT) or National Insurance Contributions (NIC) for the next five years. A related government press release says that annual income tax personal allowance will increase from the current rate of £10,600 to £12,500 by 2020.

The above sounds populist but the details are not what they seem. The current minimum wage of £6.50 per hour is due to rise to £6.70 per hour from October 2015. Anyone working a 37 hours a week would earn about £13,000 a year, not enough to survive, but would still be liable to income tax and NIC. There is no commitment to a living wage.

The higher tax-free personal allowances may help the middle-classes, but will do nothing for 44 per cent of adults, including pensioners, whose income is already too low to pay any income tax. The freezing of the top marginal rate of income tax, currently 45 per cent, would no doubt be welcomed by wealthy elites and will do nothing to reduce inequalities.

The poor pay VAT at 20 per cent, the same rate as the rich. The most recent government statistics show that the poorest 10 per cent of households pay nearly 47 per cent of their gross income in direct and indirect taxes, whilst the richest 10 per cent pay 35 per cent of their income in taxes. The freezing of VAT means that the poorest would continue to be subjected to a regressive tax.

The doubling of free childcare to 30 hours a week for three-and-four-year-olds would be welcomed by many, but leaves a vacuum either side of those ages. The new provisions are to be partly funded by a reduction in the tax relief on pension contributions by those earning £150,000 or more, but precise details are not yet known. Local authorities will bear the brunt of the costs and have complained that the existing scheme is chronically underfunded.

This forces the local ratepayers to absorb the cost. No doubt, local authorities would carefully scrutinise the new funding settlement which could burden local residents even more.

The Conservative manifesto had promised to raise at least £5 billion a year from a clampdown on tax avoidance, but the Queen’s Speech was silent on this. In the 2010-2015 parliaments, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee produced six reports on organised tax avoidance and urged the government to punish the designers and marketers of the schemes (big accountancy firms). Such matters do not appear to be on the government’s agenda.

The government is committed to reducing public expenditure by £12 billion a year. The first target is to reduce household benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000. Charities have said that this would hurt families with young children, especially those living in major cities.

During parliamentary exchanges, the government was supported by acting Labour leader Harriet Harman who said that she was ‘sympathetic’ to the cap as long as ‘this doesn’t put children into poverty, increase homelessness, or end up costing more than it saves.’ There is no commitment to control house rental costs.

The UK workers’ share of the gross domestic product has declined to 50.5 per cent (see Table D), compared to 65.1 per cent in 1976. This is the lowest ever recorded. A major reason for this is weakness of institutions that can support workers claims for a higher share of the wealth.

In the absence of workplace democracy, such as the employee directors that Germany and Scandinavian countries have, the only effective tool available to workers is to withdraw their labour and bring intransigent employers to the negotiating table.

The law already requires compulsory balloting of trade union members for strikes. However, a new Trade Union Bill would require a 50 per cent voting threshold for union strike ballots, and additionally 40 per cent of those entitled to vote must back action in essential public services. In contrast, there are no constraints on the withdrawal of capital. Companies, even those funded by taxpayers, can shift production, fire employees and dilute pension rights without any ballot of shareholders, employees, local communities, creditors or taxpayers

Contrary to the spin, it is hard to see the legislative programme as the policies of a one nation government. The government is pursuing partisan policies that will do nothing to tackle poverty and inequality, or promote social justice.

Prem Sikka is professor of accounting at the University of Essex

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7 Responses to “Rich man, poor man: the two-nation policies of the Conservative government”

  1. Rowdie111

    Usual leftie rubbish !….can’t have the Cons being seen as the party for the working man……sorry the bus has passed you by !

  2. Prem Sikka

    Neither the assertion of “leftie” nor referring to an alternative analysis as “rubbish” will do. If you have something to say then please offer it as part of some rational analysis, with some evidence.

  3. blarg1987

    Can you clarify which sections of the above analysis are incorrect and provide links where appropriate to correct?

    Anyone can say anything is rubbish, but to gain credibility it is worth backing up with information and evidence.

  4. Jacko

    I’ve never understood all this talk about ‘ending inequality’.

    Inequality is a fact of life amongst human beings. Some are good with numbers, some have bigger muscles, some are good with their hands, some at good at music, and so on. One could even argue that evolution diversifies human skillsets in this way in order to ensure the most effective progress of human communities.

    Once you recognize that, then you also recognize that someone has to be at the top and someone at the bottom in the hierachy of how those different skills are valued. If you have a very low-end skillset, you can expect to be rewarded very poorly. If you have a very niche skillset, then others will renumerate you very well for it, since it’s hard to find. That always has been the case, and it always will be. No tinkering with tax rates is going to alter that basic fact.

    I used to vote Labour but I stopped. I think that the Left just encourages the people at the bottom to believe the falsehood that the way to improve their situation is via some paternalistic central body that’s going to somehow transform their living standards with tweaks to tax and welfare. All this does is encourage a passive, dependent, subservient mindset and just ends up perpetuating a class system. And people don’t want to feel like that. They want to make their own luck, and build their future through their own efforts.

    Blair understood that. And he knew it had very powerful appeal to people’s sense of ambition and autonomy. Current Labour doesn’t get that. It’s back to the old rich vs poor, bankers vs beggars, look at how unfair it all is. And people just think: no thanks.

    I hate to break it to you, but articles like this one are of almost no interest to the average person. Nil. Nada. You’ve spent the last four years publishing them; you couldn’t win people over. Doesn’t that tell you something?

  5. blarg1987

    I think your missing the point slightly, I think most people want to end the inequality based not on people’s natural abilities but just having the right money to enter a certain club that gives you all the luck you need.

    Over the last 30 years this type of inequality has increased, you are more likely to be successful going to a public school, not because of the supposed superior education, but due to the connections that are formed that benefit in later life.

    Rag to riches stories are far less now as those wanting to succeed lack the resources and chances that there parents have had.

    These are the areas that need redressing.

  6. dnspncr

    One could indeed argue that evolution diversifies skill sets, but not very convincingly, I note that you have avoided making the argument yourself.

    Framing the debate about inequality in a biological context was brought into the public sphere after the publication of The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, a book which came in for a great deal of criticism from those at the libertarian end of the political spectrum. Many libertarians have now adopted an “inherent hierarchy” argument that is often based on populist anthropology, using cherry-picked evidence which omit studies such as those carried out on bonobos. Sound bites are often used in debates surrounding evolution, when discussing inequality both sides of the argument need to be aware that there is no convincing evidence supporting either inherent egalitarianism or inherent hierarchy theory.

    To say that the jury is still out on the importance of our genetic heritage in social organisation is an understatement.

  7. Terry

    Forgive me, but what is rubbish about this leftie blog. And what bus passed, unclear on what I missed.?

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