In his opposition to a progressive tax rise, Ed Balls proves he's a prisoner of his Brownite past

Though the Labour Party leadership may deny it, the Shadow Chancellor is a huge impediment to the necessary task of persuading the public they can be trusted

Share

A progressive tax increase - that is, one which hits the rich more than the poor - is announced. The country is desperate to reduce its deficit, and the measure has relatively little political cost.

You'd think that "progressive" Labour would be falling over itself to support the cutting of Child Benefit to the better-off - effectively just such a change - to give itself room for manoeuvre on spending in its forthcoming manifesto. But, extraordinarily, it opposes on a technicality, saying that it is "unfair".

Madness. And, since Labour will now have to find a plan, probably a politically costly one, to find an additional £2bn for its manifesto, it seems it will also have exacted revenge upon its face by the simple expedient of cutting off its nose. In fact, if it were pure political craftiness, to try to make trouble for the Tories, it might not be elegant or statesmanlike, but it would at least be understandable.

But it is not even that, according to Labour's own statements. It is simply sticking to a position held for countless years: that the universality of Child Benefit is a shibboleth, and targeting to those who really need it beyond the pale. Even in the face of an overwhelming argument to the contrary, namely, that we are pointlessly subsidising the already rather well-heeled by an amount that they probably barely notice.

And, were further evidence required, when even the Guardian is criticising Labour's position and making approving noises about Boris Johnson's, you know there's something badly wrong.

Prisoner of the past

But logic is not at the centre of this decision-making process. The problem is, simply, that Ed Balls has become a prisoner of his years at the Treasury. As the same piece says, tellingly, "it largely adds up to a defence of the things he helped put in place with Gordon Brown". Ouch.

We shall never know whether or not Alan Johnson would have made a brilliant Shadow Chancellor; we never really had time to find out. But when he unexpectedly resigned two years ago, to be replaced by Balls, senior Tories rubbed their hands; for the obvious reason that they could now brand the new Shadow Chancellor, a pivotal figure in Brown's long years at the Treasury, as co-architect of the nation's economic ills.

But there was a second, less obvious reason, which fewer twigged, why it might not be good news for Labour: that it would later be difficult for him to support solutions which he did not adopt during those years, and reject those which he did. Miliband, to his credit, realised that Balls was not his best option. But, in the end, Johnson's exit pushed him awkwardly into the very move he had originally eschewed - a return to the finance portfolio.

And so we come to the bizarre situation of Child Benefit for the better-off. It is not as though it is an arguable case. Like now-defunct mortgage tax relief, a similar subsidising of the better-off, it has been ripe for removal for years, but Labour has never wanted to do it. There are a few arguments against its removal, but they are flimsy ones.

Universality of benefits is often cited. But why, if it means you end up having government cash doled out to people who don't need it?

Next, it's effectively a tax rise, yes, and all tax rises hurt. But psychologically, it's arguably much more painless than a real tax rise, because the better-off (a) will hardly notice, and (b) mostly accept the rationality of the argument of not receiving a benefit they don't need (that said, there seemed to be a number of 50k-earning supposed "progressives" bleating about the impact on their comfortable households on Twitter last Sunday night).

Then there's means-testing - that's why we don't make benefits non-universal, argue Labour politicians: because it's divisive and stigmatising. And they have a point. But, irritatingly, Osborne's seen to that - the repayment of the excess benefit will be through the tax system instead (or, obviously, you can choose to opt out). Technological advances also mean that the tax and benefits systems are slowly growing closer together, and could ultimately work much more closely in harmony with one other. This means targeting becomes much less painful.

So, we are left with the flimsiest of all political excuses - "the implementation's bad", or "there will be anomalies". So what?

How Brownism lives

And then, worse, contradictions. The BBC: "Labour's Ed Balls says that the government should tax the richest, rather than make changes to child benefit payments that affect those on middle incomes."

But that's exactly what the government is doing, taxing the richest. Balls is implying, disingenuously, that it is somehow hitting the middle of the income demographic and leaving out both ends. It's not, and Balls is better than this. In the end, he is left waffling on Murnaghan about "a principled approach to the welfare state which we would call progressive universalism".

The irony is that, although not universal, this change is singularly progressive - it takes more from the rich than the poor. Just what Labour has been arguing that the Tories should do, so they have done.

In other words, it's not about the implementation at all, really. Balls disagrees with the principle of the change; either that or he secretly agrees with it, but doesn't want the political fallout of having changed his mind.

So in the end it's poor politics for Labour, because all the public sees is the Labour Party arguing (a) against belt-tightening which hits the poor, and simultaneously (b) against belt-tightening which hits, er, the rich. Conclusion: Labour is against all belt-tightening, period; thereby helpfully feeding the Tory narrative of "same old Labour: crisis, what crisis?"

No, the uncomfortable truth is to do with a man trapped by his own past; in order not to be inconsistent, or perhaps just from a stubborn refusal to break with the Brownite economic agenda. It's an agenda which needs to be broken with, or, at the very least, to allow the freedom to be broken from when necessary. Balls can seemingly do neither. It's a problem.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

My shameful failure to live up to the spirit of Christmas

Howard Jacobson
A pill for obesity is a step closer, with two separate studies showing that it may be possible to influence the body’s tendency to build up damaging fat deposits beneath the skin  

Being fat is the last social taboo. It is the actual elephant in the room

Rosie Millard
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all