Jeremy Paxman had an odd line of questioning in his interview with the Labour leader on Monday. Why had he failed to get all the policies in which he deeply believed into the party’s manifesto?
But Paxo has lost his stuffing, and used some strange examples to prove his unexpected thesis. Corbyn doesn’t believe in the monarchy, so why wasn’t there a promise in his manifesto to abolish it, he asked. That gave Corbyn one of his best lines of the night: “Look, there’s nothing in there as we’re not going to do it.”
Nobody cares about the monarchy, apart from me. I’d like to abolish it on grounds of child cruelty. No one should be brought up in that goldfish bowl life. But it was the wrong example. Paxman should have said to Corbyn: You claim to be a socialist, and to care about poverty; why aren’t you promising to do something about it?
What is extraordinary about the Labour manifesto is that a politician who has made so much of the gap between the rich and the poor proposes to do so little about it. Yes, John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, wants to raise £6.4bn a year from the top 5 per cent, those earning more than £80,000 a year. This would be a stiff increase, and it would close the gap a little by bringing higher earners down.
But most of the money raised by Labour tax increases would come from putting corporation tax back up from 19 per cent to 26 per cent. It is a huge sum of money, £19bn a year, and it is not a bad way to raise it. Labour ought to be honest, however, about where the burden would fall, which is on everyone: the customers and employees of companies, and their shareholders, who are often pension and investment funds owned by the many not the few.
And the important thing is what a Labour government would spend it on. The biggest single item is on abolishing tuition fees and restoring student grants, costing £11bn a year. It sounds lovely, but it would be a huge subsidy to graduates, people who tend to end up in the top half of the income distribution. Free childcare for everyone is another expensive item, £5bn a year. It too sounds wonderful, but the promise is to extend state-funded childcare from the means-tested poor to everyone, so the distributional effect is another hand-out to the middle class. The same applies to free school meals.
The idea of universal benefits is a worthy one, but again Labour needs to be honest that the effect of its policy is to take money from everyone, including the poor, and to hand it back to the better off. This is a funny kind of socialism.
When Corbyn said there was nothing in the manifesto “as we’re not going to do it”, he could have been talking about the Government’s plans to cut benefits and in particular tax credits for the working poor. That would have a much greater effect in widening the gap between rich and poor than any tinkering with taxes on the better-off would have in narrowing it. And yet there is almost nothing in Labour’s manifesto about it.
There are two policies in the Government’s plans. One is to freeze benefits (except disability benefits and pensions) in cash terms for four years, which means that inflation will cut their real value. The other is to cut working tax credits as they are replaced by Universal Credit. Together, these represent a big transfer from the bottom third of the income scale over the next few years to the rest of us, and yet on this Labour promises peanuts.
The costings document produced by McDonnell alongside the manifesto puts aside £4bn a year to abolish the bedroom tax and restore some cuts to disability and housing benefits, only £2bn of which would go to raise Universal Credit.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has produced a graph showing the effect of the parties’ manifesto policies on the incomes of the rich and poor. It shows that there is hardly any difference between Labour and the Tories, except for the best-off 10th of the population. It shows that if you really want to protect the incomes of the poor, you should vote Liberal Democrat.
Despite Labour insisting that its policies are costed – although this includes a Robin Hood Tax on financial dealings that would raise approximately zero – McDonnell’s document makes no provision for reviewing the benefits sanctions regime or for ending the benefits freeze. Corbyn did not understand the policy McDonnell had designed for him, and on the day of the manifesto launch said that benefits would not be frozen under Labour. A spokesperson had to “clarify” that, actually, they would. The next time Corbyn was asked about it, by Paxman, he unfroze them again. This is an unfunded pledge and Labour is asking people to vote for it without knowing what its policy actually is.
For all that Corbyn’s supporters have built their worship on despising Tony Blair for failing to challenge Tory inequality, they are now selling a programme that promises to take from the poor and to give to the upper-middle income brackets. Under Blair and Gordon Brown, government policy became more redistributive, offsetting the greater inequality of the labour market. The Tories want to dismantle Gordon Brown’s tax credits, which have made work pay for millions and lifted them out of benefit dependency, and Corbyn and McDonnell propose to do next to nothing about it.
All good socialists should vote Lib Dem on Thursday.
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