Will the next Labour leader dare to break the greatest political taboo of our times?

In today’s Guardian, Jonathan Freedland’s column on the Miliband brothers ends by outlining the weaknesses that could undermine their campaigns to become leader of the Labour Party. David, he writes, has not sufficiently distanced himself from his support of the invasion of Iraq and from concerns about the treatment of British residents by foreign intelligence agencies.

Freedland claims that Ed’s problem is that he has not given sufficient thought to why the deficit ballooned on Labour’s watch. The answer is so glaringly obvious, yet Ed hasn’t articulated it, for the simple reason that it breaks the greatest political taboo of the past 30 years.

In the low tax, low pay, deregulated market environment that New Labour sought to create, it is simply not possible for the majority of people to maintain the standard of living to which they have become accustomed for the whole of their working life without some support from the state.

Unwilling to contemplate raising taxes for the better off, yet wanting to help the poor, New Labour sought to square the circle by borrowing the money, a short term solution which, rather than requiring today’s big earners to pay their fair share, put the prosperity of future generations at risk.

This is the last great taboo in British politics – no-one dare suggest to the electorate that, if you want good public services, free at point of use, efficient and efficacious, then you have to pay for them through taxation.

Instead, for the past 30 years, politicians of all parties have suggested that you can pay less tax and have better public services. Everybody would like a world-class health service on the cheap, but, once elected, the pressure to deliver can bend a party out of shape. New Labour’s troubles with the rising costs of PFI are mirrored by the massive subsidies that the public continue to pay to rail companies that were ‘privatised’ under the Tories.

The reality of low taxation is that public spending has to be underwritten by massive borrowing and, in these chastened economic times, the need to service that debt threatens the state support system that millions of people will soon be forced to rely on.

The battle for the Labour leadership has been characterised in the past few days as a battle between New Labour and Old Labour. The truth is that both have passed their sell by date. There is very little appetite among the electorate for the return of Clause 4 to the party constitution. Yet nor do voters feel intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich – quite the opposite.

Whoever emerges as leader of the Labour Party, their ability to break with the past and begin to rebuild Labour’s support could hinge on a willingness to overcome the greatest taboo of the past 30 years and tell the truth: in order to have good public services, it is necessary for each generation to meet their own needs through taxation and that business can only rely on a well educated, highly motivated workforce if they themselves have paid a part in funding its creation.

28 Responses to “Will the next Labour leader dare to break the greatest political taboo of our times?”

  1. Simon Hartley says:

    Why does that seem so blindingly obvious!? Especially the last sentence. Everyone should pay what they can afford…everyone has a vested interest in doing so. Unfortunately we have had far too many years of the burden ofpaying falling on the less well off.Time to tackle the real problem of tax avoidance and tax havens…would change things for ever. But there is not a global political will!

  2. Peter says:

    Well put! When I came out of university in 1979 I was quite happy to pay taxes to enable future generations to follow me. I had a grant and no tuition fees to pay.

    I’m still happy to pay for my children’s generation to have the same deal that I had.

    Governments since then have been so taken in by the free marketeers that we are going back to the time when only the rich could afford tertiary education, while shutting down the opportunities for decent jobs in manufacturing and trades.

    I worry what the future holds for my children

  3. Martin says:

    Tell what Billy i have worked in packaging for the last 34 years, i am now back in Bristol with 2 adopted children looking forward to 2 weeks to save my job after the boss decided not to pass the increase in board price onto our customers, you could not make this lot up m8. As we say lions led by donkeys & they could’nt run a bath let alone a company. The best bit is i am banned from the other 2 carton makers here for standing up for myself in the past b4 working in midlands and London. Looks like a job at mc d’s for me lol

  4. Neil says:

    To me, the real ‘Reds’ are the ones with Green skins nowadays. I would be happy to see a return to Clause 4 because it seems to me that corporate and competition law entrenches the problems we face economically and environmentally. I would be happy to see this addressed with proper regulation – unilateral Financial Transaction Tax, scrapping of Trident and its replacements, a well-tooled HMRC backed by legislation to get the Chancellor his dosh, but, given this is as likely as a return to clause 4, why not support it?

  5. David Parkin says:

    The working families tax tax credit system had the effect of subsiding “below living wage rates” paid by employers – how can that be right?

    I agree we need a fair tax system that expects the generously paid to make a greater contribution – will they really miss it? They should feel all virtuous and think of it as philanthropy!

    We need paying tax to be seen as a positive i this Big Society.

  6. Colin Morley says:

    This is so right. The New Labour project simply stole Thatcher’s clothes and yet had to appease the few of its followers who continued obstinately to believe in the existence of society and the desirability of socially responsible government.

    I remember the veteran political commentator Eric Hobsbawm saying quite clearly in a discussion programme in the early 1990s that now Communism has more or less failed worldwide and Capitalism is doomed to the same fate, a brand new political philosophy needs to emerge which is both plausible and attractive to the masses.

    Don’t know about you, Billy – but I haven’t come up with the big idea yet!

  7. Helen says:

    Exactly. I’m so disappointed with the leadership debate so far because they haven’t done as you suggest. Any politician who can not address this isn’t a politician worthy of my vote.

    We need honesty if you are to cast an authentic vote.

  8. ted edwards says:

    BB Totally agree with your point of view,but whats the chances of that happening with this coalition Government. Funny how Nadir has suddenly decided to return to these shores isn’t it !

  9. Robert Lucas says:

    Briliiant argument Bill, not much more I can say.

  10. David Simmons says:

    I can’t believe no-one talks about the T-word any more. There’s a great speech by Josh Lyman in one episode of the West Wing where he talks about the benefits of taxation – can’t remember which, so I shall have to watch the whole series just to find it.

  11. Any political party needs reinvention to suit changing times, and a period of opposition is a perfect time to start. Straightforward income taxation is only taboo because it has fallen off the public consciousness. Don’t expect Milliband (D) to raise the idea first, but if a public debate can be started and a groundswell of positive opinion and comment is forthcoming, the politicians will have a bandwagon to jump on. Sadly, I’m not currently seeing an outlet of debate that can interest enough of our younger generations to start the ball rolling. Now where’s that Bob Geldof…….

  12. Roger Noddy says:

    Dear Billy and everyone, I posted this on your facebook page and thought I’d repeat it here. Sorry if I’m talking broken biscuits but it’s just a thought……

    All the main political parties are old hat now, too much influenced on policy by their funding sources – the financial institutions, companies and incredibly wealthy individuals. The political parties are not going to override the view of these funding sources in favour of our wishes and requirements as the funders require a return on their investment, which translates as policy decisions in THEIR favour.

    Something from outside the present financial funding sources is required. Labour are goosed and the ConDems will be goosed by the time the next general election happens. Smooth rich men in well cut suits don’t cut the mustard any more. Something from a more grass roots level is required.

    Perhaps a ‘none of the above’ party at the next general election would be a starting point. A protest vote I know but this could coalesce into something more practical. Maybe a ‘Safe & Wanted’ party, where the main aim would be structuring policy to what makes people feel they are safe and wanted in a perceived AND practical sense.

    Surely it is a long way to go and it is going to take three generations (90 years) to fully sort out the mess of the last half century. Aims and objectives would have to be realistic and practical and it aint going to all get sorted in a five year term, or even five five year terms. Look for inspiration and direction from folks such as 38 degrees http://38degrees.org.uk/ for a fresh approach to the political dilema.

    Remember that the Labour movement in the early days started from scratch, with people insisting and working to produce something better than the status quo of the time offered. In short if nothing changes, things will stay as they are.


  13. Steve Barnard says:

    Hi Billy
    Thanks for this.
    Can I echo Neil’s sentiment, “the real ‘Reds’ are the ones with Green skins”. I left the Labour Party 5 years ago after deep dissatisfaction with Blair and the whole New Labour Project since 2000. I looked for another political party to join and came to the conclusion that the Greens not only looked at promoting and protecting the environment but had progressive policies based on social justice and equality. The Greens also recognise “that increases in taxation for the better off are required. This is no bad thing in itself. Taxes are the fees we pay as citizens for services that are best provided collectively. They are also an instrument for fairness. The corrosive belief that taxes are no better than a necessary evil, nurtured by successive Governments over the past 30 years, is at the root of the difficulties in financing public services during the same period.” (Green Party Manifesto 2010).
    “Sometimes I think to myself/ Should I vote red for my class or green for my children?”. Well maybe, Billy, voting Green is not just for the future but also to tackle the in-just society, to tackle poverty and for decent public services.

  14. Richard Howe says:

    The only leadership candidate being open about the need to increase taxation is Diane Abbott. Clearly she is not going to win the contest but with a strong vote she will carry some influence in the new shadow cabinet.
    If you vote for her as your first preference and Ed Miliband as your second progressive taxation has a chance of getting on the agenda.

  15. Stick to the music, Billy.

    Rational though your argument is, no politician is going to openly advocate tax rises.

  16. Roger Noddy says:

    Have a look at this beauty….


  17. @Colin Morley – You’re absolutely right. We need a new paradigm that is easy to understand, but that is also intellectually rigorous, and allows people the freedom to work in a way that suits them, and encourages innovation and competition.

    The best candidate I’ve seen so far for this, is something which cuts to the root of our current form of capitalism. and which potentially gets rid of the ‘requirement’ for economic growth at all costs that the current system creates.

    It’s set out here: http://www.bankofenglandact.co.uk/ – and involves removing the right of private banks to ‘create’ money from nothing as they do at the moment, and transfers this power to the government. The details, and explanation of how this would work are all on the site. It’s not a complete political philosophy – but it’s a start that I think most people could get their heads around – and could be persuaded to support, given the way that private banks have revealed themselves to be immoral, greedy and incompetent.

  18. I’ll take some of your suggestions and try to apply them.

  19. WorldUpsideDown says:

    I’m told that Ed Miliband’s first ever gig was a Billy Bragg gig I’m the 80s. Does that sway your preference for leader?

  20. MrCelsius says:

    All I ask is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer pays the same proportion of his income in tax as I do. Sadly New Labour abandoned tax fairness in pursuit of middle class votes, as apparently the Lib Dems have also now done. I don’t see any of the leadership candidates wanting to grasp this nettle

  21. Dave Hallowes says:

    Well said Billy Bragg! In a perfect world I would not have seen the nationalised industries de-nationalised. We are all paying far more now for services that each and every one of us need and use. You are absolutely correct to state that too many people have accepted the spurious theory that we can have more for less forever.
    I just posted a long comment on your ‘Brendan Barber is right – the Tories do not have a mandate for such savage cuts and nor do the LibDems’ link on your Facebook page, bemoaning how people cling to old dogmas and refuse to accept that efficiency need not be a dirty word but can lead to a great deal of good subject to certain fundamental requirements, primarily fairness. Whether one agrees or not de-nationalisiation was aimed at dealing with Britain’s apparantly inexorable slide into the doldrums and excessive union power was at the centre of this. I well recall in the dark days of the 70s when a miner’s union leader was demanding something in the region of a 25% pay rise for his members, who I have always supported. and with raging inflation he was of course trying to protect his members’ interests and standard of living. Yet I didn’t hear anything from him or other union leaders about demanding similar increases for nurses, who were terribly paid. And either way any pay increase will always be wiped out quickly if the inflation rate is out of control, adding fuel to the fires of inflation in the process, further undermining living standards.
    I would have voted for nationalised industries to remain but be run efficiently like private concerns and, reluctantly, to pay the top management the going market rate. Crucially though these industries would have remained in public hands and be run as not-for profit-trusts, being as they were and remain facilities required by the whole nation. Sadly this did not happen and it became financially impossible to renationalise them without bankrupting ourselves and/or destroying our credit rating.
    Hence New Labour’s plan to return to socialism another way and you have explained this well Billy: basically by cosying up to business who instead of being the enemy would be the cash-cow and by borrowing money from elsewhere and to such an extent that it would be impossible for the changes to be rolled back. Well others disagreed and so now we are in the next stage whereby a new government tries to do precisely that, believing that it is not financially sustainable. It is hard to disagree when our national debt is as large as if we had just been through several years of all-out war.
    You are right in arguing that it’s time for everyone to accept the reality that we can only have the services we can afford to pay for. The wealthiest element in society have got much richer over the last 30 years and the poorest, despite Labour’s dogma and spin, have been cut adrift. This is just financial reality. In a sense Thatcher was right when she said “you can’t buck the markets”. I’m not happy about that but the evidence is everywhere. Food has gone up about 40% in the last three years I would say and so have fuel and utility bills. This is sometimes due to global commodity prices but also to financiers playing poker and forcing prices up. This requires action both nationally and globally. Either way however we must cut our cloth according to both our needs AND our wants. We can’t have it all.
    Britain is now through the initial stages of accepting the reality that it no longer has an empire and is no longer the great power it was. It will not be so again and we face massive challenges from now on from the emerging titans of China, India, Brazil and others. If we choose to ignore this in lieu of outdated dogma and ideas based on what we wish for rather than what we can reasonably afford and achieve we will eventually become a small nation of heavy debt for decades and perhaps centuries to come and tax revenues will largely have to be spent on paying off the interest on our loans, rather than be used for rebuilding infrastructure and looking after people.
    We have had far too much narrow self-interest on all sides for too long I feel and are now called – everyone from ministers to bankers to office workers to labourers – to accept the reality that we face hard choices requiring difficult and unpopular decisions. We must find a way to deal with things just as they are. To attempt to do otherwise can sometimes seem to work, often for long periods, but as we have now found it only amplifies the problems that must eventually be confronted. As you rightly state we can make a start by bypassing bipartisanship and choosing to accept truth over illusion. An honest reassessment of how funds are raised through taxation should be our starting point. We can then argue about how that money is spent.

  22. Dave Hallowes says:

    *Strike ‘bypassing bipartisanship’. Not what I meant and makes no sense. Working together, if possible, would be a good thing.

  23. Graeme says:

    Haven’t even HEARD this argument for so long but The Elephant in the Room for all these years of NEW Labour is indeed that of progressive Taxation, as IMHO the

    Public Sector is where rich contribute to poor through Taxes en mass, to provide Services for them to become richer and the
    Voluntary/charity Sector is when they do not and then have to provide them themselves, just to keep the poor from getting poorer, whilst the
    Private Sector is where they pay mainly for their own Security against the poorest enriching themselves

    I hope not to make a hollow threat but it stands to reason that the collective interest is in keeping the slowest up to pace in a Social Contract that either binds and benefits all or all bets are off (a la “World Turned Upside Down”) and so Tax is only the price of success and the dilusion of the fiscally thrifty is that one set of people can ignore others; beyond a notional City wall for, if they are not prepared be hospitable then as one of your musical contempories once said: “Walls Come Tumbling DOWN!”

  24. Dave Hallowes says:

    Dear Graham,

    I think that was at least partly for me so may I respond. It is not delusional to be financially thrifty. Ask your grandparents. It’s actually a good idea because then you can make money go further – do more good and help more people, whilst making it unnecessary to reduce the communal pot by having to claim from it oneself.

    It is worth noting that simply throwing money at people who make no attempt to help themselves in truth does not help them but enslaves them in poverty of both wallet and mind for life which is a tragedy really. It could be argued that a relatively poor man who is nonethless in hock to nobody is more a king of his own life while he walks this earth than a man with a huge house and fat bank account who owes £ millions, for those loans must be repaid and can always be called in. So too with nations. By this definition at least Britain is now a much poorer nation.

    As for the collective interest, I have and always will be in favour of people acting this way. Nevertheless as you know in life people are by no means always in agreement or at least frequently live by other rules. Sad but true. So just being thrifty is not the answer on its own, but it still makes sense (see above).

    I do accept however that once some people have been given every opportunity to be fair and hospitable and have eschewed every one then it is not unreasonable for the people’s democratically-elected representatives to make rules in law (as few and as simple as possible at all times though please note, Labour!) that attempt to peacefully persuade them to join the party so to speak and enforce it. For instance some of these City financiers need a helping hand in this regard I think, for their own good if they did but know it as well as everyone else’s, although there is a real problem in enforcing it unilaterally. As former US Secretary of State Colin Powell once told an African congress “money is a coward”, ie, it will always go where the returns are best. There is no shortage of countries ready and eager to usurp the City of London, the Chinese with Hong Kong and Shanghai being one example, Paris and Frankfurt a couple more. If London lost 50 or even 20% of its business it would be an utter disaster for the UK government’s ability to raise funds for anything. I hate this reality but nonetheless I cannot deny it. At least a tripling of the minimum required funds banks must hold on deposit in case of trouble was mooted yesterday by this new government as a means of trying to avoid the sort of catastrophic failure we have seen of late. I don’t know if this will be enough in future but it’s three times more than Labour insisted on. I support this and would hope everyone else would to but read some of the respondents on Billy’s Facebook site and you just know they never would, preferring to remain perenially ‘at war’:- http://www.facebook.com/posted.php?id=44905697470&share_id=152725908090644&comments=1#s152725908090644

    You write of ‘a Social Contract that either binds and benefits all or all bets are off’. Believe me I would be taking a different tone with people who think entirely differently to most of the respondents on this site and on Billy’s Facebook page. I know quite a few and have on occasion – prior to the invasion of Iraq and prior to the global financial crisis hitting these shores – metaphorically taken a bull whip to their ignorance, bias, lack of insight and general compassion for their fellow citizens. In fact I have probably also called in anger for some pretty radical action but the weak and defenceless always suffer first and most like that, though I fully accept that there have been times in the past such as with the Tolpuddle Martyrs when direct action was not only necessary but moral, even in the face of man-made laws.

    However I believe the vast majority of people in Britain do now see that serious reform is essential and that this is in everyone’s interests. If there are a tiny handful of financiers making money from all this trouble they have caused the nation and its people that would lose out then so be it I’m afraid, bring it on. I remain hopeful, in fact I positively yearn for this current coalition government to do what no government has done for many years, including that bunch of holier-than-thou, politically-correct, pocket-stuffing Labour hypocrits, and trully govern in the interests of one and all. I castigate Labour so much because apart from effectively bankrupting our country they are the worst bunch of liars I have ever heard. They tried to steal the election through deliberately deferring the spending review prior to it because they knew just how bad the situation was, yet kept promising to fund all sorts of things. They lied to the people. Yet again. Labour says now they would themselves cut spending by 40% yet they have given not one example of where these cuts would fall. It’s a sick joke and clearly they hold their own supporters in complete contempt, thinking they are all too thick and stupid to see through their dishonesty and deceit.

    There will inevitably be differing views on what governing in the interests of everyone looks like and what measures are required so the Coalition government can never please everyone. Likewise tough action is unavoidable so inevitably some people are not going to like it. But to everyone I ask that they please give them a chance and not expect the impossible. When a country and its people have been encouraged for so long to live in denial and spend money they do not have nobody on earth can rectify things without painful consequences. Beware those that claim otherwise!

  25. Graeme says:

    Dear David,

    I have read your long repost and i hope I do not cause offence but where you ask of mine that “I think that was at least partly for me so may I respond ..”, of course you may but what a shame; it was not.

    Billy, I do apologise for my rant on your site. I got a little carried away with myself and was having a go FOR some people and not AT anyone.

    I hadnt even read your post David but but its funny that you felt you had to respond: for “fiscal thrift” I just meant ‘greedy’ and selfish and wealthy enough to care but disenclined to do so. I was trying to be unprovocative about the guilty but still provoced one! LOL

    By the way, a ’selfish’ person in Ancient Greece was called an ‘idiot’ and was the designation given to those who didn’t participate in Democracy and so I agree with you on some City dwellers requiring (some) Law-giving (e.g. on TAX?) as: “there is a real problem in enforcing it unilaterally”.

    “When a country and its people have been encouraged for so long to live in denial and spend money they do not have nobody on earth can rectify things without painful consequences. Beware those that claim otherwise!”

    In fact many HAD their own money, stolen by bankers (and who didnt even get to keep their homes) who now want to avoid any fiscal responsibility, hiding behind the cobbled together Coalition and aiming to crush the remaining “pips till they squeek” with equinimity and whom we are simply asking to pay their fair share. Perhaps they should be ‘aware’?

    I do agree with you on another thing, however, your previous response “makes no sense”.

  26. Dave Hallowes says:

    Dear Graham,

    When you say ‘for “fiscal thrift” I just meant ‘greedy’ and selfish and wealthy enough to care but disenclined to do so’ and ‘whom we are simply asking to pay their fair share’ I can only agree with you. It brings us back to Billy’s article really viz a viz being up front about what things cost, deciding what this generation can or is prepared to afford and then taxing people at source comensurate with their ability to reasonably pay, not their willingness.

    I agree that many have seen their savings and pensions trashed and a few have got away with unwarranted pay, bonuses and pensions despite poor management and catastrophic failure. Just to be clear, I have heavily criticised them for this many times and the fact that there have thus far been no consequences for most of them. It’s not right and should change. We could not afford it then and certainly cannot afford it in future.

    It will be a bold government though that becomes so heavy handed that there is a mass flight of capital out of the country to pastures new, for then how shall we meet our massive debt repayments let alone invest in people and infrastructure? There is also a pensions time bomb looming and a PFI one too. And many of us do have to accept individually (including yours trully I’m sorry to say) and collectively that nobody forced us to take on the level of debt we now have but for whatever reason we did so anyway. There must be some place for taking responsibility for our actions. Not easy though of course.

    Do I like this? No, I loathe it. I make no prediction as to how things will turn out over the next few years save that this government will not be given a free run at sorting things out, conversely in much the same way that Cuba never was either actually. Same old, same old will not do though, that much is surely clear. I hope we can agree on that.

    With well wishing,


  27. CrISpY says:

    What chance does it have when even we hide our intentions like some dirty little secret Bill.Strange that common decency has to be hidden it says everything about the kind of society we really live in.You can see it in Manchester at the moment when politician after politician takes to the podium and praises this fine country and its people.A country in which to aspire to common decency will inevitably lead to political failure.Quite sad and perhaps we should try and shame the electorate but then in the privacy of the polling booth who are they really going to vote for.

  28. Mike says:

    Sorry but if you want to improve society and protect the poorest then you have to be in government. The ONLY party with a history of protecting the poorest in our country is Labour. In my opinion they are the only party with the culture to continue to do this.
    Ed Millibands backing of the 50% tax for people earning over £150′000 is a promising start and I believe he is they only person who you can see going after the tax dodgers like Ashcroft and clamping down on the obscene pay of those at the top of private British companies (like the Mr Green’s of this world).
    Raising taxes is indeed a sensible approach but actually getting the taxes in the first place by closing tax loop holes and aggressively going after those that putbtheir wads in off shore accounts, must be the first priority

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