Are we all in this together, as George Osborne insists, or are we not?
The Labour Party and their sympathisers in the media have been asking this question non-stop since the coalition government came to power in 2010, shrieking with outrage every time a new policy was announced which failed to forcibly grab enough from the rich and scatter the proceeds over the heads of the deserving poor. And throughout this time we have been treated to some wildly over-the-top rhetoric and mischaracterisations, such as Polly Toynbee’s insistence that “people feel in their pockets … that the middle and lower half are deliberately made to pay the price, while Osborne gifts the richest the most.”
(How could it be otherwise, one might well ask. Labour spent thirteen years in government making even middle-class families reliant on benefits, tax credits and public services, so there was no way that government spending could then be cut in times of austerity without causing more pain and human suffering than should otherwise have been the case. And yet still we look wistfully at Gordon Brown as he saunters off into the sunset, and glare sullenly at David Cameron and George Osborne as they deal with Brown’s toxic legacy).
We may still be stumbling out of the crater left by the Great Recession and the dubious economic recovery, but that doesn’t mean that every tax rise or spending decision has to be, or even can be, progressive. To behave in such a way would be foolish – we would end up in a situation where we forcibly “spread the wealth around” in good times because there is more cash to be expropriated from the successful in an economic boom, and then spread the wealth around some more in lean times because that’s the “compassionate” thing to do. Meanwhile, we would have created such a universal disincentive to work hard, invest and succeed that anyone with wealth to expropriate will have dialled back their efforts or fled the country altogether.
No, of course we shouldn’t jack the top rate of income tax up to a French-style, eye-watering 75% just because those at the lower end are suffering. Many of the calls to reintroduce the 50% top rate in Britain are made not in the expectation that such a move would raise any significant revenues which could then be diverted to help the poor, but more out of an envious, nihilistic desire to tear the rich down and so to “reduce inequality”.
When George Osborne cut the top rate of income tax from Gordon Brown’s spiteful, political 50% back down to a marginally more palatable rate of 45%, Labour supporters ran around screaming that this constituted a “massive tax cut for millionaires”. They should then at least be honest that when Gordon Brown raised the rate twice as much – from 40% to 50% – he was instituting a gargantuan, colossal, punishing tax rise on the successful. Strangely enough, you’ll never hear Labour MPs or activists bragging about the 50% tax rate in this way.
But just as we don’t react to difficult economic times by setting our hair on fire and taxing anything that smells of success until we have drained the life force from it, so we should not go out of our way to pamper and benefit those among us who have avoided the worst deprivations of this difficult economic time at the expense of those who have not been so lucky, and who are struggling to make rent payments or to clothe their children, the people working two minimum wage jobs to make ends meet or the people who have resorted to food banks to fend off starvation.
And yet that is precisely what this government is now doing, with a repeat of it’s generous cash giveaway for homeowners, whereby those already on the property ladder are given up to £5,600 each to spend upgrading their homes to make them more energy efficient. This is money raised from general taxpayers, many of whom are renters and some of whom are even homeless, and given as a gift to the diminishing club of people still able to purchase a house so that their property values will rise yet further and they will enjoy lower energy bills every month.
The Telegraph reports:
Home owners are to be offered up to £5,600 each to install new boilers, insulation or double glazing, under the latest Government cash giveaway for energy efficiency work.
Up to £30m of funding will be made available from Wednesday through the Green Deal Home Improvement Fund, enabling households to claim some or all of the costs of home improvements at taxpayer expense.
The funding follows an initial £120m pot of cash that was given away in the summer, when home owners were offered up to £7,600 each. The fund proved so popular it was exhausted and forced to close early after just six weeks, drawing allegations of possible fraudulent applications and criticism from Labour.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the socioeconomic scale, private tenants with the courage to complain to their landlords about something like a faulty boiler or poor environmental conditions remain at risk of revenge evictions, a problem left decidedly unaddressed by the government after two Conservative MPs filibustered a bill which would have given tenants greater protection.
Of course energy efficiency is important, and should be a priority for any government because of the huge environmental, economic and national security implications of an incoherent energy policy. But gimmicks such as cash giveaways for homeowners smack of headline-chasing and vote-buying at their most cynical, and have very little to do with actually tackling either climate change or improving energy efficiency on a large scale. The £30 million on offer from the government is enough to improve little more than 5000 new homes, and any efficiencies made by installing new insulation or double glazing in so small a number of properties is thoroughly insignificant compared to the pollution caused by even a single coal-burning power plant.
What Britain needs is not another cheap housing or environmental gimmick which takes from all taxpayers regardless of their circumstances and bestows tidy lump sums on people who already possess that most fundamental form of economic security – a purchased home – lacked by so many of their fellow citizens. What Britain needs is a joined-up energy policy that will free us from dependence on foreign fossil fuels or the expertise of other countries’ national champion energy firms.
We need to steamroller over the entrenched special interests and NIMBY excuses to invest in on and off-shore wind and tidal energy, built and delivered by British companies so that we are best-placed to win contracts to build plants in other countries as global demand for renewable energy increases. Britain could be ahead of the curve on this issue and benefit accordingly – economically, socially, geopolitically – but our sclerotic politics seems to ensure that we will only take the smallest of steps in the right direction when the consequences of not doing so become absolutely intolerable.
This £5,600 giveaway fails on both the moral and environmental fronts, but it is the moral failure which is the more serious of the two. Perhaps it was foolish of the incoming Conservative government to proclaim that we were all in it together back in 2010 – after all, there is simply no way that a millionaire can be made to feel the same pain of government retrenchment felt by a single working parent on the minimum wage, whose existence is aided by housing benefit and tax credits and other government programmes. It is a tragic but unavoidable fact that government retrenchment will inevitably hurt people who depend most on the government for the various basics of life, and yet we continually castigate the party making the necessary moves to shrink the state, while letting the party who ushered so many people into dependency completely off the hook.
But what little moral high ground the Conservatives have gained over the past four and a half years is threatened and undermined by cheap political tricks like this £5,600 home improvement bonanza, a sleazy little coda to the chancellor’s Autumn Statement which sounds superficially appealing when it is faithfully picked up by sympathetic newspapers like the Telegraph but which represent a very distasteful form of regressive redistribution – to Britain’s homeowners from everyone, including the poorest in society – that we can not, and should not tolerate.
Image from dailymail.co.uk: “Meet the middle-class fiddlers who feel entitled to claim your taxes“