We need to talk about tax

PB Account Manager Tom Williams writes…


HMRCTheresa May, for all her talk of being a break with the Conservatism of David Cameron and George Osborne, recycled many of their slogan’s during the general election. In particular, she liked talking about making ‘tough choices’. That, after all, was what she said leadership was all about. But as May’s personal, and party, ratings slipped in the polls, it seemed it was Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership that was increasingly popular. This was no coincidence, but rather clever tactics from the Labour head office.


Changing the narrative on ‘tough choices’

By focusing on being the leader to make the tough choices that lie ahead, May was echoing the rhetoric of the 2010 Conservative election campaign, the coalition and 2015 Conservative election campaign. Tough, but fair, choices were the centrepiece of the government’s austerity agenda, as laid out but Osborne in his 2010 conference speech.

These were tough choices, in the national interest.

What Corbyn, and Labour, did so well in this election was to turn the rhetoric on its head. Corbyn made the case for modest increases in tax, to fund public services struggling under austerity and an ageing population. And he did so by using the Conservatives own language. In the final Question Time, in which both May and Corbyn appeared separately in front of a studio audience, Corbyn accepted increasing taxes wasn’t an easy decision but laid out why he thought it was a tough choice worth making.

Corbyn recast the national interest. He focused on the struggling NHS and education systems, appealing to people who were being effected by the stretched services. Just as over the past seven years the Conservatives said the tough choice of austerity was the solution to the hardship many felt following the recession, Corbyn said the tough choice of increased tax was the solution to under staffed public services.


Turning tough choices into the right choices

The next general election, whenever it comes, will see Corbyn likely pursue this tactic. Crucial to his success in this election was reaching middle age voters with the message of strengthening our public services and the young’s futures, by changes to our tax regime.

Lessons have already been learnt from the campaign, and Labour’s ‘for the many not the few’ approach is coming through in parliament. Already they have tabled amendments to the Queen’s Speech calling for an end to the public sector pay cap, forced May to say austerity is over and seen former Cabinet Secretary Oliver Letwin tell the Today Programme modest tax increases are necessary to support public services.

These are victories, but Labour need to be in government. To get there, talk of increased taxes needs to be as positive a message as possible, as opposed to relying on an electorate wearied by austerity. To do this, Labour’s next election campaign should focus on what extra tax can achieve. This means campaigns showing the benefits of tax increases. Pictures of lawyers with school children from their local school who now have an extra maths teacher and smaller class sizes because of their extra tax contribution. Or a campaign showing people who receive their cancer treatment within the government approved waiting time following diagnosis, achieved by multi-national companies increased contributions. Labour must focus on the human benefit of the tax increases it desires, if it is to reach government.

Labour has the chance to redefine the national interest, the debate, and the social contract. The next election is theirs to win.