Don’t be fooled – Theresa May will raise your taxes | Rafael Behr

The dire public finances make a hike inevitable, and Labour’s manifesto gives Tories ample cover to do it

Leaders need outriders. That doesn’t just mean police officers on motorbikes flanking the prime minister’s car, blue lights flashing. It means political pathfinders – MPs, thinktanks, friendly commentators who track the leader, explaining, advertising and testing ideas.

Ed Miliband used to complain that he was forced to be his own outrider. He had a grand scheme for reforming British capitalism but it kept getting stuck in daily Westminster traffic. It bothered him that Labour MPs wouldn’t clear the road for his big vision to get through.

So he rode out ahead. He talked about an economy divided between good “producers” and bad “predators”. He talked about broken markets that weren’t allocating resources or opportunities fairly. In 2013, to make an abstract point more concrete, he called for an energy price freeze.

The Tories were appalled. Then, when they saw that the policy was a hit, they were scared. David Cameron only relaxed when he saw detailed polling that showed voters liking the idea of capping bills, but not trusting Labour to pull it off. The opposition leader was outriding – but not, it turned out, for himself.

So a policy that Conservatives once derided as a Marxist memento will be in Theresa May’s manifesto when it is launched today. But there is more of Miliband’s agenda in May’s plans than a second-hand headline. The prime minister hasn’t just picked the pockets of a beaten enemy. She has stolen his clothes and now wears the whole argument: that the economy is warped in ways that leave people feeling powerless; that government cannot stand aloof if markets are rigged.

May’s interventionism won’t convince Labour stalwarts. Her pledges to protect and extend workers’ rights, announced earlier this week, earn mostly derision on the left. Scepticism is justified. Even if the prime minister’s departure from Thatcherite orthodoxy is sincere, the Damascene conversion rate among her MPs is low.

But there is a hazard in trashing Conservative claims to be caring. Dismissing the possibility that Tories can have decent motives indulges a tribal prejudice that too often spills out as the view that their supporters are all monsters or fools. That is no way to win back lost votes.

The challenging question for Labour is not whether the Tories have “changed their spots”, as Jeremy Corbyn put it when launching his party’s manifesto. It is why the Tories feel confident offering to do things that two years ago they said were undoable. Gales of hypocrisy in the press form part of the answer, but that is a tailwind helping May advance, not her motor.

There is a lazy Labour presumption that Conservatives aren’t allowed to talk about job security or fixing skewed markets because that just isn’t the sort of thing Conservatives do. But a reputation for usually siding with business is precisely what gives Tories their permission with the public to scold rogue traders.

By contrast, when Labour complains about greedy corporations it aggravates an itchy old suspicion that the party thinks all forms of profitable enterprise are grubby.

The same dynamic applies to the parade of taxes announced in Labour’s manifesto. Debate moved quickly into technical skirmishing over the opposition’s budget numbers, the detail of which will be mostly lost in the fog of campaign warfare. But Corbyn’s essential message will penetrate: Labour wants to take money from the rich and spend it on things that everyone likes – infrastructure and services. Or, as the Labour leader more delicately put it: “We’re asking the better off and the big corporations to pay a little bit more.”

Even many Tories will privately concede that there is a receptive audience for that proposition bigger than is currently described by Labour’s opinion poll share. But there was also a hearty public cheer when Miliband hammered the energy giants. The same underlying plausibility problem means the Conservatives will be untroubled by Corbyn’s redistribution bonanza.

The issue is not hostility to the idea of rich people paying for worthy causes. It is the breadth of public unreadiness to entrust that mechanism to a shambolic Labour party and a feeling that Corbyn and John McDonnell tax for pleasure, whereas with May and Phillip Hammond it would be strictly business.

Tories will be gladdened by Labour’s manifesto, but not for the right reason. Most believe it is a kamikaze nostalgia flight to 1983, heralding a landslide Conservative victory. But if that is the outcome, it was settled long ago. The newer favour Corbyn has done May is to illuminate the sky with tax rises at a time when taxes will indeed rise.

The prime minister talks about her party’s low-tax “instincts”. That is a precursor to the sorrowful announcement to come that circumstances demand we all dig deep. When drafting budgets, a party’s “instincts” are more easily overruled than its manifesto promises.

May’s prospectus will be squeamish on this point. Her revenue-raising intent will be measured in reluctance to rule things out. Yet anyone who takes a dispassionate look at Britain’s fiscal situation – a £52bn deficit, essential services creaking, budgets with nothing left to cut – knows taxes are going up. A Conservative chancellor breaking the bad news could do worse than borrow Corbyn’s line: we’re asking the better off and corporations to pay a little bit more. Put like that, it doesn’t sound unreasonable.

The opposition will cry foul. They will say the wrong taxes are being raised on the wrong people. They will bemoan the nerve of it: Tories doing in government the very thing they decried when Labour proposed it in opposition. Again. And while a May money-grab will not exactly be popular, the blow will be cushioned by expectation.

This election campaign is announcing a taxman’s visit in the autumn and it is Corbyn riding out front, red lights flashing. He has pushed the boundaries of debate into places Tories don’t like to stay, but sometimes have to visit; just as Miliband did. And, like his predecessor, Corbyn is pushing a proposition that might appeal to many voters without addressing the reasons why they don’t trust his party to enact it in government. So, once again, a Labour leader is outriding to make space for a Tory motorcade heading towards Downing Street.


Rafael Behr

The GuardianTramp

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