Tax and the ‘R’word. Why aren’t we talking about redistribution?

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There’s undoubtedly a queasiness about talking about redistributive taxation in this country, even amongst the left. We are all comfortable talking about ending tax avoidance. Clawing back tax from avoidance schemes and loopholes is like motherhood and apple pie, though, isn’t it? Who could disagree with that? Even the Tories give it airspace. But it’s incredibly complex and difficult to close tax loopholes. Whole financial industries are based on it. Which is not to say it can’t be done – but it’s very, very long term. If we are going to shift the conversation about how we tackle inequality, poverty and economic injustice in this country, we’re going to have to bite the bullet and talk about redistributive taxation. It isn’t a technical question alone – it’s about changing the narrative, explaining to people how tax works and that a progressive, redistributive system works in the interests of the vast majority of the population. Have we got the guts? 

Tony Benn was fond of saying that, in a civilised society, no-one should earn more than ten times more than anyone else. It might seem like a rather abstract idea, posed (as was Tony’s habit) in moral terms. But what if we genuinely took that as a principle for the economic organisation of our society? It would imply, and give justification for a much, much more aggressive tax take from the rich in our society and possibly some form of maximum income. We’re a long away from any of this, but the fact that it seems such an oddity to even discuss a maximum income or a genuine redistributive taxation system shows how far the debate has hurtled towards the right in the last three decades.

So let’s just take a moment to reflect on where that rightward shift has got us. In 2000, the average pay (including share options and bonuses) of the FTSE 100 directors was 47 times the average salary. In 2014, it was 120 times. In 2015, it rose to £5.98m, the equivalent of 144 times the average salary. Obscene levels of pay are commonplace (for instance, in the media, marketing and telecoms sector, average remuneration for FTSE 100 directors was £6.98m in 2014 – this in a sector where many workers don’t even receive the living wage).

Because of the way the super rich are “rewarded”, the recouping of this money is complicated, for sure – as is the restructuring of our economy along more social democratic lines, but we can make a start by talking about limits on high pay as well as safety nets for the poorest in our society. In fact, the two things go hand in hand. We’re an awful long way from a 10:1 ratio, but by extending the welcome debate about tax avoidance into one about inequality, high pay and general taxation policy, we can take a few steps down that road.

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The Labour Party and our movement has a duty of care for it’s members

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I don’t think it’s an outrageous suggestion that the Labour Party and other institutions of the Labour movement have some kind of a ‘duty of care’ for it’s members. I’m also going to suggest that, as a movement, we have a moral duty to protect, defend and support those who are picked off, bullied and witch-hunted, irrespective of the finer details of any disagreements we might have with them. Recently, one of the members of our Red Labour group has had their suspension rescinded, without an apology or explanation. We’ve seen the Labour members in Wallasey exonerated and countless examples of members who have had no information on their exclusions and suspensions, who have spent months in limbo. Some have even become notorious by their suspensions. I’m thinking of friends who have been abused in the street, shouted and spat at, have had lies told about them in the local and national press. But if they are ‘pardoned’, if things are swept under the carpet, is that all ok? Is it ‘natural justice’ to be defamed, to have been caused mental and even physical distress? Is that a situation we can tolerate and a party we can be proud of? I think not.

You see, much of this vile treatment has a political root: huge parts of it are caused by nasty, vindictive and bitter people within the party machine and local officials and “representatives” with a sense of entitlement which means that they think it’s ok to screw anyone over to preserve their power. All this is done with impunity in “our” Labour Party, yet it has done untold damage to people’s reputation and people’s mental health. And while the blame lies firmly with these bitterites, whose goal it is to punish those responsible for taking their ball away, there’s something else going on: for what has “our side” of the party done about it? Mostly kept quiet, with some going even further – actively helping the people who are doing this to our comrades. Is this, in turn, acceptable? No, of course it isn’t – but some people, supposedly socialists, have made a Faustian pact to rid them of a temporary problem. Sod the long-term damage, there’s a scrap to win. I can’t think of a more disastrous strategy. That ‘duty of care’ extends to everyone who has taken part in this ‘revolution’. It’s not “owned” by one, privileged group. It’s all of ours – and it’s not anyone’s to throw away.

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