Sunday, March 14, 2010

Vacuity That Works For You

What are the Lib Dems actually for?

No, sorry, that's a stupid question. We know perfectly well what they're for. They provide protest vote services to left-wing Tories and right-wing socialists.

Which is why, of course, they are able to keep most of their policy ideas vague and confined to motherhood and apple pie.

Take Clegg's four key pledges, repeated at tedious length over the weekend. Reforming the City, reforming the political system, and even pupil premiums for poor children, are all standard political vacuities - uncontroversial arm-waving that could be espoused by any of our parties, from the BNP to Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Devil as always is in the detail, and that hardly gets a mention.

But Clegg's fourth pledge is more interesting. It is a specific promise to abolish income tax for anyone earning less than £10 grand pa.

Now, that's the kind of thing only swivel-eyed tax radicals like the TaxPayers' Alliance would normally dare to suggest. Because according to HMT, it would cost an eye-watering £23bn pa. And at a time where HMG's annual budget is already £180bn underwater, the first question anyone will ask is how on earth could you fund such a promise?

The LDs claim they'd do it by increasing taxes on the undeserving rich, in particular their famous mansion tax. But in reality, the numbers don't come anywhere near adding up.

When first mooted, the mansion tax was going to be levied on any house worth more than £1m. But then the LDs discovered that quite a few of their own voters in key southern marginals live in houses worth more than £1m, and they do not consider themselves to be undeserving plutocrats. So the definition of a mansion was hastily rejigged so it only applies to houses worth more than £2m.

And how many houses are worth more than £2m? Nobody really knows. But since the number of properties worth more than £1m is reckoned to be under 200,000, a generous estimate would be 50,000.

On that basis, to raise £23bn pa, each of those properties would need to incur an insane average tax charge of - wait for it - £460,000. Per annum.

Now OK, the LDs are also talking about finding money from closing tax loopholes and cutting pension tax relief even further. But trust me, their numbers don't add up. In other words, they're making one of those classic old time promises of an unfunded tax-cut.

So how come they haven't been challenged? I've listened to them giving several interviews over the weekend touting this tax cut, and not once have they been asked how they would pay for it. If Cam and Os made such an unprincipled promise, they'd be run ragged by the BBC. But not the LDs.

The answer of course is that nobody cares what the LDs have to say on policy. Sure if their leader happens to get so drunk he forgets what their policy is, then he will get policy-baited for the cameras. But otherwise, it just isn't interesting.

However, it will be interesting to see what happens to the LDs in this election. Cam's entire strategy has been geared to winning back Tory voters who deserted to the LDs. And much of the vacuity of Tory policy pronouncements over the last five years has been geared to precisely that market segment.

We'd better just hope vacuity works for us as well as it's done for the LDs.

PS See the inestimable Janet Daly for her latest take on Cam's Tory rebranding project. She writes: "I started voting for the Conservatives in 1979 because they seemed to me to have a profound belief in the value of individual achievement and the fulfilment of personal potential. When I pointed that out to a dedicated Tory moderniser his eyes brightened and he said, "Yes! It's just like the shampoo advert: Because you're worth it." And my heart sank. How could it have come to this? The party that had won every political and economic argument worth having in the post-war period was now trading in frivolous marketing slogans." Spot on, Janet.

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