As the debate over Labour’s 50p tax plans develops, it is worth remembering that a small proportion of people will be affected by it, but that a very large proportion of the small proportion will be writing and talking about it in our national media. This partly explains the well-organised avalanche of business voices wheeled out to attack in the last 24 hours.
Even the Financial Times, which can usually be relied upon for a bit of a balance when all around others are losing theirs, is somewhat affected this morning. ‘Businesses blast 50p tax plans by Labour’ is the Mail/Telegraph/Sun/Express/Star-style front page headline, and to be fair, the story does indeed carry a number of business voices doing the said blasting. But, when studied with the little strapline beneath ‘Tories claim proposal threatens recovery’, one can forgive Tory strategists an extra special smile as they survey the morning’s media landscape.
There are two other parts of the FT that I want to quote, to illustrate the point that much of the press and much of business will now go onto anti-Labour autopilot, confusing their own perceived interests with the broader interests of the country and the millions of people who live in it. This has already happened to some extent in the way ‘the recovery’ is now stated virtually as a fact, when there is precious little sign of it in the lives and pockets of millions of people without access to media opinion-forming; and in the way that the government’s claims to be getting the deficit under control – when the opposite is the case – have somehow been pushed to the margins of serious media scrutiny.
Page 3 of the FT, topped with three large pictures of three critics of the new move, has this sentence …. ‘Decisions on income tax rates are the most symbolic decisions any political party can make to indicate its priorities and values.’ They are certainly important but ‘the most symbolic’? I am not so sure about that. In 1997, our decision to commit to no rise in the basic and top rate of tax was certainly important. But in terms of indicating values and priorities, I think the commitment to establish a national minimum wage was more ‘symbolic.’ This was the move, you may remember, which many of those Tories, business people and journalists at the time said would cost ‘one million jobs.’ They lied, in other words, and presented all manner of bogus ‘economic’ analysis from friends in the City to justify the lies. Another symbolic but highly practical policy, indicative of values and priorities, was the New Deal, a windfall tax on the excess profits (remember those) of the privatised utilities, which was used to fund a youth employment programme. The Tory/business/media alliance at the time said this was vindictive and that it would not create a single new job. It did. Many of them.
I could go through many such examples from each of the three elections we won. But for now, I want to turn to the front of the FT ‘Companies and Markets’ section, whose lead story is headlined ‘Citi to pay half of bonus in cash,’ and whose intro reads as follows: ‘Citigroup will pay most of its investment bankers at least half their bonuses in cash this year, underlining how US banks continue to be much more generous than their European rivals.’ Note the slant of the reporting, the word ‘generous’ suggesting goodness in the values and priorities reflected in this decision, compared with the ‘blast’ by businesses against Labour’s tax plans back on page 1 of the main section.
‘Bankers getting bonuses of $5million or more will be paid 40percent in cash for their 2013 performance,’ we read. Well halellulah. Oh, and of course (this my irony-voice now, not my media monitoring voice) if anyone were to suggest that any of that might be taxed, well, they’re all jolly well going to go and live in Geneva or the Virgin Islands. Only they’re not. Because London is actually a great place to live, not least because money paid via general taxation helps to deliver tubes, trains, buses, roads, hospitals, schools, theatres, sports facilities, you know, stuff that makes it a bit livelier than Geneva or the Virgin Islands.
So in addition to defending the decision, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and co also have the task of dealing with the distorting media/business machine that will now throw everything it can at the 50p plan. This requires sustained, disciplined argument and rebuttal over time, so that over time the public get a better sense of why the shouts of protest and their endless ventilation in the press, and its TV/radio echo chamber, are so loud.
I was also pleased to see Ed Balls start to defend Labour’s overall economic record with a bit more vigour. As I have argued before, the past failure properly to take on the Tory line about ‘the mess (sic) we inherited’ is what has allowed them to run with these false claims about sorting the deficit and delivering recovery. It is never too late, and the fact that this tax divide is now centre stage gives Labour the opportunity to get back into all those arguments, start to win them, and start to show the majority view is not the same thing as the media conventional wisdom on any given debate.
** Talking of media conventional wisdom, is there really only Private Eye of the London media that will take any interest in the money-grabbing hypocrisy of anti-European/anti-devolution Scottish landowner and Mail Obergruppenfuhrer Paul Dacre, whose latest money-grabbing hypocrisy is exposed in that excellent newspaper the West Highland Free Press.
According to Andy Wightman, a Scottish Green Party member and author of a fascinating book, Who Owns Scotland, Dacre received £625,900 via an EU scheme in 2011-12 for tree planting. Half of this came from the EU (which he despises) and the other half from the Scottish government (which he also despises). So double whammy money-grabbing hypocrisy time. Well triple I guess, because he is also a climate change sceptic but happy to trouser on environmental grounds.
No, quadruple hypocrisy, because here is how the Mail covered the story of a Tory MP benefiting from the same kind of subsidy.
The Guardian did a great job in exposing phone-hacking. But Dacre, partly because of his power within the Press Complaints Commission and his role in trying to prevent Leveson compliant self-regulation, still has a bizarre hold over many of his Fleet Street rivals. Hence the news blackout of this staggering money-grabbing hypocrisy. Long live the West Highland Free Press, I say. Keep at it. And let me know the date of the Langwell Estate right to roam ramble. I’ll bring my pipes.