Austerity is a failure and a disaster for the people of this country

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Austerity must end in the United Kingdom, says Dave Wilson

Listening to the Beatles’ Revolver album this week, I was reminded that there was a time in the 1960s when the marginal tax rate was as high as 95%:

Let me tell you how it will be
There’s one for you, nineteen for me
‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman

Should five per cent appear too small
Be thankful I don’t take it all…”

To be fair, you had to be earning a hell of a lot to hit that rate of tax, but still the point that this level of tax is a disincentive to do that extra bit of work was well made. Although how that applied to George Harrison I never did quite grasp, since he was inspired by it.

However, you might not be expecting that argument from a Labour person: I do, after all, expressly believe that taxation should be higher than it is at the moment.

If we are to enjoy first world services like roads without potholes and a functioning health service that we ought to expect as citizens of one of the world’s largest economies, those have to be paid for somehow. As do more police on the streets, better schools and housing and so on.

Because at heart British socialism is about making sure that the workers receive “the full fruits of their labour”. And although that means we have a focus on making employers give their staff a share in the wealth that is created by their work, it also means we shouldn’t be ripping as much tax off them as we can get away with.

When I worked in local government I treated every penny of tax money we had to spend as precious. There was never enough to do everything we wanted to do, even back then, and making sure that money wasn’t wasted was something I think most council officers were acutely conscious of, as I think they are now.

So where does the idea come from that councils will waste money if you let them, and that Labour in particular is totally feckless?

To begin with, we need to recognise that councils are big organisations. And big organisations are inherently inefficient in some ways, in particular in controlling the minutiae of their activity.

So it’s always going to be possible to find examples of things that could be done better or cheaper – and indeed I’ve made my career out of doing just that. But unless you can focus on that, waste happens, and it happens everywhere. It is not the preserve of the public sector.

Specifically to look at Labour, though, is to find that the argument from our opponents isn’t really about waste, but about the things that Labour government and councils spend tax money on.

It’s not even, generally, about whether those things achieve their goals, but about whether they should be done at all by a public body.

Those arguments hinge on three main aspects. Firstly, that any Government spending money which has been earned by others is inherently undesirable and should be kept to a minimum. Next, that the choices of how money is spent should rest with the person who earned it. And finally, that Government’s role should exclude anything which the private sector can do. I’m going to focus just on the second argument there, about choice, having touched on the others previously.

We can demolish this idea quite quickly, I think, by way of some examples. Let us suppose that I’ve elected not to have children. Why then should I pay for schools? If you don’t attend large football matches, why pay for the mass policing that is required? If you don’t have an interest in art or history, why should you pay for galleries and museums? Why should pacifists pay for the upkeep of our army? Why should car owners subsidise the buses?

It’s evident that the further you go down that rabbit hole the more absurd the idea becomes of not paying for something just because you personally don’t use it.

We are a collective society, for one thing, but in any case there are also indirect benefits from these things, for each of us as individuals.

To begin with, we need to recognise that councils are big organisations. And big organisations are inherently inefficient in some ways, in particular in controlling the minutiae of their activity.

So it’s always going to be possible to find examples of things that could be done better or cheaper – and indeed I’ve made my career out of doing just that. Waste happens, and it happens everywhere.

So the argument then rests not on why we have public expenditure, but on how much we should be spending, and on what.

To helps us consider that, we now have the dubious benefit of being able to see what happens when a government deliberately fails to spend enough money over the long term.

Food banks. Homelessness. Potholes. Rising crime. Health services at breaking point. The list goes on.

Yet these things are not unforeseeable. They are the direct result of a belief that government spending is bad and must be cut no matter what the consequences, and that somehow either charity or private spending will alleviate the resulting problems.

And now we can see for ourselves that this is completely false. Austerity is a failure on its own terms, and a disaster for the bulk of people in this country.

More money is needed to provide the services that we need – not luxuries, but the essential basics of a civilised society.

And the only way to do that is to raise the total amount of tax revenue. Since no-one thinks people on low or middle incomes can afford to pay more, then inevitably the burden is going to fall on the wealthy. And since the group of people earning more than £150,000 a year were directly given an £11 billion pound tax cut by this Government in 2013, maybe we could start with them – the only people who seem to be better off under this regime.

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