The Government should introduce the promised tax allowance for married couples in the next Budget
Yesterday, the BBC reported that a “senior Government source” had told them that the promised tax allowance for married couples “won't be in the Budget but it will be [introduced] in this Parliament”.
This is a big mistake. And I say that as someone who isn’t a big fan of allowances like this (there are two schools of thought within the Conservative Party when it comes to tax: those who believe in using the tax system to incentive people or organisations to do things that benefit society eg companies than invest in research and development, people who get married; and others – myself included – whose inclination is to simplify the tax system as much as possible).
If I prefer a simple tax system, why do I say the failure to introduce this allowance is a big mistake? Because I recognise that politics is all about compromise. It’s incredible how many politicians and how many of the people who write about politics don’t get this.
To win an election, a party normally has to get over 40% of the vote. And here’s the thing: it isn’t easy.
You might announce a policy on Europe that 60% of the electorate agree with, but those people will have very different views on what a fair tax system looks like or how the NHS should be organised. Each policy you announce, each position you take, will help to attract some people and alienate others.
And you don’t start with a clean sheet of paper – many people have a deep-seated view of your party that is hard to shift, so even if they agree with your policies they might not vote for you (I met someone on the doorstep yesterday who was concerned about immigration, the EU and benefit fraud; when I optimistically asked how he intended to vote, he replied “Working man mate – always Labour”).
It’s even harder if you’re in opposition. In Government, you can propose unpopular policies in the belief that they will work and the electorate will then change their view (though you’d better be confident that you have enough time to implement your policy and for it to be seen to work). In opposition, you don’t have that luxury.
The mix of policies is also important. If Labour go into the next Election with popular policies on public services but have nothing to say about dealing with the deficit, the electorate will conclude they’re not ready to return to government. If we have lots of popular things to say about Europe and immigration, but don’t talk about jobs and our NHS we’ll have a problem.
And finally on some issues where it is clear that public opinion is moving in a certain direction over time, you need to think not just about what is popular today but what the consequences of taking a position will be for your party in five or ten years’ time (same sex marriage, which I am about to talk about, is a good example – with older voters opposed to the policy but younger voters strongly in favour, we can say with confidence what public opinion is likely to be in a few years’ time and Section 28 should have taught us that getting issues like this wrong can alienate groups of the electorate for years to come).
To win then, you’re going to have to come up with a mix of policies which taken together:
a) appeal to enough of the electors who are prepared to consider voting for you;
b) show that you understand the key issues facing the country; and
c) don’t offer any hostages to fortune for the future.
And parties can only do that if their supporters are prepared to compromise. None of us is going to get what we would regard as the perfect set of policies.
Which brings me back to tax allowances for married couples. As regular readers of this blog will know, I believe marriage is a huge force for good in our society. I’ve spent the last few months trying to persuade my colleagues that, provided there is unambiguous protection for faith groups that don’t wish to conduct such marriages, people who love someone of the same sex should be able to benefit from being married just as I have.
I’ve been working alongside people from the more conservative wing of the Party, like Tim Montgomerie the founder of the ConservativeHome website. Their support has been crucial – frankly, they are much more effective advocates than someone like myself who on most issues is known to be on the liberal wing of the Party.
The issue of tax allowances for married couples is hugely important to Tim and millions of people like him. Our party needs to keep their support just as much as it needs to win over swing voters. That’s why it should be bringing forward a tax allowance for married couples at the same time as it changes the law to allow same sex marriage. We have to have a balanced offering – and one that convinces the cynics that same sex marriage is not an attempt to appear modern but part of a package to support marriage and widen it so that all can benefit.