Wednesday 1 February 2012

Boris' "75p moment"

Fabian Society General Secretary Andrew Harrop (@andrew_harrop) takes a look at Boris Johnson's council tax cut

Boris Johnson’s announcement of a 1% cut in the City Hall component of Londoners’ council tax has been met with astonishment verging on ridicule (see Labour AM John Biggs’ “onion argument”). It reduces the average household payment by the staggering figure of £3.10 per year. At a time when people across the capital are coping with squeezed incomes, Boris’ pledge to cut the tax liability of London householders by less than a penny a day seems almost satirical.

In a typically grandiose press release issued by the Mayor’s Office, Johnson describes his “pride” in “taking this step towards easing the burden” and in an interview with the Evening Standard lauds this as “the end of an era where arrogant politicians showed contempt for London taxpayers”.

But how can we reconcile this soaring rhetoric with the measly reality?

Readers with long memories will perhaps be reminded of the furore that greeted the 1999 budget when Labour announced its 75p weekly increase in the state pension. Attacked vociferously by Conservative opponents and questioned by older people’s groups, no-one could realistically say this was the Labour government’s finest moment of political management. Fast-forward almost ten years and Gordon Brown embarked on his ill-fated abolition of the 10p tax rate, prompting dismay on all sides of the House of Commons.

At the root of the problem in those two cases was the same division between rhetoric and reality. To struggling pensioners the stark reality of a 75p per week increase jarred with the overblown statements of ministers. The abolition of the 10p tax band clashed with Brown’s promise to “ensure working families are better off” and deeply damaged his credibility. Both served only to reinforce New Labour’s association with spin and dissimulation.

Could this be Boris’ “75p moment”?

It’s certainly a lame-duck policy. It offers hardly any relief to Londoner’s struggling in these straightened economic times. If it is, as the Evening Standard asserts, an attempt to “trump” Ken Livingstone’s Fare Deal campaigning, Boris has played the wrong card.

In last month’s YouGov London mayoral poll, only 13% of those polled thought that Boris Johnson “was in touch with the concerns of ordinary people” (in comparison with Ken Livingstone’s 40%). A headline-grabbing announcement that promises so much but delivers so little for Londoners will only exacerbate this.

At best it is naïve, at worst it smacks of desperation.

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