Immigration, political honesty and the limits of the possible

Despite being a leftist, I’m going to be fair-minded and make some kinder comments about David Cameron’s speech on immigration (initially). Firstly, he is of course entering into a legitimate debate about migration. While the question of asylum is separate, economic migration is a debatable good: it’s perfectly fair to ask how much migration is desirable and what the overall pros and cons are for Britain. Furthermore, Cameron was explicit that migrants can create jobs as well as filling them, taking on the idea that there’s some sort of lump sum of labour in an economy. And he did attempt to draw some key distinctions (e.g. about the speed of change, rather than necessarily the principle): this was not on a par with Michael Howard’s 2005 campaign.

The fact remains, though, that there are lots of straw men lurking in the speech. Anyone who’s listened to Jack StrawDavid Blunkett or Phil Woolas will be a bit surprised to hear that the last Labour government gave the impression that it was racist to talk about immigration, for instance. Nor is it particularly helpful to claim that the government which brought in a points system promoted the view that any attempt to control immigration was madness. And was there really a ‘mass relativism’ about sham marriages? This isn’t on the scale of 2005, but there are still nasty undertones here – in the run-up to elections, at a time when the economy is in a grim state and voters are angry. Politicians who declaim loudly about how ‘we aren’t allowed to say anything about immigration’ are playing a dangerous game.

Cameron was also making dubious use of statistics at best. For a start, while looking at EU migration, he got his figures wrong. Long-term net EU immigration ran at 57,000 from June 2009 to June 2010, not 27,000. The choice of year was also misleading at best, at a time when there has been partial unwind of the post-2004 migration from eastern Europe. Note, I’m not complaining about that migration: but in this instance, Cameron is underplaying it in order to argue that his proposed cap will be effective when, in recent years, it would have usually had little effect. And by the way, if you’re worried about destabilisation and impacts on local services, net long-term migration is not the only possible concern: the ‘churn’ of migration, causing rapid fluctuations for councils, can also cause problems – not to mention internal migration within the UK.

The statistical details matter because the misuse of figures contributes to a wider argument: that we can meaningfully control immigration, in the sense of reliably determining a net total migration figure for the UK. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to sidestep my views on preferred migration levels (fluctuating depending on economic circumstances, but probably on the liberal end of the spectrum, if you’re interested). As a simple matter of fact, irrespective of what we’d like to do, it is not the case that we can control immigration. We can, perhaps, manage migration, in the sense of knowing (broadly) who’s coming in and making sure the system works better. But EU migration is a very large part of the whole, and we can’t restrict that (transitional controls on new members are just that – transitional). Free movement of labour is, rightly, central to the EU Single Market – and we can’t have one without the other. So economically, we haven’t got much alternative in terms of EU migration.

Furthermore, our borders are always going to be fairly porous: how could it be otherwise in a country with quite so many visa waiver agreements, for example? (And one of the biggest categories of overstayers is from those countries, by the way.) The fact that we have something like 400,000 illegal residents in the UK says something about the difficulty of enforcing border controls. I’m sure we can do a fair bit to make them more effective, but I also suspect that there is a direct relationship between how restrictive our overall policy is and how much illegal migration we end up with.

Ultimately, Britain is a small island near a bigger continent in a world of mass travel. We are lying to our voters if we pretend that immigration can be fundamentally controlled: or at least, controlled without unacceptable consequences in terms of civil liberties and day-to-day life. We can affect levels at the margins, we can monitor what’s happening, we can try and affect the drivers of demand for migration – beefing up HMRC’s minimum wage compliance would be a start. But if we’re being honest, that’s about it.

That is a very unpopular statement, but it’s also true – and an honest conversation about immigration will, at some point, have to include an admission of that basic fact. How do we go about admitting that migration is, in this sense, ‘out of control’ and unavoidably so?  And where should immigration policy go from that admission? I don’t have anything like a full answer. I suspect we probably have to talk about pull factors in the UK: has immigration been encouraged by low wages at the bottom of the labour market, making it more difficult for UK citizens to leave the benefit trap? Would a living wage mean more British citizens could fill jobs in Britain? Would greater regulation of the labour market – in at least some areas, some of the time – play a role? And should we be thinking about ways of harnessing some revenue from immigration (work permit fees, in particular) and investing it in training British citizens?  (The Liberal Democrats had a policy along these lines at one point.)

I’m sure there are other, better suggestions to be discussed: these are mainly starters for ten. But sometime, somehow, we need to have a more honest conversation about this – and stop pretending either that the establishment is conspiring to shut us all up or that we could buck the trend if we wanted to, if only we were a bit more competent. Because if we carry on arguing that migration levels can be reliably determined as a matter of political choice, and keep failing to deliver a given level of migration, more and more people will reasonably ask why we’re not delivering. And those answers could produce some ugly results.

Symbols matter: the case for a republic

I hadn’t really planned to write about anything relating to the Royal Wedding: as a republican who recognises he’s probably doomed to be disappointed it leaves me cold, but I’ve been spending more time campaigning for fairer votes and hoping for a democratic second chamber than thinking about abolishing the monarchy. I have Camden Borough Council’s decision to effectively ban the only republican street party in Britain to thank for spurring me to post at all.

Clearly, the monarchy isn’t the number one issue on my priority list. In terms of democratic reform, the top two have to be changing the voting system for the Commons and creating an elected second chamber. I fully understand, furthermore, that republicans are in a very clear minority – not an insignificant one (15-30% of the population isn’t a small group), but not likely to be a majority any time soon.

The formal powers of the monarchy are more important in the here and now: only one citizen gets a guaranteed, weekly audience with every British Prime Minister. They have all, to date, tended to praise the Queen’s experience and insight. This should actively worry any democrat. Civil servants are appointed competitively, MPs are elected, special advisers are appointed (indirectly, at least) by politicians – but there’s no line of accountability between us and the Crown. Add the prime ministerial power accrued through the Royal Prerogative, the absurd position of ‘Supreme Governor of the Church of England’ and the arcane succession laws, and you have an awful lot of anachronistic nonsense even as monarchies go.

So is that it? Tidy up the succession laws, remove a power or two and then leave the Windsors alone? Well, it would be a start: but modernising the monarchy is a bit like modernising the Boy Scouts. Either you accept anachronism or you really have to question the thing itself. Monarchy represents hierarchy, continuity and the past: it is anachronistic – in the sense of not being in line with our own time – by its very design.

I suppose that’s fine for a lot of things – like graduation ceremonies (or the Boy Scouts, for that matter). But the Head of State is supposed to represent the nation. She (or he) is meant to embody Britain – to stand for its values and reflect something about its character to the world. At this moment, and despite the dedication of Elizabeth II herself, we have an unelected hereditary multimillionaire as that representative. Our supreme public office is the embodiment of hierarchy; of inequality; of closed and unaccountable power, subject to no one. It states, as a defining value of the British state, that we owe allegiance to someone who gained her position through no intrinsic merit of her own.

Yes, traditionalists will argue that our monarchy represents a constitutional tradition of limited government: but that is to confuse the fetters on monarchy with the monarchy itself. Closing the door in Black Rod’s face at the State Opening of Parliament represents the House of Commons asserting itself against the monarch: Black Rod himself represents the old attempt at royal fiat. Neither his office nor a recounting of the misfortunes of Charles I can substitute for a democratic public culture.

I want our Head of State to represent the values I want to see enshrined in Britain – not the values I want to see abolished. Our Head of State should simply be our first citizen, accountable to all of us and representing all of us in the only way a democracy should recognise: through the ballot box. We don’t need an executive, US-style President: the Republic of Ireland is our nearest neighbour and an admirable example of how to run a ceremonial presidency. Mary McAleese, and Mary Robinson before her, were fine examples of elected presidents who could interpret Ireland to herself and unify their nation. But they represent a principle at the heart of their country’s constitution, one which should be at the heart of our own: the sovereignty of the people.

And if that means we end up with someone called ‘the President of the United Kingdom’, that’s one anachronism I can live with.

If we get fairer votes, we need some better stats too

If AV is passed by referendum in a month’s time – which I hope it is – voters will be able to give much more information about their real preferences than they currently can. That is, of course, the point: by giving second (and third, and so on) preferences, voters will no longer have to choose between heart and head. They can choose both, all on one ballot paper.

Against that, ‘No’ campaigners pit the fear of more coalition governments. I don’t accept the premise that these are a bad thing; better a compromise government, reflecting a plural electorate, than winner takes all on 35% of the vote. But that’s an argument for another post; AV is perfectly capable of delivering majority governments, and in Australia it generally does. In a British context, majority governments would be more legitimate, too: by allowing the expression of subsequent preferences, most governments would be shown to have a base of (partial) support extending well beyond their total share of first preferences. The fact that most Liberal Democrat (and SNP and Plaid Cymru) voters preferred a Labour government to a Conservative one in 2005 would have been made explicit and measurable in second and third preferences: and Labour’s mandate would have looked much stronger as a result.

But even where AV produces hung parliaments, it will produce hung parliaments where the will of the electorate is made a little clearer. Looking at the spread of their voters’ preferences, the party or parties which held the balance would have a much clearer idea of which partner their voters would prefer; and if the second-placed party had a much wider support base among the electorate as a whole than the first-, we’d be much more likely to know about it. So an AV hung parliament would be more democratic than the FPTP version: it would be that bit clearer if a party defied the popular will and chose the ‘wrong’ coalition partner, and that bit easier to punish them later.

The Australian election of 2010 provided a good example of how AV can help clarify an unclear result. A strong Green vote cut the Australian Labor Party’s voteshare down to 37%, well behind the Liberal/National Coalition’s 44%. But when the full preferences were tallied and allocated to one of the two major groupings, the ALP had 50.12% of the vote: a very small lead, but clear. When given a choice between the two options, the Australians’ voting system allowed the politicians to see which option they preferred. FPTP would have given no such clarity.

The slight snag is that, under British counting procedures, we might well not be given the information which AV creates and makes available. The Australians record the full preference data for their elections, allowing much more information to be gleaned from them – even if you vote for a leading party in your constituency and your other preferences never need to be used, they’re still kept on record. In Britain, by contrast, we tend to perform the minimum checks on our ballot papers compatible with making sure we get the right winner – which means that a lot of that preference data would probably be lost in our version of an AV count. We wouldn’t necessarily get an equivalent of two-party-preferred voting data (in 2010 this would presumably involve a Labour-Conservative, Labour-Liberal Democrat and Liberal Democrat-Conservative analysis) here.

Technocratic though it sounds, the time could come when that information matters. It matters because, when no one party has won power and politicians therefore have to strike bargains, this information leaves them with fewer places to hide. A party whose voters split 70% in one direction but then went the other way in its choice of coalition partner would live to regret it: and they’d have been warned in advance, too. But equally, if the people expressed a clear preference for one leading party or another overall, they’d still stand warned: and if they ignored it, again, they would be likely to pay for it. The democratic basis of a coalition would be much better spelled out for all parties: and that would help to make sure that coalition did reflect the broad wishes of the electorate.

So hung parliaments and coalitions shouldn’t necessarily be feared; AV doesn’t necessarily create more hung parliaments; and when it does produce hung parliaments, it provides more information than FPTP about the outcome voters would prefer. But if we want to have that information to hand, we need to make sure it’s recorded. So if there’s a ‘Yes’ vote, a word in the ear of the Electoral Commission might be no bad thing.

Dear ministers: poverty generally means not having enough money

Yesterday’s furore over Nick Clegg’s former interns rather missed the bigger picture. Yes, it’s not on for MPs (Clegg is, in this respect, pretty typical) to hire de facto labour and not pay for it: equally, Jonny Medland’s tactics aren’t exactly edifying (it’s not as if he suffered from the experience). The Social Mobility Strategy seems to contain a number of reasonable-in-principle-but-less-than-earth-shattering initiatives, most of which have already been announced and some of which are new. Fair enough, to a point: all governments try to reframe a whole series of policy announcements from time to time, and goodness knows oppositions like to repackage old policies too. It’s worth pointing out that much of it rings hollow in the current climate (commitments to Sure Start would be a bit more plausible if Children’s Centres weren’t closing all over the country …), but few of us are going to argue against the general principle.

The Government’s Child Poverty Strategy was also published yesterday. Of course, it received much less attention: poor children are always of much less interest to the British press than who ends up interning for the Deputy PM. But a key strand running through it was a commitment to ‘broader’ definitions of poverty. This ‘broader’ definition seems to stretch through from access to health services to – you guessed it – social mobility and life chances. Frankly, the Government seems to be in serious danger of confusing the words ‘broader’ and ‘different’: throughout the document, we get references to opportunities, to generational cycles of poverty, to unfair educational outcomes – to anything, in fact, which avoids the question of whether poor families have enough money.

Perhaps I’m narrow-minded, but it seems to me that poverty has rather a lot to do with not having enough money. It’s all very well to say that poverty isn’t all about money or that poverty plus a pound doesn’t equal fairness (not a statement, I suspect, that anyone who finds themselves one pound above the poverty line would ever make) – but ultimately, if a family struggles to put decent meals on the table, it’s about money. If an unemployed parent can’t afford the transport to a job interview, it’s about money. Finding the money for school uniforms is a question of, well, money. Children whose parents can’t afford enough space for them to study in peace and quiet are struggling with their schoolwork because their parents don’t have enough money.

There’s a cynical conclusion to draw here, which has a large degree of truth to it. This Government needs to have targets which go broader – and longer-term – than the current set: it knows perfectly well that its chances of the current targets going in anything other than the wrong direction, fast, are vanishingly small. £18bn of welfare cuts will cut savagely into poor families’ incomes; Housing Benefit cuts will mean that many poor people will find themselves forced to give up jobs as they move out of their reach, one bus ride too many to sustain or one extra half hour too much to juggle with another job; closed Children’s Centres translate into parents who find it that much harder to stay in work. All in all, income-based targets which can be measured in 2015 are unlikely to hold much comfort for Cameron and Clegg.

But it isn’t just that. The Government doesn’t really believe that income poverty is the measure of fairness. It pays lip service to it – it’s obliged to by law, after all – but in its view, as per its Social Mobility Strategy, ‘The true test of fairness is the distribution of opportunities.’ The Child Poverty Strategy trumpets the Fairness Premium for education – and the Child Poverty Commission will now be set up as a Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (note the order, by the way) – because the Coalition thinks that poverty and mobility can be elided. It believes that the question of whether people are poor is basically the same as the question of which people are poor in a generation’s time.

Well, it isn’t. Poverty is poverty: it is a grinding, day-to-day inability to share in the common life. As Polly Toynbee said of social exclusion, “It is a No Entry sign on every ordinary pleasure”. And if we subordinate tackling poverty to promoting mobility, not only will we fail to do either: we will condemn another generation of poor children to grow up in poor housing, without birthday presents, with the fear of falling into debt, with parents trying to make ends meet (often with several jobs at once) and often divided from each other under the strain. It’s very easy to treat the lack of money as a sideshow when you’ve always had plenty of it. Our Government ought to remember that.

Afterthought: A partial exception to this, in fairness, is a focus on getting people into work. This is something the last government worked hard on, and found dauntingly difficult, at a time of economic plenty. At a time when the best part of a million people are about to be put out of work by government policy, I find it hard to believe that the Universal Credit is going to get us very far towards raising employment in the next few years – especially when no one’s even going to start receiving it until 2013. Smoothing out some of the kinks of the current system is a good thing: but it’s a smoothing out, not a revolution, and it’s accompanied by plenty of benefit horrors – many of which, like the lowering of the maximum award for childcare from 80% to 70% of costs, will actually make it harder for people to enter or to stay in work.

Housing policy poses similar problems: the arguments around the Coalition’s plans to allow higher social rents in order to create revenue streams for building more homes are complex, but higher rents combined with Housing Benefit tapers mean that the barriers to work rise even higher. (And the need for this particular expedient might have been reduced had the Government not decided to cut the social housing budget in half.)

The March for the Alternative, and why it’s OK for the marchers to want different things

Like many (probably most) of my friends in London, I spent my Saturday marching in protest against the Coalition’s planned spending cuts. Like everyone else on the march, I don’t believe that £81bn of spending cuts by 2015 and only £29bn of tax rises represents a plan in any way compatible with social justice: and I do believe that it will do terrible social damage and wreck lives.

I’d have to concede, though, that the alternatives put forward by the marchers were many and various. People miles to my political left and my right were there – from those who were much more concerned by the speed than the composition of the fiscal tightening through to those who ‘opposed every cut and fought for every job’ (except Trident, usually!). The Coalition’s response has been, in essence: ‘You have no alternative; we have a plan; we’re carrying on with the plan’.

The trouble is, their plan bears no relationship to anything the public could reasonably be said to have endorsed. Forget the fact, for the moment, that all three parties fudged and dodged a real accounting of what would have to happen in this parliament. Even on the points which did come up – should we cut over five years or over eight? – the current plan is at odds with the votes. During the campaign, the public displayed a preference for the more gradual approach. 52% of people voted for parties who (at the time) agreed. Whatever you think about the balance of taxes and cuts, this is not a mandate for shock therapy in Britain. But that is what we’re getting: the sheer depth of austerity we now face parallels the 1920s.

And a large part of the reason for this is that, in the coalition negotiations, the Liberal Democrats didn’t prioritise economic policy when they chose their sticking points. In fact, they may well have decided to reverse their policy before they even entered the room; according to Nick Clegg, at least some of them changed their minds before they went to the ballot box themselves. The result is that the basic process of discussion, of splitting the difference – of negotiation – which a hung parliament might have been expected to require has been short-circuited. Instead, we’ve got a deficit reduction plan written in outline by one party alone and occasionally coloured in slightly different tones by another. Perhaps that’s not so different from the norm in British politics: but then, a hung parliament was supposed to change all that.

The marchers wanted a range of different things, granted. A march for any other alternative, if you will. But what they were trying to start, in a way, was that very negotiating process which our Parliament so signally failed to carry through. That’s why it was a March for the Alternative: Saturday’s protesters all agree that there are alternatives, even if they don’t agree which ones should be chosen. And that’s why, rather than saying ‘what’s your alternative?’, the powers that be ought to look at the range of alternatives we do have.

If we’re looking at compromises from the Coalition, they might involve more capital spending, combined with a reduction of the structural deficit at the planned rate; they could involve a greater emphasis on taxes. I appreciate that a Conservative government is not going to give me the deficit reduction programme I actually want – but then the voters didn’t elect a pure Conservative government, even if the deficit reduction programme makes it look as if they did. It’s high time the government acknowledged this reality in its economic policy.

And by the way, they should remember that mass demonstrations don’t always have an effect on the government’s policy … but if that policy goes wrong, the demonstration has a habit of making the government look a whole lot worse later on.

Coalitions, majorities and mandates

One of the most interesting questions of the next few years is whether or not we’ve embarked on an era of hung parliaments, minorities and coalitions. I’m not necessarily convinced: I certainly don’t think we’ve started a period of constant hung parliaments, and post-coalition Conservatives and a more liberal Labour might even reinvigorate the two-party system (at least for a while).

So Vernon Bogdanor’s piece in The Guardian covers important ground. Our current Coalition has caused enormous anger for many – in large part because of the sheer scale of the damage being done to public services and the welfare state, but also because people feel that ‘this isn’t what I voted for’. Liberal Democrat voters, of course, feel this way particularly strongly. Bogdanor is absolutely right that the formation of government mustn’t become insulated from the people.

I assume he isn’t being literal when he says that parties should be required to signal their intentions and likely concession in a hung parliament scenario. It’s not just impractical for parties to show their hand in advance (no party leader is going to throw away all their bargaining power before they even know how much they have); it’s actually vital, if coalitions are to reflect the election results, that concessions by coalition partners have some flex. In terms of democracy, the Lib Dems should expect to make more concessions if they win 15% of the vote than if they win 24%; and no formula can pin that down in advance. He does have an important point about preferred coalition partners: British parties have, morally if not pragmatically, something to learn here. It’s worth pointing out that Clegg, for all his faults, did stick to his pre-election commitment (‘the party with the strongest mandate – the largest number of seats and votes – has the first right to seek to govern’) on government formation: but in Germany or Sweden, for instance, parties make it quite clear who they will and won’t work with. A Swedish vote for the Moderates, Liberals, Centre or Christian Democrats will go towards a four-party, centre-right coalition; Green votes in a German federal election will help support a centre-left, Red-Green government. That makes the electoral choice clearer and it helps legitimise the coalition process.

But I would also question the implied account of what actually happened in 2010 and in previous elections: the notion that normally we elect governments directly, but that in 2010 the third party decided who governed Britain and voters were excluded. I don’t think Bogdanor thinks exactly this, incidentally, but it’s a narrative which informs the argument. It deserves some scrutiny.

At the heart of the case for coalitions is a sense that the largest minority party, which generally wins a majority under first-past-the-post (and usually would under AV too), isn’t necessarily in possession of a clear mandate to govern. I am not convinced that the Labour Party, which won 35.2% of the vote in 2005, was a ‘directly elected government’. Granted, political negotiation plays an essential role in delivering the government in hung parliaments; the government’s election is, in that sense, indirect.

But normally, the voting system just turns minorities into majorities for us instead. I don’t see that that’s a more democratic approach. I believe that when the voters don’t give any political party anywhere near a majority of the vote, a coalition government – a compromise between two positions – has a better shot at reflecting the balance of views of the public than a single-party government. Would a majority Conservative government be nearer the political centre of gravity in the UK than the Coalition, for instance?

I’m also unconvinced by the (implicit) analysis of what happened in May. The formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was absolutely bound up with the electoral arithmetic and with perceptions of legitimacy. 306 Conservative, 258 Labour and 57 Liberal Democrat MPs meant that a Lib-Lab coalition deal didn’t have a majority: and crucially, it was felt that the Labour Party had lost the election. The Liberal Democrat leadership feared the consequences of a ‘coalition of losers’: a government which many might deem illegitimate. Far from representing an overriding of the election result in the name of ideological agreement – even now, we need to bear in mind that most Lib Dem members, activists and even elected representatives would have found Labour a more natural partner – the resulting government was absolutely bound up with a particular interpretation of who won, who lost and what the electorate wanted.

Part of the problem with our debate at the moment, I think, is that all parties were evasive at best about what lay ahead. All three parties failed to outline more than a minority of their plans to tackle the structural deficit: all three parties emphasised ‘waste’, fairness and protecting the vulnerable. No one said that they planned to take an £18 billion axe to welfare benefits!  Labour in government would have found themselves assailed by the same cries of ‘broken promises’.

Our present position isn’t an indictment of coalition government: it is in large measure the consequence of a belief, shared by all mainstream parties, that the people simply will not vote for frankness in a general election. I’m not convinced they’re wrong about that: but in any event, the fact that politicians are either too scared or too canny to face voters with unpalatable truths in an election campaign says very little about the merits of coalition government.

Taxes, taxes, taxes

I realise very few people see it as an interesting exercise to sit down and work out how the plans for £29 billion of net tax rises break down. But if you’re going to think about better ways to close the gap between what we spend and what we raise, then it’s not a bad idea to look at what we’re doing at the moment. And in rough and ready fashion, based on the Emergency Budget* figures, the planned breakdown of net tax rises in 2014-15 is about as follows:

Tax Net revenue raised (£ billion) Tax Net revenue raised (£ billion)
VAT and IPT 13.9 Green taxes 0.7
Pension contribution relief 4.6 Stamp Duty 0.3
National Insurance 3.3 Inheritance Tax 0.3
Income tax 2.5 Other tax rises 0.2
Bank levy 2.4 Other tax cuts -0.2
Other pension tax breaks 2.1 Council Tax -0.6
Capital Gains Tax 0.9 Various business taxes -0.8
Sin taxes 0.8 Corporation Tax -1.3

Those figures conceal significant tax cuts in terms of income tax (£3.9 billion goes to raising the personal allowance by £1,000) and National Insurance (£3.7 billion spent on raising the threshold for employers’ NI to offset some of the increased costs), as well as a number of tax hikes in Corporation Tax to help pay for a headline rate cut. But in terms of where the main burden is falling, you’ll get a fair idea here.

It shouldn’t take too much to work out that any attempt to raise another £26 billion, say, is going to be very politically difficult. Labour have argued for keeping the bankers’ bonus tax (£3.5 billion or so – assuming revenues don’t fall if the tax stops being a one-off), and they’ve pointed to their National Insurance plans too (£3.7 billion more). If you were to argue for, say, 5p on the higher rate of income tax (taking a very brave example), the Treasury’s Ready Reckoner suggests you’d raise about £4.6 billion. Lowering the starting point for the 50p rate to, say, £100,000 might raise £1.3 billion (or about half that, if you raise the 40p rate to 45p – otherwise you’re double-counting). The Liberal Democrats’ famous ‘mansion tax’ was intended to raise about £1.7 billion. If, in another act of extreme bravery, you were to raise Inheritance Tax to 60%, you might net about £1.4 billion. The exact amount of money you could get from tackling avoidance may very well be substantial – but it’s difficult to bank on, and I wouldn’t envy the Chancellor who tried to rely on it as a main tool for tackling the deficit.

This clearly doesn’t, even in terms of orders of magnitude, add up to a £26 billion alternative to the Coalition’s plans. So in the end, substantially higher taxes will mean that people on moderate incomes will also end up paying more – not just the wealthy and the banks. In saying that, I’m not arguing against the idea: in almost all cases, tax rises are more progressive than cuts to services – and of course, it’s quite possible to use some revenue to compensate the poor too. It’s no accident that Scandinavian social democracies pay substantially more VAT than the UK – if you’re serious about social justice, the volume of money for benefits and services will make much more of a difference than the exact degree of redistribution managed through taxes on their own, and the tax burden has to be fairly widely spread in order to be politically accepted.

So not only would a centre-left government almost certainly end up raising VAT at some point, for instance; it would probably be right to do so, though probably not right now. It makes sense that, in an economy which needs to move towards more saving over time, we might increase taxes on consumption. The debate over how progressive/regressive VAT is has run and run, but it’s certainly more progressive than even more service cuts – and if it’s difficult enough to find £26 billion extra, try finding £40 billion instead. In the same way, further income tax/NI rises would be pretty hard to avoid. Property taxes would be politically very difficult, but probably sensible as policy. And if the centre-left want to reduce the damage done to public services, welfare benefits and public investment more generally, then we’d better start learning how to argue it’s worthwhile for all of us to pay more taxes in a good cause.

How much of this does Labour need to spell out? Some of it, at least – at least as an indication. The Conservatives didn’t give much away on their plans in 2010, but they did highlight plans to raise the retirement age faster and taper tax credits more aggressively. Not an obvious route to electoral success, in a way, but a manifesto which made no mention at all of any difficult tax/spending changes wouldn’t have been more popular: it would just have made people think they either weren’t being given the full story (even more than they already did!) or that the party in question shouldn’t be trusted with the public finances. And in reverse, the same applies to any party of the left.

* Figures weren’t provided for revenue raised by the 50p rate, the restriction of the personal allowance from £100,000 or revenue raised from Labour’s changes to ‘sin taxes’ (alcohol, tobacco etc.) – I did find a Treasury figure for 2014-15 for the first, but the other two had to be extrapolated a bit from previous Budgets. But the broad outline stands.