Wednesday, 7 April 2010


This business about Labour’s proposed increase in national insurance contributions, the Conservatives’ ‘promise’ to abolish it, and the ‘support’ of a couple of dozen business leaders for the Tory position is really doing my head in.

And if this is a sign of how the election is going to be fought, then one of the most exciting elections in living memory will soon turn into a tawdry round of bitching over empty promises and shabby tactics.

Let’s get one thing absolutely clear: the Conservatives’ sums don’t add up. All the political commentators agree this, it’s why Vince Cable was able to land that powerful blow on George Osborne in the ‘Ask the Chancellors’ debate last week, and even Tories themselves don’t believe it.

Look back through the records and they’re doing exactly what they said they’d never do – making promises they couldn’t keep. How do they hope to fund the abolition of the rise in national insurance? Through ‘efficiency savings’. But they haven’t identified these savings – it’s just a case of relying on the moanings of a couple of retired civil servants, who say there are various ways of cutting costs. Well there may be, but no-one has worked out how much.

It’s absolutely clear what’s going on. The Conservatives are making a mad dash for a policy that they hope people won’t see through in the four weeks left before the election.

But if that’s shoddy enough, what’s even shoddier is the way a couple of dozen chief executives and a handful of leaders of business associations jumped on a carefully staged bandwagon to ‘support’ the Conservatives’ plans to avoid the NI 1% rise.

It’s clear what happened. They decided they wanted to see a Tory government, and worked out a cunning plan for how to help sway the opinion polls. They waited for Alistair Darling’s budget, picked on something that would make a few headlines, and coordinated their attack to follow on the heels of the Conservatives’ absurd finance.

Frankly it’s gutter politics, and in the days since then, I have looked at the likes of Sainsbury’s, M&S and other names whose chief executives signed up to the letter to The Times in a different light. I’m not sure how quickly I’ll be through the door of those shops in future.

As it happens, my view is to oppose the national insurance increase, but for totally different reasons than any so far cited.

My years of experience in the environmental movement have told me that the best way to attack pollution, climate change and general wastage of resources is to tax those activities and lower the cost of employing people. In other words, you put the tax on polluting transport and unrenewable energy, and reduce employers’ national insurance contributions.

You’d have thought at least one of the chief executives might have seen that, wouldn’t you! They could then have claimed the moral high ground, bolstered David Cameron’s fragile, skin-deep claim to be ‘green’, and looked a little statesmanlike. But that’s the problem with dirty tricks – they get so dirty that you lose sight of what you’re working for, which ought to be a better society.

One of the Liberal Democrats’ four central policies at this election is a revived economy based on taxing the worst activity and releasing the constraints on employment. It’s known in modern shorthand as ‘green jobs’. That’s the reason why the national insurance rise is misguided, and it’s miles removed from George Osborne’s risible faux finances.

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