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Pinning Down Miliband

It is inexplicable that Labour still haven’t mastered the concept of supply and demand. There are plenty of examples close enough to home – take the high demand for apologies for the numerous mistakes made by the previous government, and their refusal to supply any. It’s been four years now, and the demand for them to say sorry has only risen.

One of the many sought-after apologies is for Gordon Brown’s ruining of the pension system. Notably, Ed Balls was policy advisor to the then-Chancellor when he decided that punishing people for saving responsibly was the right thing to do – a fact that presumably has some bearing on the party’s continued refusal to admit they got it wrong.

The scale of quite how wrong they got it has to be seen to be believed. As I wrote when we launched ConservativeHome’s “Homes, Jobs and Savings” campaign, savers have fled for the hills – the amount being put aside for retirement has crashed, ISAs now outstrip pensions in terms of preferred destination and young people wisely see little point in simply piling their resources into a large sign that reads “TAX ME MORE”.

The consequences of Brown’s decisions make it all the more important that all main parties offer effective solutions in 2015. We would like to see our own party do more on this front, and will continue to campaign for that – but we also have a responsibility to examine Labour’s offering.

This is why the refusal to apologise for the sins of the past is important – it isn’t just a Westminster issue, it’s a symptom of Labour’s flawed thinking. There is precious little evidence that they have changed their ways.

Consider the Old Age Pension, for example. Apparently alarmed by their poor polling among pensioners, the opposition has promised to stick to the triple lock system introduced by the Coalition, intended to guarantee a certain level of increase each year in the amount each individual receives. However, Balls has also promised a “zero-based spending review“, meaning every item of expenditure is open to potential cuts.

I very much doubt he will cut pensions, but it’s an illustration of Labour’s slippery policy platform. Is the triple lock guaranteed or is all spending on the table for review? For political reasons, Balls has promised both – contradictory as they are.

That isn’t a great start. As Allister Heath writes today in City AM, those considering putting their savings into private pensions are deterred by the constant uncertainty over the rules – if a Labour manifesto can’t even offer a simple, clear policy on Old Age Pensions, what hope is their for other savers?

They’re right to be concerned. Already the Shadow Chancellor is arguing for further tax hikes, abolishing rate reliefs on the pension contributions of higher earners. This is clothed in the language of simplification and flatter taxes, but if that is the priority then why not simplify and flatten the tax reliefs for lower earners up to the level currently enjoyed by the better off?

Higher taxes are a funny way of enticing more people to save – and we all know that Labour tax rises “just on the rich” have a nasty tendency of extending to everybody.

The current system clearly deters people from saving enough to fund their retirement; any changes ought to make retirement saving more attractive. As ever, Labour’s concept of equality is taxing everyone as highly as possible.

Labour do have some valid ideas about the wider pensions industry. They’re right to say that its charges are often opaque, and that pension funds should be much more accountable to their customers.

Sadly, that’s about the extent of their positive contribution on pensions. On top of the pension-specific tax proposals, Labour’s wider tax agenda contains a number of gremlins for pension savers.

Last year the National Association of Pension Funds was forced to publicly criticise Balls’ plan to pay for the abolition of the so-called “bedroom tax”, for example – what Labour had spun as closing a “shady loophole” for “hedge funds” turned out to be a tax hike that would hit the investment return on pension funds.

Similarly, both Ed Balls and Ed Miliband have expressed their support for a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT), which would cream off a set percentage for every financial transaction in bonds, stocks and so on. It’s never a good sign when a tax is simultaneously described by its fans as “tiny” and having the potential to raise “billions of pounds, hopefully even hundreds of billions of pounds” – both cannot be true, unless you view hundreds of billions of pounds as a “tiny” thing for the taxman to take.

Again, the spin is that an FTT would hit “banks” and “bankers”, with little regard for the concept that it is customers’ money being invested and traded. The latest ONS figures I can find suggest that in 2012, 4.7 per cent of the UK stock market was owned by pension funds, who tend to trade regularly, much like any professional investors. That suggests a sizeable proportion of those “billions…hopefully even hundreds of billions of pounds” in extra tax would be taken from people’s pension pots.

It seems that if Labour get their wicked way with the British pension system again, they may have quite a few more things to apologise for in years to come.

5 comments for: Pinning Down Miliband: Pensions

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