Of all the sayings about the media’s need to remain neutral when delivering information to the public, one of the most over-used is that from former Guardian editor CP Scott back in the 1920s: “Comment is free but facts are sacred.”
If so, then my column last week, in which I criticised the backward nature of the Conservatives’ election strategy when it comes to personal finance issues, amply passes muster.
At the time, I pointed out that the Tories’ proposal to raise the inheritance tax allowance up to £1m for married couples, funded by capping relief on pension contributions for those earning between £150,000 and £210,000, was a “bizarre set of priorities.”
Yes, my comments were “biased”, as some people noted. But it was clearly an opinion piece, not a news story, in a section of Money Marketing specifically reserved for columnists’ personal views.
The irony is that having accused the Conservatives of fighting this election on a diet of secondhand policies, including an IHT pledge dating back to 2007, we then saw them reaching even further back in time for additional components of a financial strategy aimed at the public.
First, there was the Back to the Future proposal to allow housing association tenants to buy their own homes at a discount. As it happens, for several years until we bought our own home in London, my partner and I shared a one-bed housing association flat just off Drury Lane, in Covent Garden.
The accommodation was on a housing estate mostly populated by local working class residents who had lived there for decades, when the area was better known for its fruit and vegetable market. While not cheap, rents were affordable.
Covent Garden is now a well-known shopping and tourist location, with even the smallest flats fetching astronomical prices. It is easy to see why someone lucky enough to be living there when any right-to-buy legislation is introduced will seize the chance to snap up their property – and then sell it on at a vast profit.
An article in, amazingly, the Telegraph newspaper noted that the 35 per cent state-funded discount in the proposed extension of Right To Buy will cost the Treasury some £5.8bn, according to the most conservative estimate by the National Housing Federation.
“That’s £5.8bn that could be far better spent building many more new homes at affordable rents, rather than helping a few people who are already doing just fine.”
Meanwhile, back in Covent Garden, the new owners of former housing association flats will gradually drive out one more small pocket of local history, while those in need of housing find their options even more restricted.
As if this electoral version of Back to The Future were not enough, this week we saw the Conservatives’ attempt to return to the privatisation bonanza of the 1980s, offering the public some £4bn worth of cheap shares in Lloyds Bank when a further tranche of the institution is sold off.
Bear in mind this is the same Lloyds Bank every taxpayer in the UK bailed out in 2008 and 2009, at a cost of many billions of pounds and a huge amount of financial pain – much of which is being reflected in cuts to our public services. Yet our taxes are now directly helping to subsidise the Tories’ bid to be re-elected next month.
Biased? Of course I am biased. The terrible thing is not my bias but the fact that Labour has been so hopeless not just in opposing these ideas but also in articulating an alternative set of personal finance priorities for consumers.
For example, why did Labour fail to reform stamp duty land tax? It was clearly evident that the “slab” approach to stamp duty – charging a rate of tax on the full purchase price of a property not just the element over the threshold – was manifestly unfair.
The Council of Mortgage Lenders campaigned for years to end this anomaly, offering revenue-neutral solutions to the issue. Yet Labour completely ignored calls for reform until it was caught out by George Osborne in his last pre-Budget speech.
Similarly with tax relief on higher earners’ pensions: there is some merit in reducing the 40 per cent rate available for higher earners to, say, 30 per cent – but not to fund an IHT giveaway on a few thousand estates a year.
How about using that money to launch a pound-for-pound matched funding scheme, capped at £1,000 a year, for anyone saving into a pension, whether private or occupational?
As for discounted shares, why not pledge that the money raised from selling off another tranche of Lloyds Bank will be used for a specific purpose, like building more homes? Or funding a particular NHS service?
The tragedy is that consumer finance is an area where it should be possible to have a debate on priorities that affect many millions of consumers. Yet one side has vacated the arena, leaving the other to come up with proposals that are staggering in their naked and crude appeal to a tiny minority of the population, plus those who aspire to join that minority.
The absence of such a serious debate is not good for democracy – and does all of us a disservice. Hopefully we can all agree on that.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at email@example.com