It isn’t going to go away in a hurry, this tax business. We’re sick of it, but we have an awful feeling the voters might not be.
Former London Assembly Member and Mayoral candidate Damian Hockney believes that Jenny Jones’ calls for transparency about candidates’ earnings have wrongfooted her opponents and could have an effect on voter perceptions beyond settling the issue of views about tax planning.
When those most likely to be elected have similar-ish policies, the fight always gets dirty and personal. It can get dirty anyway, and many apologists and activists would try and highlight the minutiae of Boris and Ken’s policies to show the two are “miles apart” but they really are not. The closer you are the more you see differences, but I am at the moment 3,500 miles away and maybe that too makes a difference in perception.
Jenny Jones has sensibly and shrewdly used her new status as one of the BBC’s “state favoured candidates” with a neat challenge to the two main protagonists who indeed ‘started the row about tax in the first place’ with her suggestion about candidates publishing details of their income and tax payments.
I will deal with the pluses and minuses of that idea as a general rule later on, but for this election it has the potential to do the opposite of settling the matter: it could blow up in the faces of the Tory and Labour candidates, and open up the whole issue of personalised politics and earnings. It also demonstrates the importance of diversity in politics, and allowing other voices the oxygen of publicity, even if it is about something apparently trivial.
At the last Mayor election, the Green candidate was effectively barred by the BBC from appearing with the “main” candidates in almost all media coverage as the candidate was in the BBC’s wrong “class” of candidate. Had Jenny Jones been barred from the Newsnight studio where she made the suggestion (as were the other “minor” candidates still) then the cosy consensus would have been maintained: the LibDem candidate is, sadly, slightly wooden and colourless, and does not have Jenny’s strategic ability, political nous or grasp of what the voters think.
Are earnings a real issue and should they be being aired so much? Well it is clear that Mayorwatch (and to some degree myself) have felt that it is a shocking waste of time and campaigning effort, and that it diverts time and energy from the real issues of governing London. But I have recently been speaking to a potential candidate for the office of Mayor of New York and his view of all this was entirely different and has made me rethink (to at least some degree).
London Mayor powers are nothing like those of those of the Mayor of New York or most US cities, and this is increasingly commented upon there, now that they are beginning to understand. The UK is a centralised country and now that 80% of the laws are made by the EU, there is no room for devolution of lots of real powers – only devolution of the administering of rules made by the centre (the EU or Westminster) and the ability to vary some powers within a dictated framework.
Administering a budget of £14 billion is of course a very serious task, but the EU, for example, could force the ending of Congestion Charging tomorrow, or more likely force a complete revisiting of the way in which charging is done which would make life very difficult (and expensive) for any office holder. He/she could not just tell them to get lost “as we do it this way in London”.
Candidate wish lists, therefore, often read like a fairy tale where people are campaigning for things over which they have no powers (note to UKIP – surely you of all people realise that London has no powers to vary or scrap VAT on items – not even Westminster can do this). Or candidates dully talk about negotiating with others to achieve something.
When the candidates concentrate on the things they can alter, or things they might intend to do, it is often difficult to make people really sit up. WOW! appointing a commissioner on crime (Ken)…WOW! a commission on how to get more money for London (Boris). It is, frankly, not stuff to get your knickers wagging is it? It is interesting to me, and to this site, and to all of us who are either in or have been in the business. But to the voter and his media? It’s all a bit vague and throwaway.
They don’t want commissions, they want action, drama, commitments. What they want is “more jobs”! “Build 100,000 homes”, “end the problems with schools and hospitals”. The Mayor can’t deliver anything on these. Except have commissions on them.
And as I sat with my candidate contact, talking about his own campaign, to my amazement he himself then had to check his e-mail and showed me on one of his own network sites some film just posted…of a row between the two main candidates in London about this matter with vast numbers of comments from people.
It has been aired even there in other media where they are simply not at all interested in anything about London (except which shows are on): this is the point that my candidate contact has made – you can only get the voter and media interested in such a personalised campaign when it settles onto certain issues they can understand. And above all, as the issue of London Mayor revolves around the character and personality of the Mayor rather than major differences in policy, that is what a campaign will end up being about.
And simply everyone has a view on what they (and others) are paid. It is a gift.
Jenny’s suggestion was a potential minefield for the main candidates (and for anyone who has run a business or obtained income from more than one source) because earnings are a powerful and emotive issue, and all research done into attitudes towards the subject points towards the fact that people are affected profoundly by the earnings relationship they have with others.
When it is kept hidden “all is well” but once you know that your best friend (or candidate) is pulling in 10 times more than you do for writing a few articles and making a few speeches…well, I think that the main parties are well aware of the dangers of the jealousies and resentments. Studies about lottery winners represent the extreme version, where those laughing and clutching a cheque for £20 million swiftly lose all their friends and become unhappy and rudderless.
Transparency on income has an impact, for example, on attitudes about “moonlighting”: most voters cannot just get a salary and then multiply it up several times from outside earnings – they would be sacked for making those efforts “at the expense” of their real job). It therefore raises the question of time spent “not on the real job”, which was such a leimotiv of the relationship between Mayor and Assembly in the last 18 months of the previous mayoralty. It has also begun to emerge on comment sites by members of the public in various sarcastic ways about these candidates.
It has an impact on partners and the use of companies in partners’ names. The former Mayor is quite right about this aspect, because of the way in which assets and earnings can be parked in vehicles other than companies in your own name. It has an impact on ownership of assets and property and inheritances.
All of this hauled out in the full glare of the prurient public gaze in a country like the UK can be endlessly picked over by the media to make unflattering and damaging points about the personalities in a personality driven contest. All the best smears are driven by sex and money, because of prurience allied to the tendency of those in the public eye to affect they are “one of us”.
And of course it is one of those sad general rules that many people tend to resent those who earn more than them.
It should be no shame that politicians, and particularly high profile ones, are not “one of us”. They are not, and that is that. But it is a great pose for vote winning, and sadly is now vital in such a popularity contest.
It appears to be a cardinal rule right down to knowing who has been dumped in Corrie or full details of your favourite football team’s intricate developments (even though time restrictions and commitments mean you cannot possibly devote yourselves to these things). Full disclosure of income, allied to media speculation and artificially created mini scandals by those poring over the details, tends to put paid to the argument about being “one of us” and can wreck a reputation in seconds if handled wrongly or used mischievously.
Put very simply, simply assume that no-one has done anything wrong on tax, or even used limited companies to avoid tax (a minefield to argue about if ever there was one)…but for many voters, those earning the sums that the Mayor and his Labour rival are earning are automatically regarded to be doing something wrong. Who has not heard arguments made in all seriousness about how outrageous it is if anyone earns (pick a figure), and “it shouldn’t be allowed” and no-one needs “that sort of money”. Often about sums which are relatively small (but not to the person arguing of course).
And very briefly, if we adopt the general rule about publishing intimate details of your life like this when standing for office, it means that we will almost inevitably fully and finally drive away from public life anyone who has had any involvement in business or done anything successful. Not because they have done anything wrong, but because they are aware that just earning a large amount of money today means that you have horns and a tail and are greedy (unless you are a soccer player or soap star, then no amount of money can be too much…).
The fact that the details can then be distorted and used to create a false or extreme impression gives one more weapon to those who wish to use irrational or emotive views about earnings to smear the opposing candidate.
And then of course we will have even more of this type of rubbish dominating the campaigns because to a voter lurid stories about millions of pounds (and most fascinatingly how that money is spent) are always more interesting than the candidate’s promise of a Committee to decide whether to set up a Commission about the manufacture of lighthouses in Enfield. It is the way we are going and it is not easy to see how this will change.