The disadvantage of live phone-in radio programmes is precisely that you don’t get to weigh your words. No doubt Nick Clegg would have expressed himself a bit differently on the subject of a transferable married couple’s tax allowance if he hadn’t had the subject thrown at him by a caller. But in response to a question on the issue, he said:
‘The more people will look at this, the more they will think… why should you be giving, whatever it is, £3 a week to married couples?’ Naturally, people took this as indicative of just how out of touch the ruling elite is from everyone else… three pounds a week? Pah! And you know what? I think they’re right.
Julius Caesar declared that he wanted men around him who were fat. In the case of government ministers precisely the opposite is true…they need men around them who are just a bit lean (or, I suppose, obese, if Anna Soubry is right that the poor are fat). That is, ministers need to be in touch with people who are really struggling to make ends meet. The overpowering impression you get from the government right now is of people who belong to a group for whom the odd fifty quid by way of child benefit, or the odd three quid by way of married person’s allowance, doesn’t really count for much. It’s precisely this problem of distance from the struggling middle classes, let alone from those at the bottom of the pile, that led the Chancellor so blithely to tax child benefit for those on the higher rate of income tax. He’d probably been hearing too much from the very well-to-do saying they spent their benefit on gin.
In this context, I think Ed Miliband is right to call, as he did in an interview with The House magazine, for parliament to be less middle class. He is going the right way about remedying matters: he’s seeking more candidates from former Army personnel, which is just what Labour should be doing. The real under-representation in parliament isn’t of women; it’s of ordinary workers. Granted, Milliband, and indeed Messrs Cameron and Osborne, is himself indicative of the problem, coming as he does from the caste of academics who manage to be both terrifically socially aware and rather well-provided-for. But at least the son of Ralph Miliband is conscious, as the Tories seem not to be, of the dearth of normal people in the party. We’re over-endowed, across all the parties, with PR people, special advisers and lawyers; we’re underprovided with ex-soldiers and train drivers.
So let me get back to Clegg and his breezy dismissal of the married person’s tax allowance. £150 a year, which is what a transferable tax allowance would mean for a basic rate couple, isn’t a fortune, but it would help make ends meet. It would signal that the government is in favour of stable marital relationships. It would align British practice with that of other European governments – France and Germany have no compunction about privileging families and married couples. And it would help rebalance the essential unfairness of the proposed tax relief for childcare, which is that it is directed at those families where both parents go out to work, at the expense of those families where one parent stays at home. (In my case, it is my husband who stays at home, at least for now, while I work, so I don’t have much truck with the notion that a transferable allowance is sexist.)
Some recognition that marriage is a useful institution, that the stay-at-home parent does a worthwhile job, that three pounds a week is worth having, would be salutary from Clegg. It would undeniably go down well with those married couples who, unlike him and Miriam and the rest of the government, struggle to pay their way.