Prime Minister’s Questions never shows British democracy at its best. It’s supposed to be a weekly opportunity to hold the PM to account, but it rarely lives up to that hype. Instead, it’s usually an undignified affair, with Cameron and Miliband shouting playground insults at each other while the rest of the MPs whoop and cheer like the studio audience of Married… with Children.
Something happened on Wednesday, however, that deserves closer scrutiny. Responding to a question from Ed Miliband, the Prime Minister said:
The deputy leader of the Labour party said on the radio, and I want to quote her very precisely:
“I think people on middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes.”
And then, a bit later:
On the subject of taxes and middle income people, when will we get an answer from Labour about what the deputy Leader of the party meant when she said—let me repeat it again for the record:
“I think people on middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes”
As we go into the summer, there is one party in this House with a big tax problem, and I am looking at it.
Harriet Harman did say this, on an LBC phone-in show on Monday. However, the Guardian has the full transcript of what she said (scroll to 12.42pm). She was responding to a caller who felt that “the middle class contribute the most and take out the least.”
Well I think that is a very interesting point actually Henry because sometimes people feel that they pay in a lot over a long period of time working hard but when they suddenly need unemployment benefit if they lose their job that actually it is nowhere near enough to actually make them feel that it was worth it for them to contribute. And one of the things that we are talking about is making a higher rate the longer you’ve worked to recognise the contributions you’ve paid in if you lose your job.
But I would say Henry one of the things that I would argue that might, should probably make a really big difference to you is having a really good health service. Because you don’t want to have to pay for health insurance.You don’t want to have to pay to go private to get really good healthcare system. And I think that is not just for working class people it’s for middle class people as well. And the same with education, you know, really good school system that helps people from lower income families and middle income families as well so I think that actually the idea that there are some things that help people on low incomes and other that help people on middle incomes. Yes I think people on middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes. But actually they need those public services like the transport system.
Harman has accused Cameron of “twisting her words”.
I do think it’s a bit of a reach to claim, as Cameron did, that what she said amounts to a call for higher taxes on middle class families. Most people listening would have known what she meant. Cameron (or rather, whoever writes his PMQs notes) certainly would have known. It’s very cheeky for him to choose one sentence out of a longer response and say that he’s quoting her “very precisely”.
In fact, it appears that Harman was simply expressing the not particularly controversial view that people in different income groups should pay different rates of tax. This is the system we have now, and it is supported by all three main parties.
The Guardian goes on to say:
But, of course, the actual wording is ambiguous, which is why Cameron was able to exploit it.
You could argue that Harman should have chosen her words more carefully, but isn’t that the real problem here? Politicians are constantly criticised for sticking rigidly to the script, not uttering anything in public that hasn’t been vetted and pre-approved by a thousand focus groups. But, if a politician goes the other way and speaks spontaneously, as Harman did on that phone-in, it is immediately pounced on by opponents, taken out of context and used for point-scoring.
I want real human beings, not PR robots, in government. So let’s have some proper debate on this issues, rather than some desperate attacks based on one out-of-context sentence.