Lib Dems reject 50p top-rate of tax by just 4 votes, 224 to 220

by Stephen Tall on September 17, 2013

How many times have Lib Dems knocked on doors at 9.55pm to get out the last remaining identified voters because “your vote really could make a difference” in this election?

Today’s vote on whether to keep the top-rate of tax levied on those earning £150k or more at 45p, or to pledge to raise it to 50p was much, much, much closer: conference narrowly voted for the leadership’s preferred policy – 45p – by a wafer thin majority of just 4 votes, 224 to 220.

The closest previous conference vote I can recall was in spring 2007 when representatives voted by 454 votes to 414 to back Ming Campbell’s policy of deferring a decision on Trident. (We can look forward to revisiting that debate on Tuesday. You may also notice the halving in the number of votes in the intervening six years, just one of the manifestations of our declining membership. Though it is possible a couple of hundred activists at least may have gone missing presumed lost forever in the labyrinthine Glasgow SECC conference centre, a never-ending Escher drawing of windowless corridors.)

Every vote really did count, and I imagine there are at least some representatives who ruefully realised only afterwards that they should have been in the conference hall voting and had missed their chance.

The debate was a much less charged affair than in 2006 when the party first took the momentous decision to drop its commitment to a 50p rate. In the lead-up to conference, the leadership had half written-off this vote: the expectation was that Lib Dem members would want to reverse George Osborne’s controversial 2012 tax-cut, as indicated by our latest survey of members’ views. As a result, Nick Clegg and his team chose not to waste too much time fighting it, but instead to focus their efforts on winning Monday morning’s economy debate.

That victory chalked up, however, their lobbying operation began in earnest, bolstered by the leadership’s ‘payroll vote’ of MPs willing to back its line. Even so, when the vote was called it proved too close to tell which side had won. (Chair Sal Brinton and her aide Geoff Payne disagreed with each other over which side had prevailed on a simple show of hands: understandably so, when the manual count revealed the 4 vote margin of victory.)

It’s proved a good couple of days for the leadership. On all the votes that it was thought could be tricky for Nick Clegg – nuclear power, fracking, tuition fees, the economy, tax – they’ve won. Having predicted this morning that the leadership was heading for defeat on the economy motion, feel free to ignore my latest forecast… But I cannot believe their record will hold for the whole conference; there’s bound to be a bloody nose delivered on something, and Trident has been my top tip for a leadership defeat. It was close in 2007, it’ll probably be close again. Probably best to make sure you’re in the conference hall to vote at about 12.40 pm on Tuesday…

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.