If you ask a Liberal Democrat member who has been around in the party for at least 24 years what they think the party’s best policy has been, the chances are they will sweep you back to Paddy Ashdown’s day with ‘a penny on income tax for education’.
Back then raising the standard rate of income tax by one pence to fund more spending was a radical and distinctive policy, both in its tax-raising element and in its direct hypothecation of the money for education. It helped carve out a strong point for the party on education which lasted for a long time after the policy itself became redundant and broad tax rises for specific policy areas become the norm across parties.
But it’s back:
The Scottish Liberal Democrats have called for Scotland’s income tax rates to rise across the board by a penny…
Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, said the increase should come into force from 1 April to raise £475m each year and fund “the biggest investment in education since devolution” in 1999.
Rennie said the tax rise, which would still see bills fall slightly for the lowest earners due to increases in the basic personal allowance, was urgently needed.
“A Scottish education was once the envy of the world,” he said. “It has fallen hard and fast. But we have the plan that will put it right back up there.”
With the Scottish Parliament’s powers to use raise income tax long since unused – even by the supposedly anti-austerity SNP – this policy does have some of the freshness that the original penny came with.
It’s also true that market research often shows education as promising territory for the Liberal Democrats given the party’s heritage on the issue and the policy priorities of the voters the party might appeal to. Against that, however, is the paucity of political benefit which came from the Pupil Premium policy in 2010-15, and it has often been noted that when it comes to picking his top political priorities, Tim Farron usually leaves out education.
Which means Liberal Democrats across the UK will not only be hoping the 1 penny policy works well for colleagues in Scotland, but also be looking closely to see whether there will be a lesson here for the party in Westminster general elections too.