It was a single intemperate sentence, but it could alter the nature of British politics. Writing in 2009, in a column in the Sun, Ken Livingstone denounced the Tories as “rich bastards” who exploited “every tax fiddle”, and claimed that “no one should be allowed to vote in a British election, let alone sit in Parliament, unless they pay their full share of tax”. Unfortunately for Mr Livingstone, it has since emerged that he has employed arcane and complicated tax arrangements that have given rise to widespread accusations of tax avoidance. The issue became a running sore for his campaign, culminating in yesterday’s release of the tax records of all the main candidates for Mayor of London (though Mr Livingstone’s remain significantly more opaque than his rivals’, with many details still to be clarified).
The immediate consequence of this affair could be to torpedo Mr Livingstone’s campaign. Yet it will also have longer-term effects. The release of tax records is commonplace in America, but had been unknown in Britain. Now, it could become a prerequisite of mayoral campaigns – and general elections. Some will argue that this is overly intrusive, and will keep able but wealthy people out of politics. Yet that has hardly been the case in the US. Instead, it has shifted the focus from what people earn to whether they pay their fair share. This is surely welcome. Indeed, in an age when there is so much suspicion of the political class, it should be a basic requirement that those whose decisions reach into every wallet in the land – who claim, as the Chancellor has, to find tax avoidance “morally repugnant” – can show that they are subject to the same rules as the voters. We urge all three party leaders to follow Mr Livingstone’s grudging lead, and embrace the transparency that they have so frequently advocated.