Government's cowardice over council tax has left it in a mess

When council tax bands have little to do with today's value, how can it replace a mansion tax?

Simon Jenkins writes in today's Guardian that it's strange that Vince Cable carries on talking about a mansion tax when we already have one, called the mansion tax:

England's property-based council tax stops at the present H-band. This means that the same tax is paid on all houses valued at more than £320,000 at 1991 prices (roughly £950,000 today). In parts of London, this means half the houses pay the same. Nick Clegg is right to protest that "it cannot be right that an oligarch in a £4 million palace in central London pays the same council tax as someone in a four-bedroom family home". It is ludicrous.

So what is the problem? The answer is no politician dares change it. All are cowards. They bid the rest of us to show spine, come to the mark, tighten our belts and take cuts without complaint. Yet faced with an equitable fiscal reform that could net billions in revenue, they cringe and whimper and protest it is all too hard. Like tackling drug illegality or the criminal justice system, politicians who think that something is politically toxic end up making it so.

Jenkins suggests that if the Liberal Democrats weren't cowards, they would introduce new tax bands, above band H, and charge increasing levels of council tax on them, "perhaps triggered at half-million pound steps".

But the real way we can tell that governments – not just the Lib Dems – are cowards is that, even aside from using council tax to introduce a mansion tax by proxy, they haven't even done the most basic housekeeping.

As Jenkins suggests, council tax bands are levied on the value of houses in 1991. If a rising tide floats all boats, then that's not too problematic – the most expensive houses in 1991 would still be in band H now, and the right people would be taxed the most. But it doesn't float all boats. Some houses have risen in value faster than the average, while some have risen in value less fast.

Despite this, there has never been a reassessment of council tax bands, and so many people are paying tax based on assets they do not actually have. Introducing higher tax bands without reassessing the existing houses would merely compound that error.

Doing so has nothing to do with raising revenue, and everything to do with basic fairness. If governments can't even bring themselves to do that, don't expect them to go much further with actually using council tax for good.

Houses for sale. But what's the council tax on them? Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.