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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

0800 7318496