Mehdi Hasan: Time to talk about land taxes

An important contribution from the FT's Samuel Brittan.

Samuel Brittan, often described as the "doyen of British economic journalists", has an important column in today's Financial Times, provocatively entitled:

Tax England's green and pleasant land

Brittan - despite his background as a Thatcherite and monetarist - has been one of the most vocal, consistent and well-informed opponents of austerity economics in recent years. Today, he says:

Whatever one thinks of fiscal austerity, governments will need a new source of income in future if only because of demographic trends.

So what does he propose? A land tax. Indeed, as the Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable argued at his party's annual conference in September 2010:

It will be said that in a world of internationally mobile capital and people it is counterproductive to tax personal income and corporate profit to uncompetitive levels. That is right. But a progressive alternative is to shift the tax base to property, and land, which cannot run away, [and] represents in Britain an extreme concentration of wealth.

I'm not sure it's an either/or question, of income taxes versus land taxes, but Cable is correct to point out that the latter are harder to dodge, avoid and evade. And while a land tax is progressive and fair, and a potential means of redistributing wealth, it's also a mainstream and sensible proposal.

"[F]ar from being an outrageous Bolshevik idea," explains Brittan in today's FT

the case for a land tax is one of the oldest and least disputed propositions in economic thought. The underlying theory was developed at the beginning of the 19th century by the highly respectable David Ricardo. Many chancellors have said that they would jump at a tax that had no disincentive effects on work or enterprise but had a strong redistributive element. The problem was that the amount of preliminary work required would take more than one parliament and any credit for the measure would redound to their successors.

He continues:

A land tax is one of those subjects - basic income is another - which divides commentators into a great majority who never mention it, and a minority who talk of nothing else. The result is to give supporters a cranky appearance, while the eyes of chancellors of either main party glaze over if you as much as mention the subject.

The basic point is that the supply of land, with rare exceptions such as reclamation in the Netherlands, is fixed. But because of its scarcity owners can command an income over and above the normal return to the enterprises placed upon it. Gross UK trading profits of non-financial and non-oil corporations are running at over £200bn per year or about 20 per cent of gross domestic output. Some part of this - we do not know how much - is not true profit but the return on land. There is one way in which the supply of usable land can increase. That is when land, previously off limits, is newly released by local authorities for development. The consequent increase in value, say some land tax campaigners, is created by "the community", which is entitled to a share of the increment. But to argue in this way is to sell the case short. The case for a land tax is valid even for land which always was available for development or which remains in agricultural use.

My editor Jason Cowley made the case for a land tax in a New Statesman cover story in October 2010:

An annual land value tax would not only provide a new and fairer source of income, Wetzel said, but would encourage owners of empty buildings and empty land to put their properties to good use. Towns and cities would become more efficient and the need for urban sprawl would be reduced.

Meanwhile my NS colleague Rafael Behr addresses the issue of land taxation, and the wider rows and divisions over taxation and the forthcoming Budget, in his politics column this week. Clegg, he writes

clings to the idea of a "mansion tax" on houses worth more than £2m.

That policy is toxic for Tories, whose safe seats are dotted with fancy real estate. The prospect of sizing up the nation's housing stock for a new tax threatens also to make ordinary households look wealthier than they feel. Labour, by contrast, is open to the idea. The mansion tax is being actively debated in Ed Miliband's office, partly because the leader's freshly advertised enthusiasm for fiscal discipline needs reinforcing with revenue-raising measures and partly because, with parliament on course to stay hung at the next election, there are strategic reasons to flirt with Lib Dem policy.

Privately, senior figures around Miliband admit to being impressed at how effectively Nick Clegg has set the terms of pre-Budget debate and put the Tories on the defensive. Although Labour harbours no affection for the Lib Dems, there is recognition of a shared interest in branding the Conservatives as defenders of inherited privilege and hoarded wealth.

A senior Labour figure told me recently that the the party leadership plans to focus on "taxes at the top" in the coming days and weeks. Good. It's a case I made in the Guardian just a fortnight ago - and I do hope that land taxes, mansion taxes and the rest feature as part of the impending discussion. Perhaps the shadow health secretary can chip in again. And David Miliband too. Oh, and from the right, ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie.

I leave you with Brittan's concluding line from his excellent FT column:

If politicians really want to think about the unthinkable, as they sometimes claim, here is a place to start.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty
Show Hide image

Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.