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

How should Labour's disgruntled moderates behave?

The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition. Sometimes exiting can be brave.

When Albert O. Hirschman was writing Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to decline in Firms, Organizations, and States he wasn’t thinking of the British Labour Party.  That doesn’t mean, though, that one of the world’s seminal applications of economics to politics can’t help us clarify the options open to the 80 to 90 per cent of Labour MPs who, after another week of utter chaos, are in total despair at what’s happening under Jeremy Corbyn.

According to Hirschman, people in their situation have essentially three choices – all of which stand some chance, although there are no guarantees, of turning things around sooner or later.

The first option is simply to get the hell out: exit, after all, can send a pretty powerful, market-style signal to those at the top that things are going wrong and that something has to change.

The second option is to speak up and shout out: if the leadership’s not listening then complaining loudly might mean they get the message.

The third option is to sit tight and shut up, believing that if the boat isn’t rocked it will somehow eventually make it safely to port.

Most Labour MPs have so far plumped for the third course of action.  They’ve battened down the hatches and are waiting for the storm to pass.  In some ways, that makes sense.  For one thing, Labour’s rules and Corbyn’s famous ‘mandate’ make him difficult to dislodge, and anyone seen to move against him risks deselection by angry activists.

For another, there will be a reckoning – a general election defeat so bad that it will be difficult even for diehards to deny there’s a problem: maybe Labour has to do ‘déjà vu all over again’ and lose like it did in 1983 in order to come to its senses. The problem, however, is that this scenario could still see it stuck in opposition for at least a decade. And that’s presuming that the left hasn’t so effectively consolidated its grip on the party that it can’t get out from under.

That’s presumably why a handful of Labour MPs have gone for option two – voice.  Michael Dugher, John Woodcock, Kevan Jones, Wes Streeting and, of course, John Mann have made it pretty clear they think the whole thing’s a mess and that something – ideally Jeremy Corbyn and those around him – has to give.  They’re joined by others – most recently Stephen Kinnock, who’s talked about the party having to take ‘remedial action’ if its performance in local elections turns out to be as woeful as some are suggesting.  And then of course there are potential leadership challengers making none-too-coded keynote speeches and public appearances (both virtual and real), as well as a whole host of back and frontbenchers prepared to criticise Corbyn and those around him, but only off the record.

So far, however, we’ve seen no-one prepared to take the exit option – or at least to go the whole hog. Admittedly, some, like Emma Reynolds, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, and Rachel Reeves, have gone halfway by pointedly refusing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.  But nobody has so far declared their intention to leave politics altogether or to quit the party, either to become an independent or to try to set up something else.

The latter is easily dismissed as a pipe-dream, especially in the light of what happened when Labour moderates tried to do it with the SDP in the eighties.  But maybe it’s time to think again.  After all, in order to refuse even to contemplate it you have to believe that the pendulum will naturally swing back to Labour at a time when, all over Europe, the centre-left looks like being left behind by the march of time and when, in the UK, there seems precious little chance of a now shrunken, predominantly public-sector union movement urging the party back to the centre ground in the same way that its more powerful predecessors did back in the fifties and the late-eighties and nineties. 

Maybe it’s also worth wondering whether those Labour MPs who left for the SDP could and should have done things differently.  Instead of simply jumping ship in relatively small numbers and then staying in parliament, something much bolder and much more dramatic is needed.  What if over one hundred current Labour MPs simultaneously declared they were setting up ‘Real Labour’?  What if they simultaneously resigned from the Commons and then simultaneously fought scores of by-elections under that banner?

To many, even to ask the question is to answer it. The obstacles – political, procedural, and financial – are formidable and forbidding.  The risks are huge and the pay-off massively uncertain.  Indeed, the whole idea can be swiftly written off as a thought-experiment explicitly designed to demonstrate that nothing like it will ever come to pass.

On the other hand, Labour MPs, whether we use Hirschman’s three-way schema or not, are fast running out of options.  The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition.  Voice can only do so much when those you’re complaining about seem – in both senses of the word – immovable.  Exit, of course, can easily be made to seem like the coward’s way out. Sometimes, however, it really is the bravest and the best thing to do.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.