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Why Balls is right to explore a wealth tax

Wealth taxes are fairer than those on income and they stimulate growth.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said "the likes of a mansion tax need to be on the table".

So far, beyond a pledge to restore the 50p tax rate, we've heard surprisingly little from Labour on the future of the tax system. But that changes with Ed Balls's interview in today's Independent. Whilst dismissing the wealth tax proposed by Nick Clegg as "not in the real world", he reveals that Labour is considering adopting a version of Vince Cable's mansion tax. "The likes of a mansion tax need to be on the table to be looked at," Balls tells the paper. He adds that he wants to begin "discussions" with the Business Secretary as soon as possible.

The person thinking seriously about this was not Nick Clegg but Vince Cable. I feel for Vince and the extent of his frustration [with the Coalition]…but if he wants to channel those frustrations into discussions about how we can achieve growth and jobs in the future I'll start discussions with him tomorrow.

Ball's announcement is an encouraging one. Here at the NS, we've long argued that the burden of taxation should be shifted from income towards wealth and assets (see NS editor Jason Cowley's 2010 cover story on the subject). Wealth taxes are harder to avoid than those on income (even the most determined tax avoider cannot move his or her mansion to Geneva), are progressive (wealth is even more unequally distributed than income), and benefit the economy by shifting investment away from unproductive assets and towards wealth-creating industries. For the psephologically minded, it's also worth noting that high-end property taxes are popular. A Sunday Times/YouGov poll found that 63 per cent of the public (including 56 per cent of Tories) support a mansion tax, with just 27 per cent opposed.

But, like Ed Miliband in his interview in this week's New Statesman, Balls is also clear that Labour cannot rely solely on the tax system to reduce inequality. The shadow chancellor joins Miliband in referencing the zeitgeisty theme of "predistribution" - the belief that state, rather than merely ameliorating inequalities through the tax and benefits system, should act to ensure they do not arise in the first place.

As I wrote in my blog on the subject last night, Balls and Miliband advance two main arguments for this shift of emphasis. Firstly, that the failure of the last Labour government to reduce inequality means that while redistribution is necessary (and will remain so) it is not sufficient, and secondly, that the fiscal constraints a Labour administration would face (based on current forecasts, it would inherit a deficit of £96.1bn or 5.8% of GDP) mean that it will be not able to increase tax credits (the last Labour government's primary redistributive instrument) in the manner that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did.

As I note: "The great strength of predistribution is that it does not cost the state a penny to pursue. Rather than relying on taxation to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, Labour will harness the instruments of legislation and regulation. Rail companies, for instance, would be barred from raising fares by more than 1% above inflation."

Expect to hear lots more on the subject when Balls and Miliband address today's Policy Network conference at the London Stock Exchange.