Six oddities from the TPA's tax plan

All in all, a slightly strange report.

It turns out the plan of reading the TPA's tax report in full and only then writing on it, while possibly commendable in pursuit of accuracy, is probably not the best thing to do from a journalistic point of view. Many of the best pieces have already been written, particularly Nick Pearce, Tony Dolphin and Daniel Elton's. Nonetheless, there are sufficient oddities that are worth noting for a quick round-up post. In no particular order:

1. Inheritance tax isn't mentioned in the inheritance tax chapter

This one really is just a bit odd. Chapter six is titled Transaction, wealth and inheritance taxes should be abolished. But inheritance taxes are mentioned just once, in the context of an argument against a proposed measure of paying wealth taxes. Their abolition is never proposed, and no arguments are given as to why they are wrong.

But in chapter five, Taxes on capital and labour income disguised as business taxes should be abolished and replaced with a tax on distributed income (snappy titles throughout), there's a five page discussion as to why inheritance tax is so unpopular. I'm not sure what happened with the editing, but it's all very confusing.

2. The Biblical and Quranic arguments for low taxes

Apparently:

It might be argued that God endowed humans with certain inalienable rights, including personal freedom, and that taxation breaches those rights. [Page 98]

Also:

There is no morality in taking someone’s wealth and giving it to another. Such redistribution of wealth is about controlling society, not about helping others. [Page 103]

3. Pigovian taxes

Pigovian/Pigou/externality taxes are something we've covered before. The short version is that some activities affect people beyond those voluntarily partaking in them (creating an "externality"), and that economic efficiency is restored if a government imposes the cost of the externality on the person gaining the benefit from the activity.

The classic example is climate change. Burning a barrel of oil may bring me benefit, but it also causes damage to the planet. The Stern report put the damage at roughly $80 a barrel, and so anyone burning that much oil for less than $80 benefit is, netted out, destroying value. A carbon tax at that level would thus ensure that only oil which was economically beneficial was burned.

The commissioners don't like taxes, though, even economically watertight ones. In the chapter externalities rarely justify taxes as high as they are already, let alone higher, they argue that fuel duty should be cut, and tobacco and air passenger duty should be abolished. All good; although climate change is one of the biggest dangers facing the British economy in the long term, it makes sense to institute a carbon tax with a broad base, rather than focusing the costs on selected industries.

Except they don't argue for that. In fact, they don't argue for any form of carbon tax. Instead, two red herrings are put out. Firstly, that no tax on externalities can raise revenue and change behaviour at the same time (which is true, and something some supporters of the Robin Hood tax would do well to accept), and secondly that many taxes on externalities hit the poor hardest (which is true, but that's why carbon taxes are normally combined with a healthy redistributive element).

If you are ripping up the tax code and starting again, the very first thing that should be introduced is an effective, accurately priced, and properly enforced carbon tax. Doing so would render every other measure to fight climate change superfluous. The failure to take advantage of that ability implies that either the commission rejects any new tax out of hand, or embodies the worst of denialism.

4. If we assume that low taxes drive economic growth then we can see that lowering taxes will drive economic growth.

The commission uses the Centre for Economic and Business Research's dynamic model of the UK economy. We've addressed dynamic modelling before, particularly the often one-sided approach of assuming tax cuts will lead to more work and higher compliance while not making similar assumptions about spending, but the commissioners take the biscuit. They alter the model "based on [uncited] research into the impact of tax on the economy" such that it exaggerates the effect cutting tax will have on business investment, labour supply and net exports. Needless to say, if you build a model around the assumption that cutting tax drives business investment, it is not a massive achievement to then prove that cutting tax drives business investment. Tony Dolphin goes into more detail on this concern for Prospect.

This circular argument recurs many times throughout the report. Take page 76, for instance:

Peter and Mary are at school in very similar countries. At the moment, Peter’s country provides money to buy whatever teachers in state education request. The schools are well-equipped with the latest technology and buildings are refurbished frequently. In Mary’s country, there is stricter control over spending, the technology in schools is adequate, and buildings are only refurbished when they get shabby. The tax burden is therefore lower in Mary’s country, and the rate of economic growth is slightly higher.

Others may argue that the rate of growth will be higher in a country with a well-funded education system. But that doesn't get a look-in, even though, as Nick Pearce shows, the argument that low taxes lead to high growth is dubious.

5. Sexy, sexy low taxes

Political Scrapbook caught this with alarming speed, but Matt Ridley's section on the evolutionary psychology of low taxes is just bizarre:

Even in an age of working women, sexual continence and gender equality, the man with the most money still gets more sexual opportunities than the man with the least money. Ask them.

So no wonder we dislike inequality. No wonder we want tax to take that money off a Vanderbilt before he grabs all the best women. . .

[Support for taxation is] at least partly plain old sexual jealousy at the root.

Interestingly, there is no mention of the fact that, as well as being a Doctor of Zoology, Matt Ridley is also the Fifth Viscount Ridley, former chairman of Northern Rock. It doesn't take a foray into dodgy evolutionary psychology to work out why he might be in favor of lower taxes.

6. The lack of blue-sky thinking

The oddest thing about the report is how staid it is. Despite all the quirks throughout, its final conclusion – lower most taxes, scrap some – manages to be almost exactly what everyone expected when the commission was announced. Where is the genuinely innovative thinking? They missed the chance to call for a carbon tax, which would necessitate far less spending combating global warming; they missed the chance to call for legalisation and taxation of drugs; they could have taken on some of the right's darlings of spending, such as defence (5.7 per cent of expenditure) or crime and punishment (4.7 per cent) in order to justify their revenue cuts; and they decided against recommending taxation of wealth or land, focusing mainly on the fairness aspects.

It's this final point that really implies that this was a report written with a conclusion already in mind from the start. Which is depressing, because a real discussion of what a tax system drawn from scratch would be like is sorely overdue.

Jesus throws out the moneylenders. 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.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.