The right warms to property taxes

Tory MPs and others on the right are beginning to recognise the case for greater taxation of propert

I recently noted that Tim Montgomerie, the influential editor of ConservativeHome, had declared his support for greater taxation of property (including a version of Vince Cable's "mansion tax"), a cause the New Statesman has long championed. Since then, others on the right have joined him. In a piece on ConservativeHome today, Tory MP Mark Reckless, rightly noting that we tax property less than almost anywhere else in the world, calls for a range of new property taxes to replace the 50p rate. He calls for the coalition to ensure the rich pay stamp duty (many avoid it by putting properties into shell companies), to levy capital gains tax on non-UK residents and to introduce a mansion tax, although with the threshold set at £5m rather than £1m or £2m. In return, he says, the coalition should reduce the 50p rate to 45p and the 40p rate to 38p.

Elsewhere, the Spectator's James Forsyth writes about the growth of the "undeserving rich", those who have acquired huge wealth through illegitimate means. Forsyth cites the example of bankers and oligarchs but, to my mind, this category should also encompass those who have benefited immensely, through little effort of their own, from the dramatic rise in house prices over the last decade. As NS editor Jason Cowley argued in a October 2010 cover story ("The coming battle over land and property"), there is a strong meritocratic argument for heavier taxation of unearned wealth (inheritance, property and land) and lighter taxation of earned income. Property taxes are also harder to avoid than those on income (you can't move a mansion to Geneva) and reduce the distorting effect that property speculation has on the economy. For the psephologically minded, it's worth noting that high-end property taxes are popular. Last week's 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 (38 per cent of Tories).

Yet most on the right remain instinctively hostile to Vince Cable's call for greater taxation of land and property. They should realise that they are missing a trick. In an age of austerity, the Tories cannot afford to be seen as the party of the wealthy. Replacing the 50p rate with a range of new property taxes would change the terms of debate and send Labour back to the drawing board (the 50p rate may not raise as much revenue as Ed Miliband and Ed Balls hope). Simply abolishing the top rate is neither morally, nor politically, nor fiscally credible. The right should not miss an opportunity to demonstrate that it can think imaginatively about wealth, property and opportunity.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.