Budget 2012: the tax battlegrounds

It's the most exciting period of the year (for accountants): the run-up to the budget. But what's in

1. Mansion Tax

What is being proposed?

An annual tax of around 1 per cent on property values above £2m.

Who is behind it?

Business secretary Vince Cable.

Will it work?

The devil is in the details. The central idea is to move some of the tax burden from wealth to income. So far, so good. Unfortunately, using property value as a proxy for wealth is open to abuse, difficult to administer and will lead to some strange quirks in who does, and doesn't, pay.

The tax will hit almost exclusively the older rich, writes Chris Dillow -- those who already own houses worth over the £2m threshold. Not only will they have to pay the tax, but they will very quickly see a deprecation in the value of their houses as the tax is priced in to the sale price. Who benefits from this?

The younger, slightly less rich -- those who might well already own houses in the £1-2 million bracket.

The administration of the tax will require a massive investment by the government to put together a database of house values (Sale prices can't be used, for obvious reasons), or piggybacking on the information already gathered for council tax -- which would have been easier before Eric Pickles sabotaged the data. Simulating the tax (£) by adding new bands to council tax would be a possibility -- but would move the burden of payment from landlords to renters.

Will it in be in the Budget?

The tax is the most popular of the possible replacements for the 50p tax (see below), but it is very much a Liberal Democrat desire, even though Nick Clegg appears to have cooled on the idea, and it is burdened with some seemingly-intractable problems standing between it and implementation.

2. Tycoon Tax

What is being proposed?

A British equivalent of the American "alternative minimum tax", ensuring that the wealthiest Brits pay overall tax rates of at least 25 per cent.

Who is behind it?

Nick Clegg, attempting to outflank Cable's mansion tax.

Will it work?

No. The alternative minimum tax, the last attempt to pass this sort of rule in the US, is itself the subject of reform, and failed to stop Mitt Romney paying a total tax rate of 13.5 per cent. Discovering this fact was, apparently, Nick Clegg's motivation for introducing the idea in the first place.

Richard Murphy has a handy checklist of reasons to doubt the tycoon tax could work, of which the strongest is the same problem facing the US: capital gains tax. While that and the dividend rate are less than income tax, a great number of the wealthiest in society will be paying miniscule proportions of their income. Yet the aim of capital gains tax, to encourage investment, remains something we greatly desire. Until that contradiction is ironed out, the tycoon tax is going nowhere.

Will it be in the Budget?

Maybe. Although Nick Clegg appeared to have backtracked, using his keynote speech at the Lib Dem conference to promise to "call time on the tycoon tax dodgers" without actually calling for a new tax, new reports this morning suggest that the Chancellor is giving the idea serious consideration, since he prefers it to the mansion tax.

3. Raising the tax threshold

What is being proposed?

Speeding up the rate at which the tax threshold (the level below which income tax is not payable) is raised, ensuring that it hits the target of £10,000 before the current deadline of 2015.

Who is behind it?

As a Lib Dem manifesto pledge, it has support from most senior Lib Dems, who see it as a chance to finally put the party's stamp on some progressive policy. Raising the threshold to £10,000 by 2015 is in the coalition agreement -- but then again, so are a lot of things.

Will it work?

If the aim is to help the worst off in society most, then it seems unlikely that it will be able to achieve that goal. The IFS analysis shows who the biggest winners are.

A

The chart above shows the effect of the £10,000 tax threshold when the unit of analysis is the family, rather than the individual. As the IFS says, "We would expect at least some degree of income sharing within families."

In addition, the raised threshold isn't a particularly good fiscal stimulus. The IFS write that effective stimulus needs to be "timely, targeted and temporary", and raising the threshold is none of those. As a result, it seems unlikely that it would provide much of a boost to the economy.

The policy is a very expensive commitment, and if the Lib Dems can't easily win the argument as to whether or not it is progressive, they may think twice about pushing it too hard. The staggered introduction -- the threshold will already be £1500 higher in 2012/13 than it was in 2010/11 -- also means that they don't have nearly as much public support as they would have hoped, since voters haven't noticed any sizeable change in their tax bill.

Will it be in the Budget?

The ball is largely in the Liberal Democrats' court for this one. If they keep pushing, the tax threshold will keep rising, but if they decide the money would be better off spent elsewhere, then there's no-one to argue with them. If they go the other way, and try to get the whole of the £10,000 threshold introduced in one go, there will be considerable opposition from the Conservatives, who have their own pet projects to spend the money on.

4. Scrapping the 50p tax

What is being proposed?

Getting rid of the 50p tax rate, currently levied on income over £150,000.

Who is behind it?

The Tory right, but the pre-budget horse-trading has secured the support of Lib Dems provided it is replaced by another tax on the rich -- most probably the mansion tax -- rather than being scrapped outright

Will it work?

The problem the opponents of the 50p tax have is that it has its second birthday next month, and the sky has not yet fallen on their heads. The first revenue figures are dripping in, showing a "surge" of hundreds of millions of pounds, and there is no evidence of any widespread flight to low-tax nations either. In the 2011 budget, there was a chance the Chancellor could confidently state that the downside simply hadn't started yet; this year, that claim will be harder to make.

Then again, the reasons for keeping the 50p rate have never been entirely down to revenue. As Fraser Nelson, who is confident the tax will end up damaging income, wrote:

It's not just that the Tory leadership are nervous about being teased for their own backgrounds. It's that they believe there is no choice but to assuage the eat-the-rich mood in the country. The argument for 50p is political, not economic.

For this reason, it is hard to work out what the desired result from scrapping the rate is. It will definitely result in the richest Britons getting richer; it will almost certainly result in a lower tax take; and with the "eat-the-rich" mood showing no signs of abating, it's not going to be a vote winner either.

Will it be in the Budget?

This is the big one. Almost every other proposal has been priced against the 50p tax, either to fill in the gap left by its abolition, or to show how much more effective it would be. There is a widespread understanding that if Osborne can find a replacement which ticks all the boxes, he would love to be done with it. Yet there doesn't seem to be that easy replacement on the horizon.

5. Changing pension taxation

What is being proposed?

A raft of measures, from exempting the state pension from the income tax, to ending tax relief on private pension contributions from top-rate taxpayers.

Who is behind it?

The independent government body the Office for Tax Simplification, the Centre for Policy Studies, and "senior Liberal Democrats".

Will it work?

Taken as a bundle, the measures pay for themselves. In addition, they form a broadly progressive change, moving some of the burden of taxation to top-rate taxpayers from those who rely solely on the basic state pension. The biggest concern is that doing so will introduce some element of double taxation; not an intractable problem, as Richard Murphy explains, but potentially unpopular nonetheless.

Will it be in the Budget?

Some big guns are in support, and there is little heavy opposition, but a change funded entirely on the back of top-rate taxpayers may have trouble getting through the doors of number 11.

6. Corporation tax

What is being proposed?

A long term plan to take Britain's corporation tax rate down to 20 per cent (£). Britain's corporation tax rate currently stands at 25 per cent, and the Chancellor has already pledged to reduce it to 23 per cent over the course of this parliament.

Who is behind it?

The Chancellor himself.

Will it work?

It is unlikely to do a great deal to lure businesses over to the UK; any that choose their headquarters based on the tax rate still have a wealth of options to pick from, including Ireland (with a rate of 12.5 per cent), Liechtenstein (12.5 per cent) or the Isle of Man (0 per cent). It will make us competitive with Luxembourg, which has a rate of 20 per cent, and increase our lead over America (35 per cent), France (33.3 per cent) and Germany (15 per cent, "but additional social taxes mean an effective rate of more than 30 per cent" according to the Sunday Times).

Those leads have stood for quite some time, however. Before Osborne became Chancellor, corporation tax stood at 28 per cent, and yet there was no flood of companies moving headquarters across the Atlantic to take advantage of our low rates. It seems unlikely that much will change with a further cut.

Will it be in the Budget?

It has the Chancellor behind it, no opposition, and is being pre-briefed to the Sunday Times. It may as well be law already.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change