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 one per cent on properties worth over £2m, applicable to value of property over that figure.

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 income to wealth. 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. The Chancellor is said to be dead against the idea.

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 20 per cent - the same as the basic income tax rate.

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:

IFS income ratio

 

This chart 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.

 
Nick Clegg at the Lib Dem conference. Credit: Getty

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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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.