Don't tax Amazon. Tax Amazon's shareholders

Corporations dodge tax. So go for their owners instead.

Tax avoidance is a problem which stubbornly refuses to be fixed. Even just defining our terms is problematic, with nearly every definition wide-ranging enough to cover all avoidance also including things which nobody finds objectionable.

And even if you could define it well, there's the fact that tax avoidance is, by its nature, legal. While some avoidance is truly, obviously, taking advantage of sloppy phrasing in statutes and judicial rulings, most of it exists in the grey area where it would be impossible to "tighten up" the law without also removing those deductions or exemptions which were supposed to be there in the first place. (For an example of this in action, look no further than the pasty tax debacle.)

The worst tax avoidance is undoubtedly in the corporate sector. While there are terrible examples of avoidance amongst individuals, like the New Yorker's examination of hedge-fund manager Julian Robertson's tax affairs, they are always hampered by the fact that actually offshoring personal income – the most effective form of avoidance, and the hardest to fight with the law – is tricky. People, after all, have a physical location. Some may become the infamous "non-doms", but to do that you have to spend half the year outside the country. That isn't something which can be achieved by just hiring a canny accountant.

While moralising can convince the worst corporate offenders to pay their fair share – as Starbucks finally agreed to do – it can't work every time. Some companies don't care about their image, others manage to hide their avoidance.

And so we come back to patching up the holes in the system. But with offshoring, some holes seem nearly unpatchable. For all the stirling work of campaigners like UK Uncut and Tax Research UK, the world is still no closer to agreeing on the best way to deal with multinationals which engage in creative "tax planning".

But there's one possibility: forget about them.

The reason why involves looking at the concept of tax incidence. If you accept that the only question of tax that matters is which people pay it, then corporation tax becomes a complicated issue. As a tax alters the bottom line of a company, one of two things will happen: either it will pass the costs on, or it won't. If it doesn't, then the actual people hit by the tax are the shareholders of the company, who see its profitability decline. (This is largely the intended outcome of campaigns against tax dodging.)

But if it does past the costs on, then either its customers and employees must bear the brunt, in the form of increased costs or decreased wages, or other businesses (such as suppliers or contractors) do, and the whole equation starts again.

(It is important to point out that the argument that all costs must be levied on a person at some point is not without its critics. After all, businesses have savings, assets, property and rights; who is to say that they can't be counted as people for the purpose of taxation? And the assumption at the heart of the argument is one which must be taken as faith. It's just as easy to argue, using the same logic, that the costs of all personal taxation must be borne at some point by businesses.)

Tax incidence varies business-to-business and over time. In the early 70s, when it was starting up in Washington state, Starbucks' tax incidence was almost certainly mostly upon its shareholders. Labour was expensive, coffee was a niche product, and investors in a small start-up were probably in for the long haul. Now that Starbucks has access to vast pools of low-wage labour and customers willing to pay up to $7 for a cup, it is far more likely that they will bear the brunt of much excess tax. (Although, of course, as John Elledge rightly points out, even then, it's not certain; and if there's anything we've learned from Lisa Pollack's investigation into the matter at the FT, it's that Starbucks' publicity machine holds a lot of sway within the company)

But here's the thing: if we want to tax just the shareholders of a company, we already have a way to do it. We tax dividends, and we tax capital gains. Increasing those taxes hits the people we hope would take the brunt of corporation taxes anyway.

So here's my proposal: scrap corporation tax, and whack up those two to make up the revenue gap.

There would be two big transfers inherent in this change: the first would be from shareholders in companies which pay little tax to shareholders in companies which pay a lot of tax. Since that's just another way to say "cracking down on tax avoidance", it need not upset us too much.

The other is more uncertain. By and large, international companies have international ownership. Those based in Britain with the majority of their shareholders overseas would be better off; those based overseas with the majority of their shareholders in Britain would be worse off. If the logic of the Conservatives, who have already cut corporation tax significantly, holds, we can expect that latter group to move headquarters here to take advantage of the rates; and if it doesn't, then we can expect the shareholders to sell up and buy into British companies.

There's a reason CGT and dividend taxes are so low, of course, which is to encourage investment. But since we would expect pre-tax shareholder income to go up, investment ought to still be compelling. It would just be targeted more effectively at companies which could actually make a profit, rather than those which could only make a profit if they were avoiding tax which their competitors were not.

If we can stop the biggest corporations avoiding tax, we ought to. But if trying to tax aggregations of people which can twist across country borders with ease is permanently difficult, perhaps we ought to stop trying it, and do something better instead.

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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.