Will this be the coalition’s poll tax moment?

The 10 per cent cut to Council Tax Benefit will force many to pay the tax for the first time. It could prove the most disastrous of the coalition's welfare reforms.

It is hard to predict which of the coalition’s welfare reforms will prove most politically toxic. The withdrawal of child benefit from those earning over £50,000 could outrage the Tories’ natural supporters, as those families that have not opted out of claiming the benefit discover, to their surprise, that they must now pay a “High Income Child Benefit charge”. Others in the government are more troubled by the introduction later this year of Universal Credit, a new single payment for welfare recipients, reliant on a fearsomely complex computer system that increasingly few in Whitehall believe will work.

But the most hazardous change could be the one that has received the least attention: the government’s reform of the council-tax system. Polls routinely show that the levy is Britain’s most unpopular tax but the coalition is about to ensure that millions of people pay it for the first time. At present, those households deemed too poor to meet the monthly charge receive Council Tax Benefit to cover all or part of their bill. With 5.9 million recipients, it is claimed by more families than any other means-tested benefit or tax credit. Now, in its quest to roll back the welfare state, the coalition has cut the fund for Council Tax Benefit by 10 per cent. At the same time, it has localised the system, transferring responsibility for the new regime from central government to local councils.

From this April, councils must either maintain current levels of support and impose greater cuts elsewhere, remove other exemptions (such as those for second homes and empty properties), or ask those who receive a full or partial rebate at present to make a minimum payment. Early signs suggest that most will opt for the latter. An analysis by the Resolution Foundation and the New Policy Institute found that, of the 86 councils that have published their plans, 57 intend to introduce a minimum payment of between 6 and 30 per cent of a full council-tax bill.

As the government has stipulated that current levels of support must be maintained for pensioners (who, partly owing to their greater propensity to vote, have once again been shielded from austerity), the burden will fall entirely on the working-age poor. On 8 January, Birmingham City Council announced it would impose a 20 per cent charge on the unemployed. That will mean a minimum payment of £200 a year for households affected.

Striking parallel

In the past year, everything from the government’s NHS reforms to its handling of the West Coast Main Line auction has been compared to the poll tax but in this instance the comparison is completely warranted. The parallels with the greatest policy misjudgement by any modern Conservative government are so striking that one is inclined to conclude that the coalition has a death wish. The Community Charge, as it was officially known, similarly required each household, irrespective of its income, to pay at least 20 per cent of the tax. Now, as then, this regressive levy is likely to be met with mass non-payment.

Patrick Jenkin, the architect of the poll tax, has even accused the government of repeating the Thatcher government’s mistake. The Conservative peer told the BBC last year: “The poll tax was introduced with the proposition that everyone should pay something . . .We got it wrong. The same factor will apply here, that there will be large numbers of fairly poor households who have hitherto been protected from Council Tax, who are going to be asked to pay small sums.”

When the poll tax was introduced in 1989, the poor were at least assured that their benefits would rise with prices. But under George Osborne’s plan to uprate working-age benefits by 1 per cent for each of the next three years, rather than in line with inflation, their incomes will be squeezed to an unprecedented degree. The government’s impact assessment showed that the poorest tenth will lose the most in real terms (2 per cent of net income a week), while the next poorest tenth will lose the most in cash terms (£5 a week).

Those faced with the unpalatable choice of either heating their home or feeding their family are unlikely to accept stoically the first council tax bill that lands on their doormat in April. Figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that the average working family will lose £165 per year, while the average non-working family will lose £215.

Confronted by these losses, which household will willingly pay hundreds of pounds in additional tax? Yet, for the sake of saving just £500m a year, the coalition intends to force councils to chase the poorest through the courts to recoup a charge they cannot afford to pay.

Ever since the coalition’s austerity programme began, commentators have asked when its “10p tax moment” will come. In this “son of poll tax”, we may have found the answer.

This piece appears in this week's issue of the New Statesman. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

A protest in Trafalgar Square in 1990 against the poll tax.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.