“If someone earns over a certain amount, their tax should be increased. Not the average Joe who is just trying to live.”
These are the words of a woman who voted Conservative at the 2019 general election, participating in a focus group in her hometown of Wrexham in north Wales – a constituency that turned Tory for the first time ever last year.
She’s not alone. Conservative support for tax rises is increasing, according to an eight-month public attitudes study called “Talking Tax: How to Win Support for Taxing Wealth”. The work, which aims to be a “foundational document for understanding UK public attitudes on tax, wealth and public services”, started in December and has been carried out by the campaign group Tax Justice UK, the polling company Survation and academics from the University of Sheffield.
The study took place in former Labour heartlands won by the Tories in 2019, such as Blyth Valley in Northumberland and Wrexham in north Wales, Tory/Labour marginal areas such as Bury in Greater Manchester and Reading in Berkshire; places with growing Conservative majorities over Labour, such as Hastings in East Sussex and Long Eaton in Derbyshire’s Erewash; and Lib Dem-threatened Tory heartlands including Esher in north Surrey and London.
Research in the form of 14 focus groups and two polls carried out between December 2019 and June 2020 found 64 per cent of Conservative voters (those who voted Tory at last year’s general election) favour higher taxes on wealth and companies.
Conservative support for higher corporation tax (the tax companies pay on profits they make in the UK) increased from 61 per cent in March to 74 per cent in June – a higher proportion than the average, which was 66 per cent.
Conservatives are also even more likely than the average respondent to support a rise in capital gains tax (a tax on those who earn from investments like stocks and shares, for example) with 67 per cent of Conservatives in June supporting the idea of taxing income from wealth at the same rate as income tax, compared with the 61 per cent average.
The proportion of Conservative voters personally prepared to pay more tax to fund public services increased from 41 per cent to 46 per cent between March and June.
Conservative respondents were also more likely to support a tax on someone’s wealth over £750,000 (excluding personal pension savings and their main home) at 61 per cent, compared with the average of 59 per cent – and 72 per cent favoured reforming council tax to tie closer to a home’s current value, compared with the 69 per cent average.
The study also found that 75 per cent of Conservative respondents supported a “mansion tax” on homes worth more than £2m – the same proportion of Labour respondents and higher than the 71 per cent average.
The results can be read in more detail in this report. Although this is just one study into public attitudes towards taxation – published, of course, by an advocacy body seeking to reform the system – it is the most recent and thorough currently available, and indicates a change from previous polling.
For example, a poll carried out by YouGov for Tax Justice UK and Oxfam last September found that 41 per cent of Conservatives supported equalising taxes on income from wealth with income tax (ie, capital gains tax rises), which rose in the latest report to 67 per cent. Last year’s poll also found 42 per cent Conservative support for a high net wealth tax, which increased to 61 per cent in the new study.
In part, these potential new attitudes chime with Boris Johnson’s plans as Prime Minister. The Conservative 2019 general election manifesto included a promise to “redesign the tax system” so that it “limits arbitrary tax advantages for the wealthiest in society”.
The debate about tax reform has been exacerbated by the costs and socioeconomic damage of coronavirus. Johnson has promised the UK will not return to austerity, but the Tory manifesto ruled out national insurance, VAT or income tax rises.
Questions and suspicions are now mounting over how the government plans to pay for both its “levelling up” agenda of infrastructure projects and regional funding, and the damage caused by lockdown. Wealth and business taxes are rumoured to form part of the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s autumn budget later this year.
Nevertheless, this presents a challenge for Johnson. Even if 2019 Conservative voters’ attitudes towards taxation are changing, there are still Tory MPs and the traditional voter base to convince. The PM reportedly shelved plans for a “mansion tax” before March’s budget earlier this year following “a major backlash among Conservative MPs and grassroots”, according to the Telegraph.
Yet a challenge remains for progressive parties, the left and tax-justice campaigners. While “Talking Tax” demonstrates general public support for wealth taxes to help rebuild public services, and widespread frustration at tax avoidance and austerity, the majority see accumulating wealth as a “morally right thing to do” for one’s security and family.
“As campaigners there is a danger that we end up speaking a different language to where the public is now if we imply that having wealth is inherently bad,” the report warns.
Indeed, one of its “ten takeaways for campaigners” cautions against rhetoric that denigrates the wealthy: “Don’t talk about wealth like it’s inherently bad. It’s not inherently bad to those who are struggling because they don’t have any. People quite admire the wealthy and often find generic rich-bashing divisive. Focus on how the tax system can support collective security so that no one needs to worry about building big individual safety nets.”
This builds on a growing area of research in the UK into public attitudes towards wealth and poverty, potentially providing both the left and right with alternative ways to frame narratives about inequality.