The Observer has been given a sneaky-peak of the Lib Dem’s Taxation Commission’s current thinking and it sounds good. 2p off the basic rate of income tax, paid for by increases in environmental taxation and “tougher tax rules for the wealthy”.
By the latter, I’m taking it to mean, at least in part, to some kind of “progressive property tax,” although Vince Cable’s quotation about share income being taxed at a lower rater than general income suggests reform of capital gains. Nonetheless, I welcome it: the Lib Dems absolutely should be the party of low income tax. These reforms suggest a “direction of travel” that I’m very comfortable with.
But there is a cloud on the horizon however. Read carefully, and it is clear that we are just talking about national income tax here. Existing Lib Dem policy is to replace Council Tax with a local income tax of, on average, 3.5p in the pound. If this policy isn’t significantly changed by the Tax Commission, we would have to go into the general election with the highly confusing policy of saying that, nationally, we want to cut income tax while locally we want to pile it on. In net terms, every taxpayer would end up paying 1.5p more in income tax.
Kiss goodbye to any electoral benefit we might expect from the tax shift, in other words: our message to the electorate would be horribly confused. We wait and see what the Tax Commission come up with, but there seem to be two solutions. The first one is to replace Council Tax with something else, maybe a genuine tax on property that is continually revalued (every 1-2 years for instance, like everywhere else: Council Tax is mostly based on 1991 values and thus has little to do with actual values) and taxes high value property at the same rate as low value property. The Band system of council tax leads to effectively a subsidy on the rich that the middle classes have to pay. Better yet, base it solely on site values and leave the capital entirely out of the equation. The second solution would simply be for our policy to not have a policy: local authorities should be free to raise their taxation however they pleased. Of course, that would be pretty meaningless as a policy if 75% of local government expenditure continued to come from national government: a shift to 50% or even 25% would, at a stroke, give local authorities far more clout, and enable us to drop the basic rate of income tax even more.
The problem is, a lot of senior Lib Dem spokespeople have gone on record to say that our local income tax policy is here to say. It seems to me though that we’ve reached a crunch point: either we think income tax is a good tax that we want to shift the burden onto, or a bad tax that we want to shift the burden away from. There is no middle way or third position. That is the decision the Lib Dems, collectively, have to make over the next 3 months. Fudge this, and all our critics will be vindicated.