Progress and Poverty

The above title is also the name of Henry George’s greatest work (which I strongly recommend everyone on the planet to read). I mention this because, while the Lib Dems broadly voted the right way during their poverty debate yesterday afternoon (certainly in rejecting the option to support differential age rates for minimum wage), I couldn’t help but feel there was an enormous Georgist hole in the paper.

Why? Because despite what we managed to do today, you can’t divorce taxation from issues relating to poverty. One point I didn’t make this morning was that one of the other poor decisions the party made on its tax proposals yesterday was the decision to effectively kick our “long term goal” of removing people on incomes of less than £10,000 from income tax into even longer grass. This has been sacrificed in favour of a crowd pleasing commitment to cut income tax by 4p in the pound (entirely neutralised by an income tax hike due to the introduction of LIT). Just as Labour does, we will continue to force people on minimum wage to pay income tax – not only is this unfair to the individual, but it adds inflationary pressure onto the minimum wage (since one of the considerations is not unreasonably whether you can afford to live on it) and thus discourages employers to recruit in this country.

I supported the amendment to introduce flexible working for all employees (not that I had a vote…) but again, this adds to the costs of labour. If such policies are to be successful we must somehow relieve the pressure on employers in other ways, and that brings us back once again to personal allowance.

On the other hand, so much of this paper was concerned – rightly – with housing. Yet the focus seemed to be on targets and empowering local authorities to tackle the issue themselves (there is, come to think of it, a slight oxymoron there). I remain sceptical of the rose-tinted view that all of this can be achieved by fiddling with planning law and introducing Community Land Auctions: we need a more fundamental shift in approach.

Of course, LVT would have both enabled us to take the bottom bracket out of taxation, create greater incentives to build housing and dampen speculative investment in property. It’s no accident that George’s book, which develops the argument for authorities to collect economic rent, has as a starting point the need to attack poverty. It just seems that we are attempting to tackle this area with one arm tied behind our collective back. Worse, by scrapping residential property taxation in the form of Council Tax, in many ways we make it worse.

The Federal Policy Committee really need to throw us a bone here. At the very least, so as to demonstrate that our commitment to LVT is more than just “jam tomorrow” they should commission a review about how we might facilitate its introduction. Tony Vickers’ book Location Matters vividly spells out what a government would need to do to introduce the tax and it would certainly take a while. But if we aren’t prepared to even think about it until the start of a second term, then what we’re really promising is to not introduce the tax until the start of a third term. It’s no wonder that Georgists feel as if they are being paid lip service and nothing else.

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