16 going on 2015

Way back in the mists of time – November 2009, to be almost precise – I recorded in a blog I now want to proof-read within an inch of its life how Gordon Brown spoke of his support for giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote.  That was prior to the 2010 election, and now here we are closer to the local elections of 2013 than we are to that polling day as far away from the change being made than ever.

Today the SNP has won an important concession from the Government; young people aged sixteen and seventeen will now be allowed to vote in the forthcoming Scottish Independence referendum. This is another widening of the democratic deficit between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Whilst Scottish councils are elected by a representative voting system, in England and Wales voters are lumbered with the old-fashioned, out of date, unfair and unjust First Past the Post. There are still, in 2012, parts of the country where councils publish election results prior to polling day because of ‘uncontested wards’. This scandal doesn’t exist in Scotland; it only exists in England because of First Past the Post.

I’ve supported Votes At 16 from the first moment I realised that our current democratic systems dissuade young people from taking an active role in politics. Whilst party machines may hold no interest to teenagers – they hardly attract older people, let’s be honest – arguing and demonstrating for or against  specific policies has not been this prevalent amongst the young for generations. With more teenagers likely to be taking part-time jobs, or elbow deep in worry about higher education, or earning a bit of cash here and there through App designs and other computer programming endeavours, it’s no longer logical to deny them the vote. It’s hardly worth unravelling the old ‘no taxation without representation’ line, however true it is, because the logic is undefeatable. All those years ago I pointed out that 16 year olds in the 21st century are the 21 year olds of the 1960s, eager to participate in the democratic process whilst denied by the establishment. If the denial seems ‘typical’ from the Tories today, it was merely unfathomable under Labour. Why deny over a million votes out of some outdated view of who ‘gets’ politics in the round? I’ve been a party activist, I can tell you there’s a fair amount of older people who don’t ‘get’ politics either.

Let’s return to another of my obsessions – local government. There needs to be a big reset button pressed at some point in the not so distant future. We need local government elected by proportional representation, what I called ‘a coalition compromise’ , and we need the abolition of Council Tax. Added to that is the need to bring more young people into the political processes, not just as candidates or leaflet droppers or hand-shakers but as voters too. As another ‘compromise’ to act as a stepping stone between no reform and real reform, let’s lower the age at which a person can vote at local elections to 16, just as Scotland will allow younger people to vote in the referendum, to show how minded we are towards longer lasting, real reform.

It’s not because I’m a zealot that I support lowering the voting age, or because I’m a geek or idealistic or a soppy liberal. It’s because the alternative looks, sounds and feels like an establishment stitch-up, and nobody should go along with them whatever your character.

can’t, won’t but probably will, pay

Some months ago, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an episode of The Reunion which brought together people associated with the Community Charge, aka Poll Tax, aka Thatcher’s Final Legacy Project. Guests included Geoffrey (now Lord) Howe, who proclaimed his continuing belief that by the end of the affair the system was fairer and more popular than at its launch, a former council worker who recalled receiving payment cheques scrawled on the back of used underwear, and an anti-Poll Tax campaigner who confirmed she was still paying back monthly sums to a Council which didn’t exist at the time over twenty years since the scheme ended.

Of all the problems with the Poll Tax, the most galling was its ‘one price suits all’ core, which meant a struggling family bringing home all they could to fill a cupboard paid the exact same sum as the husband and wife barrister superteam two streets away with more money than they could stuff in every cupboard in their house and its comfortable extension. By having little regard to ‘ability to pay’, the Poll Tax soon struck an iron-tipped arrow through the heart of families, their communities, and to an extent entire towns. And as ever with the dying days of Thatcher’s time of office, those towns were invariably Northern English.

Council Tax replaced the Community Charge in 1993, with each repayment band based on the 1991 valuation of properties (very Conservative). These bands have not been touched in England since, so where you live today continues to be based on the early-90s housing prices. As many people moving into new build housing estates have discovered, a very well priced house in rabbit warren suburbia can be ‘bracketed’ with not so nice properties over the road, producing an unintended saving of hundreds of pounds every month. Similarly local authorities that require of developers affordable housing can inadvertently include these properties in higher than intended bands. Unfair and uneven problems at both extremes.

For the record, Band D in England is for properties valued at up to £88,000 in 1991. What chance this price today? In Scotland, Band D is for properties up to £58,000. Meanwhile in Wales, where a revaluation eventually happened (of sorts), there is something nearing a “mansion tax” in the newly introduced Band I for properties over £424,001 [that quid is important, and clearly mansions are much cheaper in Wales].

At the rotten core of Council Tax – as with the Poll Tax – is the ‘ability to pay’ argument. Wealth does not equal income. A very well to do leafy home does not mean its occupier has a well to do salary to match. The inequality at the heart of the Poll Tax has festered for 20-odd years, families unable to keep up with payments as their salaries stall and local authorities feel pressure to continually plug their financial gaps with further and further, higher and higher council tax bills. As the push-me/pull-me battle goes on between central Government and local councils over what exactly one can do for the other, and at what cost, the ‘consumer’ pouring over bills at the action end is left with an increasingly unfair, unjust, uneven funding scheme. Banding by each local authority can be at the whim of whoever is in charge – almost always  the Conservatives, or Labour, or the Liberal Democrats, or a combination thereof. Invariably whoever is in charge at the time may find it necessary to raise council taxes as the most ‘palatable’ electorally. There is almost no link between the ‘central pot’ of local government funding and the local associations spending them. In 2003, Devon County Council increased its element  of the overall bill by 18%.

So why does Council Tax still exist? It is an unfair, unjust tax, punishing people on the whims of the housing valuations, the bands, and the political parties in Town Halls. The current push from Eric Pickles to persuade local councils to freeze Council Tax has left some local authorities unable to move in fear of being labelled as the council which dared to increase the costs to families and older people in times of economic hardship.

The most popular alternatives are some form of local income tax or local land tax. Both would be a jolt to the current ‘affordability’ argument initially representing a change in attitude towards a more locally relevant scheme. Local authorities could be given greater autonomy to react to changes in average wages or work with regional partners to provide a local(ist/ism) VAT claim-back scheme. Local authority funding has always been a complex multifaceted machine, money pouring into and out of local government at a pace of knots, leaving some councils with barely enough time to notice how little overall spend they have for the year ahead. There’s no good in central or local government being lumbered with a scheme which actively encourages councils to struggle in the short-term with no chance to plan genuinely long-term programmes of investment or employment (and most leisure activities can go to Hell in a provincial theatre.) The Tories love localism – it says here – so let us see some respect to the Councils. Give them the right to set their own local income or local land taxes, rejig the business rate rules, look for genuinely local solutions for a genuinely local(ist) problem.

Extending out of the authority funding arguments are the issues of two-tier government in some parts of the country and whether we need it (short answer; no: long answer; nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnoooooooooooooooo), and whether existing local authority boundaries reflect accurately the live/work/play realities of a population much expanded and redistributed from that which existed when the lines were last redrawn in the 1970s. Another reason for the UK to consider a great big fat constitutional and administrative reset button, reshaping the map to provide  more responsive and autonomous local government across the whole country. The experiment with Council Tax must now be dragging itself to the very end, with enough evidence to show it’s become as unrepresentative as Poll Tax was at its launch. Any tinkering with the scheme has been put off each time due to the party political implications, and with its 20th anniversary next year, I’d suggest Eric takes some time out from bullying some authorities into submission and starts facing the considerably loud music.

VAT Attack

Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has ranted against former Labour Ministers Frank Field and John Hutton advising David Cameron on welfare reform and pensions respectively.

(Frank Field, you may recall, was asked to ‘think the unthinkable’ on welfare reform by Tony Blair. When he did just that, he was sacked.)

Prescott is, naturally, wrong. To use the term “collaborators” is typical paranoia from the old socialist, unable to accept that politics can mean cooperation and compromise. Forget Gordon Brown’s “Government of the Talents”; that was the past, this is now. It’s the age of “teh evil Toriez”.

What hurdles exist for the coalition rise a little higher with this week’s emergency budget. Despite both David Cameron and Nick Clegg saying during the election campaign that VAT would not need to rise as part of (their then separate) budget proposals, it appears increasingly likely that some kind of increase will be announced by George Osborne. This could cause the fissures of tension within the coalition to split open like a crack in a Scottish girl’s bedroom.

VAT is not the fairest tax in the land; it does not discriminate as it increases the cost of almost all goods and services. To increase VAT, as is likely, seems one good way of making a dent in Labour’s legacy, the record national debt approaching £900bn. With the age of “borrowing money to pay off the debt” now forcing its consequences on us all, money raised from cost cutting and tax rises must hit all taxpayers to be fair. I welcome the proposals to freeze Council Tax. Now all we need to do is ditch it completely.

This country could not afford to keep Labour in power. We could not afford to borrow money to repay debt forever. There is still the danger of the UK being tipped into a Greek-style economic disaster area; the coalition needs to do what it can to drag us back. Increasing Capital Gains Tax to 40% is one way to recoup lost revenue; those who benefit from their capital gains can afford to take the hit that lower paid people cannot through a VAT hike. There has to be fairness. I would prefer VAT not to increase – I said so at the launch of the coalition on this blog – however nobody can be in denial about the struggle ahead as income revenues fall, inflation rises, unemployment remains high.

I hope that the Budget speaks with a Liberal Democrat accent; the increase in income allowance and removal of child tax credits from those whose combined income is too high to justify the cost being two I would welcome. There has to be fairness in these tough times.

An increase in VAT would be a severe hit; the economy is in trouble, cuts need to be made, spending needs to be prioritised. I am unsure that VAT, which effects middle and low paid people disporpotionaly more than those on higher incomes, is the best tax to target at the moment.