Shopping for cut-price votes
'The parties try to use taxes to entice us to vote for them, as if we were deciding whether to do the weekend shop at Tesco or Sainsbury's.'
Let’s talk about taxation. No, come back, it’s alright, I’m just joking. Let’s talk instead about why such a dull thing as tax has again become a central issue in the UK general election campaign.
Tax, noted the pundits, was the hot issue of the early exchanges between the parties. The Conservatives were said to have got off to a good start by pledging to cut taxes by £8bn, but were soon seen to have run into trouble when one top Tory suggested they really planned fantasy tax cuts of £20bn. New Labour and the Liberal Democrats then took to the stage to grab the nation’s attention with their own promises on taxation policy.
Yet this heated tax war made no impact on the public opinion polls. Which is not altogether surprising, since detailed surveys confirm that tax is not high on most people’s lists of concerns these days. The way that the parties persist in banging on about taxation says less about how we see issues than it does about how they see us.
The politicians appear to believe that voters are motivated by the meanest, most grasping kind of self-interest, and that we can only understand any issue through our wallets. That is why they assume that we are shallow enough to sell our votes for the sake of a few pence on or off various taxation rates. Even when a party opposes tax cuts, it is often done in a language that panders to the same prejudice, warning that we will all be ‘worse off’ if tax cuts undermine public services, etc.
In this election, more than ever before, people are being treated as passive consumers of politics rather than active participants. Thus the parties try to use taxes to entice us to vote for them, as if we were deciding whether to do the weekend shop at Tesco or Sainsbury.
The obsessive argument about excruciatingly detailed taxation policies sums up just how narrow the terrain of party politics has now become, especially where matters economic are concerned, and how petty are the differences between parties.
At one end of the little spectrum stand the Tories, as usual the worst of a bad bunch, who sometimes appear to be standing for election on a single-issue platform of cutting sixpence off a litre of fuel. When my wife (or Cherie Blair) fills up the people carrier, that dramatic cut would save her less than the duty on a packet of fags. It is not only a bribe, but an insultingly cheap one. At the other end are the Liberal Democrats, with their proposal to put an entire penny on income tax, in order to increase spending on education. This is what passes for path-breaking radicalism in election 2001.
Between the two and bestriding the tax debate stands New Labour. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown promise that they will not raise income tax and will cut other taxes where possible, while emphasising that ‘fiscal responsibility and monetary stability are the foundations of our future plans’. In other words, ‘you will be better off if you vote for us – but not by much’.
The New Labour manifesto is a 44-page testament to the climate of low expectations that informs the entire discussion of tax and the economy. For instance, Blair and Brown seem to think that a minimum family income of £225 for a 35-hour week is a commitment worth boasting about. They even expect people on these wages to give thanks by saving something for their future, presumably in the same way that the poorest widow was once expected to give a mite to the church.
If we want more than the parties are offering, we will be told sternly to rein in our selfish demands for the sake of the community, of sustainable development or even (as one leading Green told me recently), of ‘the unborn’. Enough of this nonsense.
Whatever happened to the idea of enlightened self-interest? That is, self-interest that is not just about grabbing a few quid in tax cuts, but concerns itself with the far bigger issue of raising our living standards and improving our lives, by trying to change society.
If tax rates have been the liveliest issue of the election so far, it is little wonder that everybody got over-excited about the deputy prime minister’s encounter with a Rhyl voter (or ‘real voter’ – Daily Mail) yesterday. This is an election that would have a job keeping accountants and auditors interested.
Those looking for some ideas that might tax their imaginations a little more should keep track of the spiked-proposals we are publishing throughout the campaign, to try to develop some politics that might be fit for people in the UK to support.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked
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