Sometimes a low tax message is the right one – economically and politically.
Last week saw the end of a short campaign by Darlington Conservatives against another council tax rise in Darlington.
The usual arguments applied. Council tax is the biggest bill most people pay after their rent or mortgage. Central government money – more than £440,000 year after year – was available if the council froze its tax instead. This was money from the centre that would stay in the town.
And of course there was the cynicism of Labour’s proposed 1.99 per cent increase. As Eric Pickles put it in a letter to me, it was “a clear case of a council dodging democracy by aiming for a council tax increase marginally within the referendum threshold, instead of putting an increase of 2.0 per cent or above to the taxpayers of Darlington”.
In Darlington’s case, the arguments are stronger still. A classic officer-led Labour council, Darlington had the dubious distinction of being eighth highest of 326 local authorities in England for percentage council tax increases over the previous three years. The proposed increases would mean even Band A homes paying more than £1,000 each year. Band D homes would pay over £1,500.
If ever there was a time to think of the cost of living and go for a council tax freeze, this was it.
In Darlington, we made these arguments to the public that Labour refused to consult, and they were arguments that resonated.
To get across our message, we used not only street stalls and door to door petitions but engaged the support of an independent council candidate, Kevin Nicholson. We promoted an online petition keenly on Facebook and Buzzfeed, using professionally designed graphics. We secured the support of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
In only a few weeks, we had been heard widely and won the argument. Over 1,000 people had signed our petition urging that the Council vote against another tax increase and instead accept the money from central government.
In the council chamber, Labour’s majority predictably secured a fourth consecutive tax increase. But in May, Labour may pay a big political price for ignoring reality.
Here are the lessons from our campaign:
1. Rising council tax is certainly an issue if you make it one.
Just because it comes up less than other issues on the doorstep doesn’t mean people won’t agree strongly with a campaign focused on the issue. Persuasive academic research suggests when people are asked about local issues, they think of their own street and maybe a neighbouring street. They aren’t thinking of their entire borough. So a lot of people simply don’t think of council tax even when prompted to discuss “local issues”. This shouldn’t be confused with contentment at paying ever more council tax.
2. This is a very difficult battle for Labour to win.
So sure are they of their claim to public money, Labour is often particularly weak in its defence of it.
Other than unconvincing complaints about central government cuts (that Labour’s deficit forced and Labour nationally has no plans to reverse), they could only grumble repeatedly of a “shortfall” if council tax was frozen and central government money accepted.
Even as an insight into the psychology of Labour Party, this word was revealing. £440,000 extra a year is of course a satisfying increase in income rather than a shortfall. The council would have had almost half a million more than the year before. But it wasn’t as much as they could get by charging every home in Darlington between £20 and £60 more – so therefore by their reasoning the £440,000 increase represented a “shortfall”.
But in the real world, people notice their taxes going up and won’t support it without hearing a good reason for it. Ed Miliband’s Labour Party really struggles to provide one.
3. When you have the right issue, a range of new campaign tactics become very effective.
Petitions and street stalls aren’t ends in themselves, but they can be a massive boost to the profile of the right issue-based campaign. In particular, any scepticism I might have had about using social media in campaigns has been quelled. Contact me for more information.
4. This type of campaign can provide part of the answer to that eternal cry: “You’re all the same”.
Without giving people simple ways in which our parties differ, it is a cry that will continue. There aren’t many better answers than: “We’ll freeze the second biggest bill you pay. They’ll increase it the maximum they can get away with and turn down extra money for our town. Please vote accordingly.”