Lord Frost of Allenton is a former ambassador, a former cabinet minister, and a resident of the Royal Borough of Greenwich. It was in that latter capacity that he tweeted:
Completing a survey on budget priorities from Labour-run Greenwich Council… I find my only choices are cut services or increase tax / other revenue. How about becoming more efficient, cutting admin costs, or getting rid of non-priorities like the free newspaper?
I’m afraid this sort of loaded consultation is all too typical. Greenwich Council proposes a 4.99 per cent increase in Council Tax. That is the maximum level allowed without a referendum. The fact the Council feel constrained by that mechanism rather gives the game away. The consultation is designed to show popular support for the tax rise; that it is accepted as splendid value for money; and that local inhabitants are most grateful to have their money spent for them in such an effective manner rather than being left to spend it for themselves.
But then why not a bigger Council Tax increase? Ten per cent? 20 per cent? 50 per cent? The Council would love all that extra spending. But they know perfectly well they would fail to win consent for it. Nor would they for even the five per cent increase if it was put to the test.
We are often told that Big State socialist policies of increased tax and increased public spending are popular. A bit more scepticism is needed in response. One of the Labour councillors for the ward I live in is Christabel Cooper. I don’t think I have met her. Perhaps she misses me out when she goes canvassing. But I follow her on Twitter and she seems to be an intelligent and well-informed woman. Last week she tweeted “one of her favourite political charts ever”. Some people have a favourite colour. Or a favourite meal. Cllr Cooper has a favourite political chart. So far, so good. It shows that the “economic values” of voters are well to the Left of Conservatives MPs and broadly in line with Labour MPs:
But how are these “economic values” determined? Further research shows the following questions were used:
Immediately we can see that the questions are absurdly loaded. Few would argue that there should be no redistribution of income by the Government – that all welfare payments including to pensioners, the unemployed, and the disabled should be abolished. A business might well try “to get the better” of its employees by paying them as little as possible or “take advantage of ordinary people” by charging them as high a price as possible. Alternatively, out of a sense of pride or compassion, they might not. But provided a competitive market operates such statements have limited relevance if a business wishes to maximise profit. If twages are too low we will work for someone else. If the prices are too high we shall shop elsewhere. As Adam Smith observed:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”
As for the statement that “ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth”, I would agree. That is why I favour the repeal of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act to allow a big increase in the housing supply, much wider homeownership, and a fall in current property prices which are kept artifically high due to state-imposed scarcity. In other words to have a genuine housing market. To suggest that that answer puts me on the Left is, I would suggest, a misclassification.
None of this is to say that free marketeers have no challenges so far as public opinion is concerned. Profit used to be regarded as a good thing – now it is a dirty word. In the 1970s amidst the strikes, redundancies, and nationalised industries, those working for a profitable concern were pleased to be doing so. There would be bearded students in roller neck jumpers denouncing the profits system. But those working for a loss-making business thought it would be a nice problem to have. While in much of the world, support for free enterprise has increased, in the UK it has become less fashionable (especially when given the baddy label “capitalism”). The Institute of Economic Affairs has done some polling on the sympathy of the young for socialism.
But the tide may have turned. In 2017 polling for the Legatum Institute found that those agreeing “I favour increased taxation, bigger government and more spending” had a 15 point lead over those who said the opposite. But a poll for Deloitte from a few months ago found the Big Staters had lost their lead:
“Throughout the austerity years of the last decade, our State of the State surveys showed that the majority of the public wanted to see higher levels of public spending. They were also prepared – in theory at least – to pay more tax to fund it. This year, our survey finds the public split evenly between 28 per cent who would welcome higher levels of tax and spending, 30 per cent who would like to maintain the same levels as before the pandemic, and 24 per cent who would prefer lower taxes and lower government spending.”
The conclusion for Conservatives locally and nationally should be that the battle for lower taxes can be won. Most people can be persuaded that a lot of state spending is wasted – often they will have personal experience of it. Conservative councillors need to do the preparation by going through Council budget documents in a rigorous and challenging way to identify savings. 14 years ago I listed on this site 100 ways to do so – most of those points still apply.