Jonathan Isaby is Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Amidst the waving of saltires and the return of Gordon Brown to our political life, it’s almost difficult to remember that in 238 days the country (whatever that means by then) will go to the polls to decide who’ll be installed in Downing Street on the morning of May 8th 2015.
As such, it’s time for manifestos – and ConservativeHome’s manifesto last week proved an excellent way to start that debate. Focusing on the key principle of economic growth, it was imaginative, pushing ideas that would put Britain on the road to greater prosperity.
There are some ideas we unequivocally endorse; scrapping HS2 would be a significant and symbolic first step towards introducing much-needed restraint to public spending. Bringing in a proper recall mechanism would make politicians accountable to the public for five years, not just the five months before an election. Zero-based budgeting, too, must be the default for anybody spending taxpayers’ money.
But while the manifesto pushes in the right direction, in a number of cases it should be more robust and radical. Many of the commitments are admirable but merely represent tinkering at the edges. Higher National Insurance thresholds are a nice first step, but the beginning of a new Parliament will offer another chance to radically reform the way our tax system works, merging National Insurance with Income Tax and stripping out the numerous other taxes that make life more expensive for ordinary people.
The underlying principle of any manifesto should be the admission that the biggest hit on the cost of living is the tax burden, and it therefore follows that if you wish to make life easier for millions of people, you need to entirely remake the tax system. That means taxing income once, not twice or thrice; and while the manifesto mentions the gradual abolition of Stamp Duty, the unfair and immoral “double tax” that is Inheritance Tax needs to go, too. You’re already taxed on the income you use to buy things, so Consumption Taxes should be on the list as well.
The manifesto is right to call for the end of loopholes for the rich, but we’re of the opinion that the only way to do that is to radically simplify the tax system in the first place. The tax code currently stands at 17,000 words, so it’s hardly a surprise that well-paid accountants can find loopholes big enough through which to drive a Take That tour bus.
To borrow a rhetorical device, the top priority for any incoming government should be to simplify, simplify, simplify. The benefits are legion; not just that those loopholes would be closed, but that HMRC would actually be able to administer the tax system instead of producing 5.5 million erroneous tax bills as it did last year. And it wouldn’t hurt to reverse the dreadful decision to give HMRC the power of judge, jury and executioner over ordinary people with the disastrous new power to dip directly into individual bank accounts.
The manifesto suggested that “reducing the burden of debt we have placed on future generations must take precedence over tax cuts in the present.” The two, however, are not mutually exclusive. The 2020 Tax Commission, convened by the Institute of Directors and ourselves, showed that lower taxes could deliver higher economic growth, thus creating additional tax revenues in the long term. It isn’t revenue neutral – it would require cutting spending, as the manifesto suggests – but could deliver an increase in GDP of an additional 8.4 per cent in 15 years.
The last four years have been a missed opportunity. The personal allowance has gone up, but National Insurance thresholds mean the lowest paid are still hit by a punitive tax system. Despite promises to eradicate the deficit, politicians continue to spend money they don’t have. A government enacting the ConservativeHome manifesto would be a good one for taxpayers, but it wouldn’t be the best. With a £1.3 trillion (and still rising) credit card bill to pay off, it’s time to be ambitious.