Published:

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Several years ago, before the surge of political and public interest in the environment, I struggled to explain to a visiting American political consultant why the Conservatives didn’t ‘go for’ the then-Labour Government on motoring taxes and charges. He couldn’t understand why, when so many people were being whacked by high fuel tax, car tax, parking charges, and all the rest, the Conservatives barely campaigned on it. Such is the clarity that outsiders sometimes bring. I couldn’t do any better than say, “they just don’t”.

I would similarly struggle to explain why the Conservatives don’t do more on Council Tax. My agency recently ran a comprehensive poll for the TaxPayers’ Alliance on Council tax – the most detailed recent poll on this subject I’m aware of. The scale of the unpopularity of the tax is staggering. In my mind, I can see some of you rolling your eyes: “of course it’s unpopular, who knew?!” What was interesting about this poll was that we looked not just at the top lines on Council Tax, but we also looked at Council Tax in relation to other taxes and also in the context of people’s views on local government more generally. From the standpoint of this poll, if anything, opposition to Council Tax looks more serious and more embedded.

In our poll, we found the following:

  • By 61 per cent to 15 per cent, people said they would oppose an above-inflation Council Tax increase this year; by 74 per cent to 16 per cent, people think Council Tax should be frozen or cut;
  • The Conservatives’ new base – the working class – are particularly hostile: by 64 per cent to 16 per cent, C2 voters said they opposed an above-inflation Council Tax increase, with DEs opposing it by 65 per cent to eight per cent; ABs opposed it by a much narrower margin of 51 per cent to 25 per cent; by 81-12, C2s favour a freeze or cut, compared to 74-11 for DEs and 68-23 for AB;
  • Thinking about the issues people will vote on in the council elections, Council Tax levels are third overall, sitting just below people’s perceptions of their local council’s general competence (36 per cent) and how much money they waste (32 per cent), which, of course, are related.

More interesting are the figures on Council Tax compared to other taxes:

  • Given a list of taxes that could go up in this Parliament – if the public had no choice but to accept such rises – just ten per cent of people said they thought Council Tax should rise. This compares to 29 per cent for Inheritance Tax, 27 per cent for Stamp Duty, 23 per cent for Income Tax, and 22 per cent for National Insurance Contributions and Vehicle Excise Duty;
  • In a series of questions about the relative fairness of a series of taxes, only the TV licence fee was viewed as less fair. 40 per cent of people said Council Tax was unfair, compared to 54 per cent saying that of the TV licence fee, 38 per cent Inheritance Tax, 34 per cent fuel tax, 25 per cent VAT, 24 per cent Income Tax, 21 per cent Vehicle Excise Duty, 18 per cent Capital Gains Tax, 17 per cent VAT, and 15 per cent Corporation Tax.

Council Tax is hugely visible given the way it’s levied and communicated. It constantly rises without apparently sufficient justification – people don’t think they see enough for it.

So, why don’t the Conservatives do more on Council Tax? To be fair, as the flare up over the prospect of replacing Council Tax with a property tax showed recently, many of the alternatives look worse. And there’s clearly no public agreement on what alternatives might work better. The TPA poll showed:

  • Given a list of options that might be introduced to replace Council Tax, the top pick was an increase in Income Tax (backed by 26 per cent), followed by “none of the above” (24 per cent) and then charging for the use of leisure facilities (15 per cent). There were relatively few differences between social groups or political affiliation. In other words, the public are split on alternatives;
  • Asked whether people support a new property tax being brought in to replace Council Tax, around 30 per cent each supported and opposed it;
  • Thinking more narrowly about alternatives to raising Council Tax, unsurprisingly people overwhelmingly prefer alternatives to new taxes or charges. The most popular options councils should take to keep Council Tax down were: limiting senior staff salaries (59 per cent); more actively pursuing debt collection (51 per cent); and merging teams between councils to improve efficiencies (39 per cent). While the figures were a little lower in terms of people’s views on the actual impact of these measures on keeping Council Tax down (a question we asked separately), they still chose them in this order;
  • Incidentally, asked about the number of exemptions, a third of people (32 per cent) said there should be no Council Tax exemptions and that everyone should pay something; 24 per cent said they should be kept the same and 12 per cent said they should be increased;

While it’s unquestionably complex, the Conservatives should think about the implications of what would happen if Labour got serious on this issue. Yes, they’re a bit late to all this, but Labour finally seem to have realised the power of Council Tax as a political weapon; they’ve begun attacking the Conservatives on the issue. Conservative activists might think this is a bit rich, but the public generally don’t mind political opportunism of this sort; generally, they will take what they can get from whatever political parties are standing at a given moment. The Conservatives should look to head off this potential problem and find a way to replace Council Tax, or at least find a structural, long-term alternative to endless rises.