James Roberts is political director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
In their joint piece for yesterday’s Sunday Times, the Prime Minister and Chancellor declared themselves “tax-cutting Conservatives” and simultaneously confirmed that they planned to hike taxes to the highest level since Clement Attlee.
Perhaps this is a reflection of the new political map of Britain. The 2019 general election brought traditional Tory areas and former Labour seats in the “Red Wall” under one roof. Off the back of his promise to “level up” the regions, perhaps Boris Johnson has calculated that this requires greater public investment and Brits can afford higher taxes to pay for it. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Taxpayers, regardless of where they live, don’t want to pay more. As figures released today by the TaxPayers’ Alliance show, the average household can already expect to pay over £1.1 million in tax over their lifetimes. They’ll pay nearly £480,000 in income tax and £190,000 in VAT. Far from being a tax-cutting government, this is one which is seeing typical families across the UK becoming tax millionaires.
This isn’t just a problem for the so-called affluent Tory heartlands. The bottom 20 per cent of earners need to work almost 24 years to pay off their £450,000 tax bill – more than half their working lives. This is the group who will be hit hardest by rising energy prices and the wider cost of living crisis. Many of them will have voted Conservative in 2019 for the first time, for a manifesto which promised not to increase income tax, national insurance, and VAT.
Yet it’s under the Conservatives that we have seen the biggest increases in the lifetime tax burden. It has risen by almost £350,000 for the average household since 2015-16, compared to a rise of £250,000 between 1999-2000 and 2015-16. Since 1977, the amount of tax you’ll pay in your life has doubled in real terms.
And this is all before the impact of the national insurance rise is felt. Add in corporation tax hikes, council tax increases and fiscal drag from frozen income tax thresholds and it means that things will likely get worse. While Johnson and Rishi Sunak have claimed they are low-taxers at heart, ordinary families who are now tax millionaires will find it increasingly difficult to believe.
Politicians are stretching their credibility on tax policy to breaking point. Breaking the pledge on national insurance, to throw money at an unreformed health and social care system, won’t please anyone. Polling from Public First’s James Frayne, columnist for this site, has shown that Conservatives are losing their reputation for keeping taxes low. More working-class voters consider the national insurance rise to be unfair than fair.
And it’s easy to see why. Someone currently earning £15,000 pays £652 of it in national insurance. With the 1.25 percentage point increase this will rise by £68 to £720, an effective rise in how much taxpayers will be paying of more than 10 per cent. So, with a cost of living crisis, the government has decided now is the time to accelerate the tax burden toward a 70-year high and lump low paid workers with an even bigger tax bill.
Despairing Conservatives may well wonder what the alternative could be. How can politicians guarantee investment while keeping their promises of keeping taxes low? Well let’s remember that when it comes to fiscal discipline, there are two sides to the ledger. As the country emerges from Covid, there could not be a more appropriate time for addressing public spending and refocusing funds on areas where they are most needed. Save to spend, if you will.
Much tougher action is needed to root out waste, reform service delivery and get value for taxpayers’ money. Heed Lord Agnew’s call to take waste seriously. Establish a Parliamentary Budget Committee to assess spending before it happens, rather than just hearing in detail afterwards how money was wasted. End national pay bargaining, address excessive public sector pay and – if they insist on working from home – end the London weighting for Whitehall civil servants. Defund the ridiculous schemes and the wasteful quangos, like the Arts Council. Reform pensioner benefits. And yes, properly cut foreign aid. The list goes on.
But don’t pretend raising the lifetime tax bill further is the only option. One sure way for Johnson, or any future leader of the Conservatives, to keep the new Tory coalition together would be to let taxpayers keep more of their own hard-earned money.