Daniel Finkelstein (who is running a new blog called Comment Central) discusses Tory tax policy this morning in his regular Times column. Danny seems to agree that governments can cut taxes without damaging services but that the Tories are wise not to make the argument this side of the next General Election:
"Tories have to win office and then prove their point… They should play down the tax issue but cut taxes in office. Then if they are right, if the tax-cutting theory proves correct, the Government will provide an unbeatable combination — faster growth, lower taxes, better services… Tax cutting can be simultaneously a good thing to do and a stupid thing to promise. Winning policies and election winning policies are not always the same thing."
Danny’s view is certainly a respectable one and widely held amongst other Cameroons (who do not believe that oppositions can easily lead public opinion on any issue). But am I the only one who thinks that there is something a little dishonest about this strategy? I wonder if voters will be looking for more authenticity and transparency from their politicians in the rapidly-approaching post-Blair era? Perhaps I have a too romantic view of politics.
Where I know I strongly disagree with Danny Finkelstein (and we’ve had a similar disagreement before) is in his idea that the Tories have already tried to make the case for tax cuts and haven’t succeeded. He writes:
"The fierce signallers believe that the way to change voters minds is to start making the case earlier in the Parliament and devote more time to the case for low taxes. The quiet men should turn up the volume. This relies on the frankly ridiculous assertion that Tories have not been doing precisely this for years."
Danny Finkelstein was chief policy adviser to William Hague during Blair’s honeymoon years. It is undeniable that Mr Hague and other Tories made some very good speeches on tax but these never became the kind of grassroots campaigns that are really capable of shifting public opinion (and which the TaxPayers’ Alliance is beginning to build). It is also true that we were still in the early days of Gordon Brown’s spending experiment. As voters have borne the record tax burden but seen so much money wasted they are more open – as the recent Taxpayers’ Alliance poll suggested – to a tax relief message. Neither were the Hague years consistent in their tax cutting message. There was the infamous tax guarantee which had to be abandoned under pressure from Michael Portillo.
The Tories weren’t much better during the last Parliament. At the last Party Conference before the 2005 General Election Oliver Letwin made a speech which downplayed the possibility of tax cuts. Noone would believe significant promises of tax cuts, he told the conference. When a few timid tax cut pledges did come – a few weeks before polling day – voters hadn’t been persuaded of the case for them. As Lynton Crosby said: You can’t fatten a pig on market day.
2pm update: Danny has replied to my post on his blog. The TPA has also addressed Danny’s article. In his post Danny says that because voters don’t trust politicians to cut taxes there is little point in promising them and the Tories should simply cut taxes when in office. I’d accept that if I really believed the current Tory leadership had a heartfelt commitment to cutting taxes after winning the election. I don’t have that belief.