We have good news: many of the tax policies that Labour stood on at the last general election are popular, even among Tory voters.
However, there’s bad news too: as progressives, we have been talking a different language to most voters when it comes to wealth and billionaires.
On the eve of last year’s election we started to talk to the public to understand their views on public spending, tax, wealth and inequality. Working with the public attitudes company Survation and academics from the University of Sheffield, we held eleven focus groups and commissioned two wide ranging polls.
We visited new Conservative seats in former ‘Red Wall’ heartlands like Blyth Valley and Wrexham, as well as areas that stayed Labour and traditional Conservative constituencies too. It’s been quite a journey.
Our new report, Talking Tax: How to Win Support for Taxing Wealth, goes into greater detail but in summary this is what we learned:
- British people hate tax evasion and even Conservative voters are swinging in favour of higher taxes to fund better public services. Right now, it would be much harder for a politician to do as George Osborne did ten years ago and make a virtue out of deep cuts to our public services. The public are sick of austerity.
- People have no burning desire to rid the country of billionaires. The voters we spoke to see their own efforts to accumulate wealth as a moral way to bring basic security to themselves, their families and their kids. As progressives we risk talking a different language to ordinary people when it comes to wealth.
- Finally, outside of our own tax policy bubble, people have a limited understanding of how tax or the economy work. By contrast, the right’s simplistic language has helped it to push an agenda in which public spending is all too often synonymous with waste.
On a range of tax policies that made their way into the 2019 Labour Party manifesto, the public are favourable. If anything, the Covid lockdown brought home to people that things cannot continue as they have before. Inequality is visible and in focus groups people were quick to point to street homelessness and foodbank use as examples of how much worse things got over the last decade.
But when we asked people what they felt about the UK being home to scores of billionaires while so many still rely on foodbanks, people were as likely to complain that this language was “divisive” and “ideological” as they were to contemplate how staggering it is that anyone should amass such riches amidst such poverty. While 72% of Labour voters felt that billionaires shouldn’t exist alongside foodbanks, just 52% of the public as a whole agreed.
Presented with the claim that the rich “should happily and willingly pay more tax” (an actual phrase from a campaign), one woman in Blyth enquired: “Was this written by a vegan?” In Bury, a participant gripped a sheet of paper in her hand and demanded to know “who wrote this?” when asked for her view about which wealth tax message she supported most.
It’s not that the public don’t support higher taxes on wealth, they overwhelmingly do: 74% of people want to see wealth taxed more, including 64% of Conservative voters and 88% of Labour voters. But how we talked about wealth mattered. Wealth is not inherently perceived as a bad thing to people who are struggling because they don’t have any themselves. In a country stripped of its social safety net, many see wealth accumulation as the moral and right thing to do.
The coronavirus pandemic clearly brought public services and the role of the state into sharp focus. However, one of the things that is most fascinating for me is how far Conservtive voters shifted.
In June, 74% of Tories said they wanted higher taxes on companies. This was up from 61% in March. In June, 66% of Conservative voters want people who earn income from their wealth to be taxed at the same rate as income tax – up 4%. We found similar trends when we tested other progressive reforms such as reducing the pension tax subsidy that higher earners get.
There is a lot to be positive about in terms of public attitudes to tax and wealth, and it’s reassuring to know that we have won significant battles on things like tax avoidance and austerity. Our report doesn’t contain all the answers but it is a useful addition for people committed to winning future campaigns for better tax system and economic settlement.