Lots of media attention over the Taxpayers Alliance’s new poll by ICM over the weekend (the full tables are here, but are 224 pages and 5 MB, so be warned. A shorter presentation is here). As one might expect, the poll concentrated upon taxation but also addressed crime, education and health. For the record most of the questions were asked using a 0 to 10 scale, with 0 being total disagreement and 10 being total agreement. The topline figures presented by the TA are based on all those saying 6-10 as being yes, and all those saying 0-4 being no, with 5 being neutral. For some other questions I (like the Taxpayers Alliance) have used the average score on the scale of 0-10.

56% gave a positive response to the statement that “if Britain reformed public services and cut waste it could lower taxes without having to cut spending on vital services?”, with only 17% disagreeing. This is actually nothing new – past polls have found even more support for such statements (this ICM poll for Reform in 2003, for example, found 81% agreed that “if the government reformed public services and cut waste it could make services better and reduce tax at the same time”). The polling evidence is very strong that people think it is possible to cut taxes without damaging public services. The question is firstly whether they would actually think such a thing was desirable, and secondly whether they think any of the present political parties could or would do it.

The ICM/Taxpayers Alliance poll asked people about a series of taxes and asked them to say if they would like to have them cut. Unsurprisingly every tax listed had a majority of people in favour of cutting it – obviously taxes are unpopular. What is more interesting, and more surprising, is which potential tax cuts met with the most support. On a scale of 0-10, with 10 being definitely would like to see it cut and 0 being definitely not, the tax that people most supported a cut in was council tax with an average score of 8.13. It was followed by, somewhat surprisingly, inheritance tax with an average of 7.83 and an increase in threshold where people start paying 40% tax. Raising the personal allowance to take some people out of tax entirely had an average rating of 7.67, lowering the basic rate of income tax a rating of 7.51, lowering VAT 7.37 and lowering business taxation 6.91.

While it comes as no surprise to find council tax at the top of the taxes that people want to see cut, inheritance tax and the higher rate threshold are somewhat more surprising. These are taxes that impact the relatively wealthy (in assets or in income respectively), yet cuts in them are more popular than cuts that would benefit the less well-off, such as increasing the personal allowance. It seems as though targeting tax cuts at the least well off doesn’t suddenly make them politically acceptable (though, of course, it may have wider ramifications in terms of a party’s political image. Even if a policy is itself popular, if it makes a party look like it is only concerned for the wealthy it could potential be an electoral negative.)

ICM also asked people whether they agreed or disagreed with a list of arguments in favour of lower taxation. The most agreed with argument was “Lower taxes would allow you to spend more of your hard-earned money on your own priorities”. This was followed by arguments in favour of increasing the treshhold for the top level of taxation and the personal allowance, which both specifically related the cuts to how they would affect individuals. Finally, there was high agreement with two ‘anti-politician’ arguments, which promoted tax cuts as a way of controlling politicians, e.g. “It’s morally wrong that politicians take so much of our money then waste it. We should cut taxes to force them to budget better.” ICM’s focus groups revealed the same message “Tax cuts have to be presented in specific terms that make sense to individuals, and from the anti-politician rather than the ideological perspective.”

The arguments with the lowest levels of support are also instructive. Arguments that cited the positive effects of free markets and involving private business in providing services rated poorly. The argument that we should “stop subsidising Scotland so much so the English can have a tax cut” also rated poorly. The bottom rating argument was “Labour’s tax rises have damaged Britain’s economy and they’ve managed services badly. The Conservatives would manage things better which would provide savings for tax cuts” – my suspicion is that part of the reason that this argument rated lower than all the others is the mention of the word Conservative.

Looking briefly at the other subjects addressed in the poll, the focus groups suggested that people had very little idea of how the NHS worked or the fundementals of policy. They thought that money had been wasted on a grand scale, but that the service would probably have been even worse without it. There was no faith in politicians being able to improve it, but no confidence in private companies to do so either. On education arguments about exams getting easier went down very badly in focus groups (as being “unfair on the kids”), but people did agree that standards of literacy and numeracy had got worse. Concepts like competition raising standards in schools did not chime with the groups. On the issue of crime, when asked to rate several possible explanations for crime “weak sentencing” was seen as the worst cause of crime, followed by poor education and poor rehabilitation. Immigration and family breakdown were the explanations seen as least convincing by the public. In every area TA/ICM found that privatisation was very negatively perceived, concluding that the term is probably tarnished beyond the point of rescue.

The Taxpayer’s Alliance’s conclusion is not that the Conservative party should immediately adopt a low tax agenda. Past polling has shown that people do not believe that the Conservatives would cut taxes whatever they promise and the TA/ICM’s focus groups support this finding – people do not believe they would be any different. Rather the Taxpayers Alliance conclude that a tax cutting agenda would have to be promoted from an anti-politician angle and, while the Conservative party could in theory present itself as an anti-establishment, anti-Westminster party, it would require such a change that the better course of action would probably be for third party groups to campaign on the low tax agenda independently of parties (such as, of course, the Taxpayers Alliance).

I would add one caveat to the poll. For all of the taxes listed ICM found a majority of people said they would like it to be cut – however, this question was asked directly after a list of 16 arguments in favour of tax cuts. Taxes are inherently unpopular anyway, so it should come as no surprise that in a direct question people say cut them. In reality though tax cuts are paid for in some way, shape or form which may make them less popular. There can be little doubt from this poll and from previous polls that people do think it is perfectly possible for taxes to be cut without damaging public services, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily think that money raised in such a fashion should be spent on tax cuts when put alongside alternatives. Prior to the last election a couple of polls asked the question of, if the government did manage to save lots of money through efficency savings, would they rather it was spent on tax cuts or ploughed back into public services. In both cases, two-thirds of people said they would prefer the money to be spent on public services rather than tax cuts.

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