It’s not Labour or the LGA who are out of touch. It’s you, Minister!

Chris Game

Are you up to speed with your local finance jargon? If so, I wonder if you can explain the difference between a ‘widows tax’ and a ‘Bridget Jones tax’? No, it’s no use reaching for your £445 copy of the CIPFA Guide to Local Government Finance. The answer’s not in there. It’s the Conservative press you’re after, and specifically the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.

Monday’s edition of the Mail (that’s Monday, 6th May) thought it would be fun to scare its Bank Holiday readers with the news that “Labour plots ‘Bridget Jones tax’: Party accused of demanding an end to council tax discounts for singletons”.

Evidently the rest of what we once called Fleet Street was out to lunch, because it wasn’t until Thursday 9th that the Telegraph caught up with the story, by which time it obviously had to invent its own slant: “Town halls seek to levy ‘widows tax’”.

They are of course exactly the same thing – and neither, as we’ll see, remotely qualifies as news. But let’s stay with the papers for a bit. The Mail’s story opened as follows:

“Labour has been accused of plotting a ‘Bridget Jones tax’ on singletons as its local authorities demand an end to council tax discounts for those living alone.
In a formal submission to ministers, the Local Government Association [LGA] is calling for the power to end the 25 per cent discount offered in recognition of the fact single people place fewer demands on local services.
More than seven million are thought to benefit from the discount, at a cost of around £2.7 billion a year.”

It’s an interesting bit of reporting. The basic story is broadly accurate. One proposal in the LGA’s 24-page submission to the Government’s June Spending Review does indeed call for “the full and unconstrained ability to vary locally all council tax discounts including the single person discount”. In fact, it’s a kind of ‘belt and braces’ demand, because it could be seen as already implicit in the LGA’s more comprehensive proposal for “the removal of restrictions on council tax, so that councils can determine with their communities the appropriate level of tax and be accountable through local elections for doing so”.

The interesting bit is that the LGA is Conservative-led and Conservative-controlled – the party having been in control of over half of all English and Welsh councils following last year’s local elections. The Chairman of the LGA is therefore Conservative – Sir Merrick Cockell, from the Royal, and very Conservative, Borough of Kensington & Chelsea – and the Conservatives are also the largest group on the Association’s Executive. It would represent quite a coup for the minority representation of Labour authorities, if they had been able to hijack almost certainly the single most important document the LGA will produce this year – were it true.

Having already implied that the LGA was Labour-run, there wasn’t any real need for the Mail to offer further explanation, but there was a rather limp mention of that all-purpose stand-by for bewildered journalists – their anonymous ‘sources’. In this case, the “sources claim the campaign to end the discount is being driven by Labour authorities including Liverpool, Sheffield, Islington and Exeter”.

“and Exeter”. Brilliant. The sources certainly earned their pay-off there: three of the oldest recidivists around, and then, out of the blue, Exeter, to add real authenticity. A council that last year set one of the lowest district council tax rates in the country – so low that this year it was specifically allowed by Ministers to increase its bills by £5. A dangerous trouble maker, if ever there was one.

But it was more than enough for Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, who not only ran with it, but suggested a name for what would have to be presented, of course, as a new tax: “There is clearly a well-orchestrated campaign being pushed forward by Labour councillors to target the most vulnerable. This is a Bridget Jones tax and shows how out of touch Labour are”.

Not, however, to quite the degree that his colleague, Brandon Lewis, appears to be. The Local Government Minister explained to the Daily Telegraph that it is in fact the LGA that “is completely out of touch by calling for stealthy council tax hikes – how strange they didn’t have the courage of their convictions to highlight this before election day.”

So let me get this straight. Our Conservative Minister would have liked it publicised, during the county council elections campaign, that the Conservative-led LGA was calling for stealthy council tax hikes? I find it a little surprising, but, if that was what he really, really wanted, he could have announced it himself – because the whole Spending Review submission – including, in bold type, the council tax discounts bid – had been produced back in March and had been in the public domain and available for every one of us to read throughout the campaign.

So which is it? Had he not read it, or forgotten it, or not realised its potential political exploitability? Whatever, I don’t think he’s in much of a position to make accusations about others being out of touch.

game

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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