One Tory is tired of being in the nasty party

Alex Hern looks at Nick Boles’s claims the Conservatives have lurched to the right, and his policy prescriptions to solve it.

Following on from the Conservative’s bizarre attempt to paint Ed Miliband’s speech on Tuesday as an anti-business speech from a socialist who doesn’t even believe in capitalism, today has shown which party are really speeding away from the centre ground.

Nick Boles, who, before his election in 2010, was best known for being the aide who got Boris Johnson to exclaim “I’ve been raped! I’ve been raped!,” when he made him make an (unfulfilled) promise to donate 20 per cent of his Daily Telegraph earnings to charity, has written two pieces today arguing that the Tories desperately need to stop lurching to the right and come back to a position where most voters can empathise with them.

In the first, in the Telegraph, he argues:

“When David Cameron took over as leader from Michael Howard, voters saw both the party and its retiring leader as distinctly Right-wing.

“After three years of modernisation, David Cameron had shifted the perception of the party back towards the centre, and of himself even more so – although both were still seen as a bit more extreme than Labour and Gordon Brown.

Since 2009, however, the party has shifted back to the Right in voters’ eyes and, worryingly, so has he.

Looking at some of his fellow party members, it is not hard to work out why voters think the party has moved rightwards. Pointing out that the party should rightly be concerned about the figures from YouGov showing that 42 per cent of voters would never vote Tory, he argued that unless voter’s concerns were addressed, the Conservative’s best hope in 2015 would remain a minority government.

He said:

“If we want to give the country a strong Conservative government, we must change the voters’ definition of “Conservative” so that it incorporates the attitudes, values and priorities that most of them share.”

His second piece, in the FT today (£), gives one policy prescription that could do just that. In it, he argues that the government needs to implement a Land Value Tax (a tax on the value of land excluding the value of any buildings or other improvements) and use it to cut national insurance.

Arguing in its favour, he says:

“There is a version of the Land Value Tax that works – and it is in operation in New South Wales in Australia.

“Crucially, farmland and people’s main homes are wholly exempt so it does not strike at hard-pressed farmers or elderly people on low incomes living in houses that have become very valuable, which would be hit by the Liberal Democrats’ preferred mansion tax. Instead, the tax bears down on vacant land, holiday homes, investment properties and commercial properties.

“If we were to implement it in the UK, it would need to be deductible from business rates so that struggling retailers and other firms were not faced with a devastating double whammy – and it might in time replace business rates altogether. Thus targeted, the tax would deter speculative land banks and would encourage property owners to develop brownfield sites and put rundown areas of inner cities back to good use.

“Over the longer term, it would lower the price of development land and help us get off that quintessentially British rollercoaster of house price booms and busts.

The difference between a land value tax and the mansion tax is overstated, but Boles is not the first right-winger to come out in favour of the idea.

Last week in the Spectator, Ross Clark argued in favour of a mansion tax, writing:

“Ever the party of the land, many on the Conservative side are still bitterly objecting to any higher property tax. But they should grab the deal while they can. Not only that, they should go further and bring about a permanent shift in the tax burden from income to property. It is the only way to mitigate yet another hugely damaging cycle of property speculation.”

Fundamentally, both Clark and Boles are correct. As big as the disparity in income is in this country, the disparity in wealth is larger, more entrenched, and largely wrapped up in property. Just over half a per cent of the population own half of Britain’s rural land; we can tax their income as much as we want, but if the left want equality eventually we must start dealing with wealth instead.

Call it a mansion tax, call it a land value tax, or follow France and Spain and call it a straight-up wealth tax, this cross-party plan would help Britain on the road to equality and recovery.

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