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Tuesday, September 23, 2003
An issue to be determined in local elections, not by referenda

I HATE TAX as much as the next Tory. I believe that existing rates of taxation do great economic damage and help perpetuate a situation where politicians feel they can and do make things better for us all by spending hundreds of billions of pounds of our money on things we would be infinitely more competent at buying ourselves.

And that is why I oppose compulsory referenda before any council tax increases. This measure may seem to be a friend to those who want lower taxes, but I think the effect will be the opposite.

The proposals for referenda are in part a response to a non-payment protest by some pensioners appalled at the rate of increase since May's local elections, local authorities predictably having held down the biggest increases until after the election period. Now it's obviously speculation, but how many of these pensioners do you suppose voted Labour or Liberal Democrat? Because this is the central issue at stake here: should voters have to take the consequences of voting for worthless and incompetent politicians? If you go out and put a cross in the box next to the man who promises the moon, and he wins, should you have to face the council tax increases that result when he spends like an African dictator?

Imagine if everyone inclined to support a Labour candidate, but worried about the increase in taxes his party may push through, suddenly had this safety net. Previous conflicts between their natural inclinations and their fears would be resolved firmly in favour of the left. Now they could feel quite safe voting Labour or Lib Dem and knowing that should they propose any big enough increase in council tax they will have to get it through a referendum. In practice, that maximum-sans-referendum increase of double the rate of inflation will become the standard increase, with councils freely imposing increases that just come within a whisker of the referendum requirement. Council tax will go on rising but will form a much lesser part of any election campaign. By making it an issue of referendum, then just as with the euro, it stops becoming a normal election issue. That can only be bad for people who support lower taxes and want to win elections on that basis.

Referenda on council tax increases may extend the vote, but by spreading it more thinly they diminish it. They turn a decision made at the ballot box over who should govern one's town, and how, into a decision meaning much less. No matter how people vote, the council will still need to call a referendum before significantly increasing council tax. That partially disenfranchises those who make such decisions at election time and removes the power of the vote at that election. True democratic choice includes the option of voting for something to occur even if one regrets that choice later.

If you don't like big tax increases, don't vote for their proponents. If others continue voting for these candidates, join one of your local political parties and canvass or leaflet for them, helping them to highlight the silliness of their tax-loving rivals. If none of your local parties is representing this view, stand as an independent or form a taxpayers' association. Representative democracy allows you to fight tax rises and work to get the burden on employment, on earnings, on savings, on inheritance, on investment and on expenditure down.

But if people are willing to vote for politicians who go through their money like there's no tomorrow, they should take the consequences of that decision and vote more sensibly next time.

Referenda sometimes are necessary, for example if a government is proposing lasting constitutional change or if parliament is badly out of touch with public opinion (on proportionate punishment for murderers, for example). But for the everyday issues of spending and taxation, these decisions should be left to be debated in local election campaigns and to be determinants of how people vote. Making ordinary elections about something else is bad for democracy and bad for those who want to preserve and extend the liberty that low taxation ensures.

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