McTernan on politics

Has Tony Blair reached the limits of the public’s tolerance for
taxation? Recent opinion surveys suggest that he has. A poll
conducted by YouGov revealed that 69 per cent of voters believe
they pay too much tax – with only 22 per cent agreeing they pay
about the right amount. Furthermore, when asked the question “Do
you think that most of the money the government raises in taxes is
well spent, or do you think a considerable proportion of it is
wasted?” a massive 79 per cent of voters asserted that money is

This unequivocal verdict comes at a time when the latest British
Social Attitudes Survey, the annual survey tracking voters’
attitudes on a range of issues, has identified that since Labour
was elected in 1997 voters’ support for redistribution from rich to
poor has waned.

Since this has been a government which has been stealthily, but
substantially, redistributive to the old, the young and the working
poor this finding should be debated. Is the fault too much
redistribution? Or should Blair and Brown be making a more public
case for shifting resources through benefits and tax credits?

At first glance, all this should be good news for the Tory Party
which already appears invigorated by the new leadership of Michael
Howard. And Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor, is already
preaching the old sermon of promising tax cuts and lower public
spending while not affecting service quality.

But public opinion is complex. Voters have not become small
government, low tax, free market neo-conservatives – in the very
same YouGov poll they explicitly rejected cuts in income tax and
VAT, saying instead that any spare cash the chancellor has should
be spent on health and education.

The real point is how well taxes are spent, not how low or high
they are. In that light the most significant recent event is the
publication by John Reid, secretary of state for health, of a white
paper on patient choice. What is truly radical about this report is
that it extends the debate about health care far beyond the narrow,
and somewhat barren, dispute about acute services. Most of those
who use the National Health Service suffer from chronic diseases
and they mainly use primary care services. If they can be given
real choice there will be two big wins for the government. Firstly,
choice exercised by patients will drive innovation within primary
care. We have already seen how the user movement has transformed
social services, and – to his credit – Reid draws on much of that
experience in his white paper. Secondly, service transformations
here will eventually have a direct impact on most voters. Choice
may well square the circle and demonstrate that taxes are neither
too high nor badly spent.

John McTernan` is a political analyst.

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