Page last updated at 18:38 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Why does taxing the rich make ordinary voters angry?

Demonstrator with T.E.A. Taxed Enough Already poster
Demonstrators at American 'tea-party' gatherings protest against national tax

Why does inheritance tax make people angry? Political scientist Dr David Runciman gives his view on why cutting inheritance tax for the wealthiest looks like a vote-winner.

Andrew Allison, a driving instructor from Hull and spokesperson for the UK Taxpayers Alliance, is clear: "I don't really have a problem with people inheriting money that they haven't earned themselves. I only hope that I can do the same for my son."

The veteran US anti-tax campaigner Grover Norquist, put it more strongly in an interview with America's National Public Radio: "Over 70% of Americans want to abolish the death tax, because they see it as fundamentally unjust.

"The argument of those who play the politics of hate and envy and class division, who will say, 'Yes, well, that's only 2%,' or, as people get richer, 5% in the near future of Americans likely to have to pay that tax. I mean, that's the morality of the Holocaust. 'Well, it's only a small percentage,' you know. 'I mean, it's not you, it's somebody else'."

Hatred into votes

The abolition of a tax whose main burden falls on the super-rich elite seems an unlikely vehicle for this kind of popular appeal.

But Mr Norquist and his fellow campaigners knew what they were doing.

With tactics like these, they succeeded in turning the estate tax - which they rechristened the death tax - into an object of popular ridicule and hatred.

The Republican Party harnessed this hatred and translated it into votes. In 2001, after more than 100 years on the statute book, the estate tax was repealed.

BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 3 February at 2045 GMT
Or listen via the iPlayer

In 2007, the British Conservative Party took a leaf out of the Republicans' book. The brief burst of popularity that greeted Gordon Brown's entry into Downing Street meant the Tories needed some immediately attractive policies of their own. They had to find something to throw back at the prime minister to get him to think twice about calling a snap election.

They discovered what they were looking for in proposals to raise the threshold on inheritance tax.

Deep chord

At the 2007 Conservative party conference, the shadow Chancellor George Osborne unleashed his new weapon in his conference speech.

"When inheritance tax was first introduced it was designed to hit the very rich. But the very rich hire expensive advisers to make sure they don't pay it.

"Instead," he argued, "thanks to Gordon Brown, this unfair tax falls increasingly on the aspirations of ordinary people. People who have already paid taxes once on their income."

Andrew Allison
Andrew Allison says people from all political parties see sense in low taxes

He went on to promise: "The next Conservative government will raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m."

It certainly worked. Within days the Tories had picked up in the polls, and Gordon Brown blinked first, ditching his plans for an autumn election.

This is a tax that even at current levels is only paid by a small proportion of voters - according to the latest figures, just 3% of all estates.

Raising the threshold is not in the immediate interests of the vast majority. Yet Osborne appeared to strike a deep chord with much of the electorate.

How did railing against inheritance tax become a form of populism?

'Gut feeling'

The answer is the power of narrative in politics.

The campaign against the estate tax in the US showed that what mattered was not the statistical data about the tax, but the stories that people were able to tell about it.

Two kinds of stories in particular chimed with ordinary voters.

One is the tales people like to tell themselves about how rich they might be. In 2000, a CNN survey found that 39% of Americans believed that they were in the richest 1% of the population or were likely to be there soon. In Britain, too, many more people believe they are going to be liable for inheritance tax than actually have to pay.

Eton pupils playing cricket on Eton College fields
The playing fields of Eton are being used to link tax policies to class

The other is a tale of injustice. Calling it the death tax made it sound like the taxman was simply adding to people's grief at a difficult time: "You shouldn't have to visit the taxman and the undertaker on the same day!" ran one slogan.

Drew Westen, the author of The Political Brain and an expert on the importance of emotion in crafting a political message, remembers that "it made the average person feel 'wow! First they taxed us while we were alive and now they are going to tax us for dying!'

Professor Westen, who supports the US Democrats, understands the appeal of this rhetoric even as he deplores it.

"If you think logically about who is getting covered by that estate tax and what is the cap before you actually start having to pay it - it doesn't affect the middle class at all.

"But it is that gut level feeling that conservatives tend to be so much more effective in marshalling partly because they tend to come from a business background and they understand the importance of marketing and understand that people aren't making rational decisions.

"What they are doing is sizing up candidates and policies from a standpoint of 'how does this make me feel?'"

Hair shirt politics

When the Democrats tried to counter this with a case that inheritance tax is broadly fair, that it is not double taxation, that it is a charge on unearned wealth, it did not work.

Explaining means losing. What they needed were different stories.

The Labour government realises this. Across the Commons, an uncharacteristically raucous Gordon Brown attacked David Cameron by reverting to the old story of class war.

During Prime Minister's Questions, he argued that "inheritance tax cuts to millionaires will cost us nearly £2bn that we should be spending on public services."

He said: "Now the issue for the country is, is it public services for the many or inheritance tax cuts for the few?"

The voters are sometimes willing to do whatever they can to spite the politicians, even if that means spiting themselves

And he continued the story line with: "I have to say that with him and Mr Goldsmith, their inheritance tax policy seems to have been dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton."

The current economic crisis has made the electorate furious with the political class as a whole and what they really want is to see all politicians punished.

It is this desire for revenge that helps to explain another striking feature of our electoral politics - the surprisingly popular appeal of pledges to cut public spending.

Spending cuts ought to be profoundly unpopular, and most of the time they are.

But in a deep recession, politicians can sometimes compete for votes by promising to wear the hair shirt of fiscal rectitude, even though it is the voters who will feel the pain.

The politicians who do this claim it shows the good sense of the public, who are worried about unsustainable debt levels. But it is just as likely that the voters want to punish the politicians for their profligacy, and the only way they know how is by forcing them to spend less.

In the early 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, politicians won elections by promising more, not less, austerity.

What the voters were expressing was anger at the wastefulness and selfishness of politicians, who had led the country into economic disaster and seemed unable to lead it out again.

The politicians had been playing with the public's money. The only way to be revenged was to take their toys away.

The voters are sometimes willing to do whatever they can to spite the politicians, even if that means spiting themselves.

This edition of Turkeys Voting for Christmas was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 31 January and Wednesday 3 February at 2045 GMT. Or listen via the BBC iPlayer.

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