1980s >> 1989 >> no-1018-june-1989

Editorial: What about the Poll Tax?

People are already paying the Poll Tax in Scotland while in England and Wales council officials have begun the task of drawing up the register of those liable to pay the tax (nearly everybody) in preparation for its extension south of the border in April next year. The registration forms have been dropping through peoples letter boxes since the end of May.

All the opposition parties are against the Poll Tax and. urged on by left-wing chants of “Fight the Tax, Smash the Tax”, a campaign of civil disobedience (refusal to register, then refusal to pay) has been launched to try to prevent its implementation. The claim is that the tax is unfair because, compared with the old system of rates, the rich will pay less and the poor will pay more.

“The rich pay less, the poor pay more”, says a leaflet put out by the Camden Stop the Tax Campaign in London. “93% of inner London residents will pay more in Poll Tax than they do in Rates, while millionaires in Hampstead will pay much less”. The Poll Tax “redistributes income from the poorer members of the community to the richer members”, adds a claimants group from Merseyside, describing this as “Robin Hood’s philosophy in reverse”.

The rich owners of big houses and mansions certainly will be paying less, and this was no doubt a deliberate intention of the present government which has never disguised the fact that it is a government of the rich by the rich for the rich. But it by no means follows that what these rich property owners will no longer be paying will have to come out of the pockets of ordinary wage and salary workers, as the anti-Poll Tax campaigners suggest.

Despite the appearances, taxes are not a burden that falls on wage and salary workers. On average, over time, we receive as wages enough to keep ourselves fit to work in the trade or profession in which we have been trained and are working. It is around a level sufficient to cover the expenses involved in this that market forces, helped on by trade union action, will tend to establish wage rates.

This means that if any extra charge is imposed on workers it will tend to be passed on. through the operation of market forces again aided by trade union action, to employers of labour. This was once clearly understood even if it has become obscured today. As David Ricardo, who was an MP and a capitalist, wrote as long ago as 1819 in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation: “Taxes on wages will raise wages, and therefore will diminish the rate of profits of stock . . . A tax on wages is wholly a tax on profits, a tax on necessaries is partly a tax on profits, and partly a tax on rich consumers. The ultimate effects which will result from such taxes then, are precisely the same as those which will result from a direct tax on profits”.

In so far as the Poll Tax is a tax paid by wage and salary workers it will tend to be passed on to employers. But the speed at which this happens will depend on how determined workers are in fighting the wages struggle. So the way to “fight the Poll Tax” is to press on with the trade union struggle for higher wages and salaries.

The arguments which take place about taxes are about which section of the rich, propertied class should bear the tax burden: employers of labour, landlords or people living on interest. The Poll Tax certainly does shift the burden of local taxation off the shoulders of rich people with big houses, but it shifts this burden not on to us workers but, in the form of higher wage bills and lower profits, on to those who directly employ us. Yes, smash the tax, employers might say. but why should we pull their chestnuts out of the fire?

To pay or not to pay? There is not really any serious choice here as the law has been very cleverly framed so that everybody is going to pay in the end. even if out of deductions from their wages or out of the proceeds of the sale of their furniture. In any event even if the campaign of civil disobedience was successful and the Poll Tax abolished, this would make no essential difference to living standards. In the highly unlikely event of it being abolished and replaced by nothing else, this would exert a downward pressure on wages. In practice, however, the Poll Tax would be replaced by some other local tax (the Labour Party is talking about “a modern property tax and a local income tax”) just as it is replacing the rates and which would also be incorporated into the workers’ cost of living.

We are not saying that workers should never defy the law. There are occasions when they should, as over being conscripted into the armed forces to kill fellow workers in some other country or over laws banning trade unions and strikes, but the Poll Tax does not fall into this category. The Poll Tax is not a working class or socialist issue. As Socialists we are not prepared to get involved in arguments about local, or for that matter any other, taxes, as we know from our understanding of the economics of capitalism that taxes, even if they are paid by workers, are not a burden that ultimately falls on them.