voters who support taxes on the rich mean taxes on the richer-than-themselves

What makes someone rich? Is it, as Tevye sings, having a fine tin roof with rooms by the dozen and a wife with a proper double chin? Or is it much simpler: having just a little bit more than you already have?

Polling firm Ipsos Mori published some surprising research this week. It showed that almost half of respondents, or 44pc, were in favour of raising taxes – 15 percentage points more than those who preferred spending cuts.

On whom should these higher taxes fall? The rich, of course. The most popular measure for raising taxes, backed by four in 10 people, was a wealth tax affecting those worth more than £500,000. This was followed by a council tax increase on homes worth more than £1m and a hike in capital gains tax – both also wealth taxes.

This followed similar research published last week by Demos, a think tank. It found that 69pc of people – and 70pc of Conservative voters in 2019 – supported raising the income tax rate by 10p in the pound for those earning over £100,000 a year. It also found that 63pc of the public would back a one-off 10pc tax on wealth over £2m, excluding main homes and pensions. A social care tax paid by all people over 40, however – something that would more obviously affect the respondent – was opposed by 45pc.

Be careful what you wish for. It brings to mind the audience member on Question Time last November who was incensed at the suggestion that his salary of £80,000 put him even among the top 50pc of earners. In fact, it placed him in the top 5pc.

He clearly didn’t feel rich. Of course, income and wealth are different measurements. But YouGov research can shed some light on the issue. It found that more than 40pc of people who earn £20,000 said a salary of £40,000 would make a person rich, but this dropped to 15pc of people who already earn that. And nearly eight in 10 earning £20,000 said a salary of £60,000 would make you rich, falling to about a quarter of people with an income of £50,000. So who’s rich? Someone with more than you.

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has an unenviable task ahead of him: he must find a way to pay for the extreme levels of Covid spending and bring down the nation’s decades-high public debt. He had already hinted that tax rises could be necessary.

This week, he went a step further and, after saying he had a “sacred responsibility” to leave the public finances strong, admitted that it would be “tricky” to meet all the Conservatives’ manifesto pledges, which included not raising income tax or VAT.

There are all sorts of reasons wealth taxes won’t work: they distort behaviour, reduce the capital flowing around the economy and ultimately don’t raise very much money at all. But another important reason they are to be avoided is that, when it comes down to it, voters who back a tax on the rich really back a tax on the richer-than-themselves.

Mr Sunak is right: the books have to be balanced somehow. But he should take caution before following what these polls appear to say. Voters may favour higher taxes on “the wealthy” – but they don’t mean themselves. 

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