There is one consolation in the election results for the former leader of the Labour Party, Mr Miliband, and his journalistic acolytes such as Polly Toynbee: they won’t have to pay mansion tax in the near future. On the other hand, it is possible that they would never have had to pay it, for the difficulties in implementing it would have been a convenient excuse for abandoning it.
The proposed tax was always an appeal to one of the strongest and least unattractive of political emotions, namely envy. The desire to punish the rich is always more vigorous than the desire to help the poor (it being assumed, of course, that the poor actually need the help of politicians). If we can’t all live well, at least we can all live badly.
Mansion tax, then, was a terrible idea whose time had not come, and will never come. It would be a sovereign method of de-gentrifying whole areas and restoring to former slum conditions areas such as Islington. Labour proposals to cap rent and make the shortest term of tenancies three years were likewise terrible, and would have been much worse in their effects than the mansion tax.
That Labour Party proposed bad policies that exhaled resentment does not mean that housing is not a problem in Britain. The cost of housing by comparison with incomes reduces the standard and quality of life dramatically; most people who own houses outright probably couldn’t afford to buy them now. The cost of housing inhibits social mobility and thereby reinforces resentment that ours is an unfair and therefore unjust society.
I have come to think that a strong and uncontrolled private rental market is a much better solution than any system of rent control, social (ie antisocial) housing and owner-occupancy by people with only moderate incomes. This owner-occupancy, like council tenancy, traps people where they are, especially if they have bought in areas where the economy is weak and it is not easy to sell. That is one of the reasons why we have had to import foreign labour to perform relatively unskilled work despite high rates of native unemployment (if one accepts that Incapacity Benefit has been used to disguise unemployment). It was not so much that foreign labour was cheaper – though often it was better – as that it was more mobile. It was trapped neither by the privilege of social housing nor by owning an unsaleable house, and could therefore migrate to where the work was.