Tribune leader, 15 November 1991

Local government finance is hardly the most excit­ing political issue facing Britain today. But it is one of the most electorally telling. Local taxation affects everyone and one of the main reasons the Tories are in such a mess is their extraordinarily incompetent experiment with the poll tax.
The poll tax is unfair, uncollectable and universally unpopular and it is not surprising that the Tories want to put it behind them. They had been hoping, however, to do so in a leisurely fashion after winning an autumn election this year. Instead, the election was postponed in the face of opinion polls showing that the Tories would not win – and Michael Heseltine was made to bring forward the council tax legislation. The council tax bill will be rushed through parliament in time to give the Tories the option of calling the election before next year’s poll tax bills, which are certain to be mas­sive because of the level of non-payment, drop on to the nation’s doormats. With this in mind, the government has allowed the bare minimum of parliamentary time for scrutiny of the legislation.
The upshot is that we will be lumbered with a local government tax which, if marginally less regressive than the poll tax, is almost as unfair and just as un­workable. The council tax valuation process is laugh­ably arbitrary and appeals against valuation decisions will overload any conceivable system. The discount for single-person households is virtually an invitation to tax avoidance. And the retention of draconian central government capping powers makes a mockery of the principle of local accountability. Add the patent unfair­ness of the banding structure, which means that a fami­ly in a suburban semi will pay the same as one in a country mansion, and the council tax has all the makings of a disaster. A return to the rates with an improved rebate system, as Labour has advocated, would have been simpler, fairer and above all infinitely more practicable.
Facing up to racism
The Conservative Party has never been averse to us­ing race to win elections: since the fifties, it has con­sistently stood as the party that is “toughest on im­migration” and most insistent that minority ethnic groans conform to the “British way of life”. The Asylum Bill, as mean-minded a piece of legislation as any put forward under Margaret Thatcher, is entirely consis­tent with the Tory record. So too is the slimy treatment meted out to Ashok Kumar by the Tories in the Langbaurgh by-election last week. However much Chris Pat­ten and John Major deny it, the Tories are playing the race card in the run-up to the general election.
That, however, is only the start of the problem. If a significant proportion of voters were not themselves racist, there would be no point in the Tories, or anyone else, trying to grab votes by playing up race issues. It is quite right for Labour to deplore the Tories’ tactics, but it would be far better for the party to spend a little more time and energy developing long-term policies to combat the racism endemic in British society. A Black Socialist Society within the party and pledges to tight­en up the law on racial discrimination are not enough.
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