10 OCTOBER 1987, Page 5



The tax will certainly feel like a tax on voting, since it will be based on the Register of Electors. This connection is inadvertent, but it will prove important. Writing in Monday's Guardian, Ian Aitken said:

Perhaps the only remaining bonus for the Government, and a deeply cynical one at that, is the probability that so grossly unfair a tax will persuade millions of the less well off to keep their names off the electoral regis- ter, and thus produce a sharp fall in the Labour vote. Not even Mrs Thatcher, I suspect, could welcome that.

Mr Aitken is being rude about his fellow Labour supporters in assuming that they, more than Tories, will prefer to cheat a tax than to exercise their democratic right (although his assumption is probably cor- rect). But he and the Government have stumbled upon an interesting test of civic responsibility. People will now be able to choose between registering to vote and thus being liable for tax, and cheating the tax and thus not being liable to vote. It would be hard to argue that the cheats are being cruelly disfranchised. Indeed, it is neat that by the act of evasion one will lose one's vote. It will help to restore the belief, so important in all extensions of the franchise, that the vote is not a natural right, but a privilege due to free people. It will provide a version of the doctrine of no representation without taxation. Voting is the right to choose representatives who have the power to impose taxes. No one who will not accept the taxes which these representatives impose should be a voter.

The poll tax will therefore improve the quality of the franchise. It will make it smaller and more discriminating. It will strengthen the voting power of stable families because these, moving seldom, will find it harder to evade the tax than more transient, single people. Critics say that the tax will bear very hard on the young living at home on small incomes. So it will: an excellent excuse to raise the voting age to 21, below which it should never have fallen. Then the very young will be saved money and we will be saved the consequences of their opinions.

The new tax will not necessarily, as Mr Aitken fears, encourage the poor not to register, since they will be able to claim rebate. The non-registering classes will be those too well off for relief who value a few hundred pounds in their pockets more than their right to vote. There may prove to be an embarrassingly large number of such people.

The Government has not thought about these questions. The connection between voting and the poll tax was made by administrative convenience not by policy. But if the tax is introduced (and Mr Ridley and Mrs Thatcher are very firm that it will be) the connection will be unavoidable. There will then be the most splendid row. Labour, who have been extraordinarily slow to challenge the 'community charge', will realise that not only their urban power bases but their entire popular vote could vanish. The Conservatives may be embar- rassed to discover that they are accidental- ly introducing a Great Reform Bill in reverse. But some may think that it is the only clear benefit from legislation which, whatever its intentions, promises untold chaos.