In The Telegraph, Boris Johnson described the proposed mansion tax as “viciously unfair” because it would levy a tax on people’s homes without taking account of their incomes. The tax would only be levied on people who have houses valued at more than £2 million, however. Why would it simultaneously be fair to cut the housing benefit of much poorer people who happen to have a spare bedroom? The Conservative party should answer this question if it is to be seen as governing on behalf of the people as a whole. It is cutting benefits for the poorest members of society whilst rejecting measures that would reduce the disposable incomes of the wealthy.
Someone owning a ‘mansion’ would be able to borrow against its value and would not face “ruin” but for most people owning ‘mansions’, including Boris himself, the tax would be easily affordable. For people on housing benefit who have a spare bedroom, the situation is very different. They have to move house if they cannot pay the tax, but alternative accommodation may not be easy to find and they may have to move far away from work, friends and family. People in this situation might regard the ‘bedroom tax’ as “viciously unfair”.
Many people are making financial sacrifices to help to reduce the country’s fiscal deficit. This government appears to be extracting more sacrifices from the poor than from the wealthy, thereby increasing financial inequality; its actions belie its claim that ‘we are all in this together’.
The quality of newspaper reporting on this issue is also interesting. Boris Johnson used emotive language about the mansion tax: “viciously unfair” and “a colossal annual fine of tens of thousands of pounds – in other words, ruin”. This could be described as harmless exaggeration, but he also used words which would tilt the debate in a less obvious fashion: describing the Liberal Democrats as “Our little yellow friends”. Was he hoping to make use of alternative senses of the word yellow? It can mean cowardly, and there is also an echo of the language used during the Second World War about the Japanese. Was he trying to slip prejudice into the debate, with the dishonest intention that readers would start to feel hostile about the Liberal Democrats without critically questioning where that hostility came from?
A Mirror article about the bedroom tax also used emotive language: it was entitled “Bedroom Tax victims ‘going hungry and pushed to brink of suicide'”, quoting Raquel Rolnik, the UN’s special rapporteur on housing. This language was as vivid as that used by Boris Johnson, and it can be argued that it is similarly harmless exaggeration – though the Conservative Party chairman “said he is writing to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to demand an apology”. The Mirror article, however, didn’t resort to dishonest use of language.
Neither newspaper felt obliged to explain the opposing arguments.