On 1 December, Jeremy Corbyn spoke at the York Dialectic Union’s final debate of the semester, arguing in favour of the motion ‘This House Would Introduce a Wealth Tax’. President Adam Moses chaired the debate in which over 350 students attended.
The proposition included Corbyn, former Leader of the Labour Party from 2015-2020 and Joe Seddon, founder of tech company Zero Gravity. The opposition consisted of Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Cameron Bennett, a third-year History and Politics student at the University of York. After battling it out, the motion passed with 252 ‘Ayes’ to 108 ‘Noes’.
Nouse caught up with Bennett, the only University of York student debating, before the event to ask how he was feeling about going against Corbyn. He explained, “I'm quite a big fan, so it's quite weird. I ran in the student elections back in my school under his manifesto, so it's quite surreal to actually meet the guy. I'm quite looking forward to that”.
Bennett got to meet his hero as Corbyn opened the debate with an analogy of him walking mere steps from his North London home and encountering poverty. He claimed that “the issues of a wealth tax go to the heart of the world and society in which we live. Cases of homelessness and poverty are shameful”, he said, “in one of the richest countries in the world”, and offered the statistic that a quarter of a million people in the UK are currently sleeping rough.
He described poverty as a “waste”, in that many children living in relative poverty may find it difficult to fulfil their academic potential. Whilst this is happening, he said, “inequality in personal wealth is growing rapidly” and billionaires are becoming more and more commonplace in society.
Corbyn suggested some steps for introducing a wealth tax in the UK. These included applying a one to two percent tax on assets worth over £1 million, equalising capital gains, applying national insurance to investment income and closing inheritance tax loopholes.
With a wealth tax in place, he stated, we could combat privatisation – especially that of the NHS, which has “become a huge rip-off on the public sector.”
Corbyn ended his piece with the assertion that, although a wealth tax wouldn’t solve every issue, it would create a large enough level of investment that could be used to start tackling poverty and inequality.
Snowdon then gave the opening statement for the opposition. He focused on evaluation and changing value – investments and stocks, for example, fluctuate constantly, which makes it difficult to gauge how much things are worth until they are sold. He also claimed that the process of reevaluation is difficult, and that this is the reason for council tax bands still being worked out using a system from 1991.
Moving onto the Sunday Times Rich List, Snowdon explained that it is very often composed of non-British citizens or residents. The implication of the richest people in the country moving abroad if they feel they are being taxed too much is very real, and could mean that the UK loses valuable investment. In his own words, “people will move around if they feel they are being unfairly taxed.”
Snowdon rounded off his opening speech with some suggestions of his own. “We already have higher tax bands for those who earn more money,” he said, “but we could also introduce a luxury tax on assets.” He also spoke in favour of inheritance tax, as it involves taxing unearned wealth as opposed to earned.
Snowdon claimed we need a “radically simplified” tax system that taxes everything in the same way – the current system is far too complex, and allows for loopholes whereby the rich end up paying less than everybody else.
Seddon was then able to deliver his main argument for the proposition. He continued Corbyn’s denouncement of the UK’s broken tax system, homelessness and failing public services. Seddon said that “a wealth tax does not have to be a left-wing agenda” – regardless of economic or political views, everybody should be in favour of a wealth tax.
Young people are facing historically high levels of income tax – Seddon gave the example that those among us who end up earning £100,000 annually will have to pay 40 percent tax. However, Seddon also rebutted Snowdon’s claim that a wealth tax would not work because evaluation is too difficult of a process – this is an argument that sounds good in theory, but belies the workings of society.
He claimed that multi-millionaires are constantly valuing their assets using simple, well-known systems. He also rebutted the idea that billionaires would leave the UK if they thought they were being taxed too much – billionaires wouldn’t care about a 1 percent wealth tax, and are more concerned about the economic growth of the country they reside in.
In his speech, Seddon emphasised the need to change the current tax system for future generations. Not only would this benefit young people, but also the rich – surely they would much prefer to see their money invested back into society so that they can see it making a difference: “It’s not about taking away from the wealthy – it’s about giving everybody a fair shot.”
Bennett then delivered his argument for the opposition. In his exclusive pre-interview with Nouse, Bennett gave his biggest tips for debating. He explained, “I think the biggest mistake people make when debating is trying to be as contentious as possible. Essentially you have to figure out the ways you can achieve the opposition’s aims by not supporting the motion”.
Bennett also emphasised the importance of “be[ing] funny”. Using the example of the wealth tax debate, he explained, “No one wants ten to 12 minutes on economic policy…don't talk about the economy, it's really dull. Just try to be funny, use anecdotes and be self-deprecating.”
Sticking to his guns, Bennett did not ramble about the economy. Rather, he began by asserting that the opposition agreed with most of what Corbyn and Seddon were arguing regarding the state of poverty in the UK, and that this is “not an issue that anyone is disputing.” However, he rhetorically asked, “does a wealth tax actually help people, and does it reduce wealth inequality?”.
Bennett firstly rebutted Seddon’s point on the benefits of the rich achieving a sense of moral legitimacy. Bennett claimed this is flawed because a wealth tax fails to distinguish between inherited and earned wealth, or, if it does, it comes at the cost of incentive. Bennett stated that, whilst he is in favour of people working hard and investing their money, he does not approve of those who inherit their wealth and flaunt their privilege over others because of it.
Bennett then moved on to embellishing Snowdon’s arguments regarding the impracticality of implementing a wealth tax, reinforcing the idea that stocks and shares are constantly fluctuating and therefore difficult to value. He used a system that France tried to implement as an example – there, millionaires were asked to submit a receipt of their assets, but what is the use in asking an “inherently dishonest” class of people to come clean about their property? Moreover, the process of collecting tax is one that is inherently flawed – if people don’t want to pay tax, they simply won’t.
Bennett claimed that “a wealth tax makes too many assumptions about the role of the [welfare] state, the nature of wealth, and the relation it has to the state.” He described the role of a wealth tax as one of redistribution, in essence, taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor. However, this would go against all other forms of taxation that the UK has implemented. To the opposition, Bennett claimed, “holding wealth is immoral.” Yet policies based on morals don’t generally seem to work.
Bennett concluded that the reason we have income tax brackets is so everybody bears an equal strain. According to him, there is no need to collect additional tax from those at the top of society – everybody should collectively feel the strain of the welfare state because “tax is a duty, not a punishment.”
Closing statements were then given by Corbyn and Snowdon. They were brief and reiterated the points given by each member in their earlier speeches.
Corbyn described the introduction of a wealth tax as “a signal that we’ve recognised the injustice in society”, claiming that he doesn’t want to live in a country where the poorest people have to do their best just to survive. He also suggested that a wealth tax would make the tax system fairer, and bring in sufficient money to tackle issues such as inadequate public transport, poor-quality housing and homelessness.
Snowdon closed his side of the debate by stating that the government already raises £8 billion in tax revenue, and so a wealth tax would not begin to combat the aforementioned issues. He also reinforced the impracticalities of a wealth tax, claiming that it is wrong to tax intangible assets such as stocks, that only really “exist on paper.” He urged the audience to vote for the opposition if they were interested in “good, workable public policy and a tax system that actually works.”
The motion passed and the night ended in applause. Nouse caught up with YDU President, Adam Moses, to find out how he was feeling after the event. Emphatically, he replied “Absolutely stellar”.
Adam continued, “This debate has been a long time in the works, obviously we’ve been back and forth with Corbyn’s team since February this year so to finally get here has been absolutely amazing actually.”
This will be the end of Adam’s Presidency as he will be succeeded by Cameron Bennett, who debated against Corbyn, and Josef Bräutigam in Semester two. Nouse asked how he felt about his upcoming succession.
Adam explained, “I'm ready to hand it over. I think I’ve gone out on a good note. This has been a part time job for me since February. It’s taken far too many hours, especially over the summer… those lovely summer evenings, emailing hundreds and hundreds of people to get no replies”.
After pining for lost summer nights, Adam explained how it was all worth it as he had a very special guest attending the “Corbyn on Campus” debate. The one and only Ian Moses, Adam’s father, was nestled amongst the University of York students.
Adam said, “It was amazing for him to be there because coming from where I’m from [Adam continued more Liverpudlian than ever], my Dad has voted Labour his entire life, coming from a mining family. He’s a big fan of Jeremy Corbyn, so to give him that experience, it's just amazing as a son”.
Bracing us with a “not to get too soppy”, Adam continued, explaining how he was able to take his father to dinner with Corbyn. Adam said, “To just give him that experience and for him to see me in action this evening, I think he's gone home a very proud father”.
After debating whether their meal with Corbyn was supper, dinner or tea (the latter, Adam advocated), Adam concluded his interview with much gratitude for the YDU. The success of the debate was a real team effort and he assured Nouse of a continuation of high quality, constructive dialogue and discussion next semester.