Is charging VAT on private schools a vote loser?
Whether a policy is wise and whether it is unpopular are different questions
Labour has promised to charge VAT on private school fees, and lots of columnists who just happened to go to those private schools are unhappy. Perhaps they are right to be. Several of them have also claimed that the policy will damage Labour electorally, however, which seems something of a stretch.
Around 615,000 children between the ages of 4–18 attend private schools in the UK (and that includes around 24,000 children being sent to board here by foreign parents living overseas). That’s a large number, but in a country of 70 million, it’s a very small minority.
Around 27 per cent of the adult population have dependent children (that does include those who are too young to go to school, but people planning on sending their children to private school count for our purposes), and around 6.2 per cent of current schoolchildren are educated privately. Put those two figures together, and you get an estimate of 1.7 per cent of the adult population. It’s not insignificant, but it’s really not that many.
Some comments on social media laughed away the idea that people rich enough to send their children to private schools would consider voting Labour anyway. This isn’t right either. Parents of private school children do tend to be wealthy — average fees for a day school are £16,659, let alone a boarding school — but they aren’t universally so. Academic data suggests between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of private school parents come from the lower half of the income range, though almost half, as you expect, come from the top 10 per cent of earners. To put that into real terms, the average equivalised gross income for the top 10 per cent of households is £164,283, allowing that it will be dragged up by some super rich people at the top.
Even if all private school parents were rich, that is no bar to voting Labour. In the latest wave of the British Election Study, Labour was ahead even amongst households earning over £150,000 a year. It is certainly reasonable to assume that there will be some potential Labour voters who will be impacted by VAT on school fees. The point is, there just aren’t that many of them.
VAT on private schools is a perfect policy in purely electoral terms
But, you might well say, polices aren’t just about those directly impacted. What about other people who may aspire to go to private school, or wider society? When it comes to wider society, we don’t need to guess what people might think; we can just look at polling evidence. The most recent YouGov polling on whether private schools should receive tax breaks shows 49 per cent think they should not. 26 per cent say they should only retain them in exchange for doing more to help the public sector, with 11 per cent supporting the status quo.
I doubt very much that wide support will actually win many additional votes for Labour — taxation of private schools is not a salient issue for those who don’t use them. It does at least suggest it’s unlikely to be a vote loser amongst the wider public, though. Labour has promised to spend the money raised on more teachers for state schools, of course — a policy that is both popular and salient.
In many ways, VAT on private schools is a perfect policy in purely electoral terms. People approve of it, it raises money that Labour can use to fund a popular policy, and it concentrates the pain on a very small group who the wider public don’t seem to have much sympathy for.
That does not mean it is a sensible or wise policy in practical terms. It may, for all I know, be a disastrous policy, rife with unintended consequences. Good policies and popular policies are by no means the same thing. The policy’s opponents may be correct in their criticisms of the policy’s outcomes, but the idea that it will damage Labour electorally is wishful thinking.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe