Is Labour misleading Wandsworth residents on its Council tax rhetoric?

5 mins read
Wandsworth Town Hall - Credit: Google Map

A small increase in the Council Tax would be considered by many as a tour de force, as the new council has implemented many new projects since coming to power in May 2022. However, the current communication from the Labour majority is confusing… here we explain why.

At the end of February, many Wandsworth residents received an email from the Council (or read online in Brightside) that the new Labour Council was “freezing council tax this year“. In his video statement, Simon Hogg, the Leader of the Council, said:

“Wandsworth council is freezing your council tax this year to help in the cost of living crisis. I’m proud to say that residents here in Wandsworth will pay the lowest average council tax in the country. We’ll charge the same low council tax and deliver better services for all.”

These were is exact words, nothing else, in the video displayed with his message.

Given the current conditions, many would consider this a tour de force, as the new council has implemented many new projects since coming to power in May 2022.

The environmental agenda is particularly heavy with a commitment to becoming a net-zero borough by 2030. Renovating buildings, changing gas boilers for sustainable energy, and insulating all office buildings, as well as leisure centres, children’s centres, and schools, comes at a considerable cost. The council is organizing consultations, a Citizen Assembly, and has also extended the free mega skips, among other measures. They are providing free swimming and gym sessions for families who receive universal credit or free school meals.

Regarding housing, the council has committed to delivering 1,000 new council homes, and introducing landlord licensing to protect private renters. And one of the first thing they did was to take measures to become a London Living Wage accredited Council, which the Conservatives refused to promise during the campaign.

This busy agenda would rightly explain an increase in council tax, especially as the situation is now very different from last spring when the war in Ukraine had just started. Since then, Wandsworth has been dealing with a cost of living crisis while also helping 800 Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war.

Why claiming a freeze in Council tax while they are increasing it?

The letter to residents, titled “Council Tax Freeze”, starts with the sentence “Wandsworth Council is freezing your council tax this year“. However, at the penultimate paragraph, it says:

“There will be an increase of 2 per cent in the social care levy, to support the NHS and care for our most vulnerable residents.”

Letter announcing “Council tax freeze” (click to see bigger)

The Council Tax is a local tax that helps to pay for a wide range of public services in the borough. The amount each household pays is made of three elements:

  1. Core Council Tax (-2.1% in 2022/23)
  2. Adult Social Care precept (+1% in 2022/23) part of Wandsworth share of the Council Tax
  3. Share of the Council Tax collected on behalf of the Greater London Authority (+8.8% in 2022/23)

Local authorities with responsibility for social care, such as Wandsworth, may levy a precept to spend exclusively on adult social care. In 2022/23 the maximum increase allowed was 1% and in 2023/24 it will be 2%.

So, in effect, Wandsworth’s share of the Council tax (parts 1 & 2) will increase by 2% from April 2023.

The problem is that during the Campaign, the Labour Party was convinced that in order to win the elections, they needed to play the Conservatives’ game of low Council Tax.

Misleading message on Council Tax from Labour

In their 2022 manifesto Labour, page 7, Simon Hogg claimed: “Wandsworth Labour will cut your Council Tax this year“. In reality, the future tense was superfluous as Conservatives voted in February 2022 to cut their share of the Council Tax by 1% for 2022/23, which came into force in April 2022, one month before the election. The only thing the Labour did was to support this decision.

However, the Labour party was so eager to use the Council Tax argument during the campaign that while their manifesto stated the cut would happen “this year,” a tweet from their official account claimed it would happen “next year.”

Tweet on 4:33 PM · Feb 24, 2022

It’s already very confusing but it becomes even more misleading.

The link in the Tweet is more explicit as it states “a 1% reduction this year“.

This reduction was achieved through a 2% reduction in the Core Council Tax and a 1% increase in the Adult Social Care precept. Therefore, cutting the Council tax by 1% seemed to be endorsed in the Labour Manifesto (page 17) as a reduction of both the Core Council Tax and its social care element. Otherwise, the manifesto should have mentioned a cut of 2% if it only referred to the Core Council Tax:

“Labour supports low Council Tax – which is why we’re backing a 1% cut this year.”

However, it is worth noting that currently, the Council Leader has a different interpretation. Simon Hogg now states that when he talks about freezing the Council Tax, he means only the Core Council Tax.

This change in stance has caused confusion and can be considered misleading by the public.

A non-denial denial, or how to fuel the distrust in politics

Wikipedia has got a full entry for what Simon Hogg and the Labour party did, which is described as a non-denial denial. This is a case in which words that are literally true are used to convey a false impression.

The entry gives the example of Tony Blair, who promised in the 2001 Labour manifesto not to introduce ‘top-up’ fees, but later tripled tuition fees, claiming that the promise was only valid for the duration of the next parliament (2001-2005). He also later said that people misunderstood top-up fees, as the increase was only on tuition fees, which, according to him, are different.

Another famous example is from George Bush in the USA, who said in 1988: “Read my lips: no new taxes“. After raising the taxes in the 1990 budget, he explained that no new taxes did not mean no increase in existing taxes!

The Center for Media and Democracy, which publishes SourceWatch, is more specific about this kind of statement. They define a “non-denial denial” as:

“Examples of public relations and political spin, namely the conveying of an ambiguous message in an apparently unambiguous manner that contains enough “get out clauses” to enable the person using the language to apparently break their word if necessary with the explanation that the listener had misunderstood the words and read into them a certainty that, when closely examined, proved not to be there in reality.”

Those statements meant to deceive or give a wrong impression are catastrophic for the level of satisfaction with democracy.

Politicians who worry about the decline in political trust, at its lowest in the UK according to recent polls, should reflect about the message they send to the voters. IPPR, The Progressive Policy Think Tank, has cautioned that “declining political trust is associated with rises in disengagement from the political system, populism and polarisation of society.

Labour accused of lie in the last full Council meeting

All the issues explained above provided a great opportunity for the Conservatives to highlight the discrepancies between Labour’s communication and reality.

Conservatives councillor Peter Graham led the charge, with his usual sense of ‘moderation’ (sic!), accusing Simon Hogg of performing “the unusual premature and somewhat contorted feat of blowing smoke up his own ass” and added: “you lied and compounding your lie tonight is your insistence that council tax is staying the same when you’re increasing it{NB: Yes, we are not in Parliament, one can say “lie” and insult other members of the Council here in Wandsworth}.

Later, Cllr Hogg responded on naming specifically the “main element” of the Council Tax: “Freezing the main element of council tax is a key part of our plan to deliver a fairer more compassionate more sustainable Borough“.

You can watch the related part of the debate in the video below.

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CJI editor and Clapham Junction Action Group co-founder and coordinator since 2008, Cyril has lived in Clapham Junction since 2001.
He is also funder and CEO of Habilis-Digital Ltd, a digital agency creating and managing websites and Internet solutions.