Last night's Newsnight debate in Crewe ahead of the by-election produced a wonderful image that embodied the gulf between politicians and the public on motoring taxes. After a heated debate on fuel duty in which all of the main parties steered clear of promising a cut in the taxes on drivers, Jeremy Paxman asked the audience to raise their hands in a straw poll:
How many people think that the rate of duty on fuel should be cut?
The answer was stark:
As Paxman put it, that is "almost everyone" except, notably, for those two ladies in the front row - who are the Lib Dem and Labour candidates (it should be noted in the interests of balance that the Conservative candidate was for some reason absent, so we can't be sure how he would have voted - in the debate, Michael Gove criticised the cost of motoring but stopped short of promising a tax cut).
There is a severe divide between the views of ordinary people around the country on this issue, i.e. that taxes on motoring are exploitatively and unsustainably high, and those of the main political parties in the Westminster bubble - who are broadly signed up to a strategy of taxing motoring until the pips squeak. As Paxman demonstrated in the debate, even when the Conservatives are talking tough about the burden of fuel duty they have yet to acknowledge the need for a tax cut.
It cannot be healthy for the views of representatives to be so divorced from the views of the people. This is not simply timidity on behalf of the political class, it is in many cases a severe separation and fundamental disagreement over the issue. Punishing drivers with heavy taxation has become gospel in Westminster, whilst the idea of tax cuts on fuel is for far too many MPs a taboo. It is a symptom of the continuing failure of the political parties to connect with the experiences of ordinary taxpayers, and the tendency of some to turn a blind eye to things that challenge their belief in ever higher green taxation.
As our research on green taxes has shown, drivers already pay far more in tax than is necessary to offset even the worst-case estimates of their carbon emissions. There is no sound argument for pushing that cost up further. Electorally, we have also shown that fuel duty hits floating voters in marginal constituencies hardest, so there would be a real benefit to any Party that signed up to reducing fuel duty. You only need to look at the media and public reaction to Darling's unfair and ineffective - in environmental terms - Budget tax hike on Vehicle Excise Duty to see that this an area where votes can be won.