Keir Starmer could probably, in the words of Gillian Keegan, sit on his backside for the next 12 months and still win the next General Election. Whatever you think of the Education Secretary’s efforts to stop classrooms falling on children’s heads, we should be thankful for their sakes she’s not teaching Use of Language in one of them.
Starmer has turned bottom sitting into an art form, prompting criticism that voters still do not know what Labour stands for. Even one of his own MPs, Dawn Butler, admitted her leader is not doing enough to explain his policies.
This is to mistake caution for inaction. And caution should be seen as a quality in any future prime minister given the mess impulsiveness landed Boris Johnson and Liz Truss in.
But it is frustrating for journalists and broadcasters who want clear answers to straight questions. I have experienced this myself. Starmer is sharp, thoughtful, and personable in interviews oozing decency and integrity from every pore. But he was a devil whenever I tried to pin him down on detail.
Rishi Sunak's Tories have accused Labour of not putting forward policies
Which was why the interview he gave to the Daily Mirror this week was such a refreshing surprise. When pressed on whether a Labour government would raise income tax he replied with an unequivocal “No”. This bluntness caught the Tory rebuttal unit on the hop which is why it came out with such contradictory mush.
Tories tried the well-used line that this showed Starmer cannot be trusted to keep promises - because he’d reneged on a pledge to hike top rate income tax by 5 per cent. And then they flipped that coin to suggest that if he doesn’t raise personal taxation Labour will have no money to do anything. Either position is a nonsensical one for any self-respecting Conservative to take as it implies whooshing up the tax burden is somehow a “good thing”.
But it is right that with an election not so far away that voters should ask what a Labour government will cost them? And the answer if you’re on average earnings of £26,000 a year - or £31,000 if you work full-time - is nothing extra at all. But that doesn’t mean no tax rises elsewhere.
Those who can afford to send their children to private schools will have to pay VAT on the fees with the cash raised going on more teachers in the state sector. This is a matter of fairness as much as anything else. People should be able to spend their own money as they like, and if they choose to splash it on Eton, Harrow or Winchester that’s their business. But the taxpayer should not be asked to subsidise that choice and parents should pay full whack.
The non-dom status which Rishi Sunak’s wife once enjoyed until she was found out will also be abolished which means foreign earnings will be taxed in Britain. This may not produce the windfall Labour hopes, because non-doms are by their nature highly mobile and may just up sticks and go somewhere else. But, again, it is a matter of fairness. Those who wish to live here should pay full taxes here.
It remains to be seen what happens to council tax, but it is in dire need of reform whoever makes up the next government. Homes in London’s exclusive Kensington and Chelsea cost eight times the national average yet council tax of £2,700 is only double the average.
It’s time to rethink property valuations done in 1991 which should give Angela Rayner something to sink her teeth into in her new gig at Levelling Up.
What Labour will do is to stick to Tory spending plans for the first two years it is in office, a leaf shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has taken out of Tony Blair’s New Labour playbook. And in Blair’s first term he was still able to keep national debt to below 40 per cent whereas now it is 100 per cent.
This requires some patient sitting on backsides to keep expectations within realistic limits. Labour will not be able to improve public services overnight, though there are things it can do without needing to splash the cash.
Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting’s scheme to use spare capacity in private hospitals to reduce NHS waiting lists does not need extra money to do it. A hernia repair will cost the same £2,500 wherever it is done; a new hip £11,500 whether in an NHS hospital or a private one.
I have heard some intriguing evidence that Mr Streeting may not have to wait as long as he thinks to put this plan into action. The current consensus among MPs is that the election will be in October 2024 and come off the back of next year’s party conferences.
But some councils who are not holding local elections in May are nevertheless quietly being asked about the availability of their polling stations in that month.
Could Rishi Sunak be plotting to wrong foot us all and dash to the polls early? If there are better than expected inflation figures, a growing economy, falling debt, NHS waiting lists down and fewer boats crossing the Channel he just might.