Keir Starmer has insisted that his priority at the next election will be to hike taxes for the top 5% of Britons and signalled that he may go even further in squeezing the very richest.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, the Labour leader moved to quash suggestions that he had abandoned his leadership pledge to jack up income tax on anyone earning over £80,000.
Although the party has a current policy of opposing government tax rises during the pandemic, Starmer said that if he became prime minister in 2024 he may have to “be bolder than we imagined” to rebalance the UK’s economy and invest in public services.
In the interview, he also:
- responds to Gogglebox viewers’ criticism of him, saying Boris Johnson is “governing by hindsight”;
- says that, unlike the PM, he “won’t be complaining” about his salary, housekeepers and nannies if he gets into No.10;
- defends the BBC and says shadow ministers were wrong to say it played any part in Labour’s 2019 defeat;
- reveals he ‘passed’ unconscious bias training;
- admits his wife does more of the housework but says during lockdown he’s been “hoovering the stairs”.
During his leadership campaign earlier this year, the first of Starmer’s 10 “pledges” to Labour members was “to increase income tax for the top 5% of earners, reverse the Tories’ cuts in corporation tax and clamp down on tax avoidance, particularly of large corporations”.
He was, however, careful to avoid committing himself to the last manifesto’s detailed promises, which were to create a 45p tax rate for earners over £80,000 and 50p for those over £150,000.
Since the coronavirus crisis, Labour has developed a policy of opposing any tax rises, believing that they would harm any recovery and hit people on average incomes.
Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy last week suggested Starmer’s first pledge had been scrapped as a result of the new opposition to any Tory tax hikes.
But when asked directly by HuffPost UK if his leadership pledges had changed, Starmer replied: “No, they were important pledges – very important pledges – in terms of the approach I would take and the priorities I would have as leader of the Labour party, and they remain my priorities.
“What I’m saying is, the work and the challenge now is so much more profound than we thought it was in 2019. Or even this year before the pandemic hit. It actually means we might have to be bolder than we might have imagined.”
The reference to “bolder” solutions may spark fresh speculation that Labour is considering a “wealth tax” at the next election, which would target the assets rather than just the income of the very richest.
A YouGov survey in May suggested that 61% of the public would approve of a wealth tax for those with assets of over £750,000.
A new book by journalist Owen Jones revealed that the £80,000 salary target was set by John McDonnell in 2017 because internal polling showed that many people on lower incomes thought they might be earning £60,000 in five years’ time but no one thought they would hit the £80,000 limit.
Starmer added: “The next general election is in 2024, so I don’t think it’s prudent at this stage to set out tax arrangements for 2024, when we don’t know the size of the debt, we don’t know the damage that has been done.
“And we haven’t yet set out what the strategic priorities will be for the next Labour government. So that’s the kind of work that will necessarily have to be done closer to the election. We will then set it out in full detail and in a costed way.
“We’re going to have to confront a completely different world, where the economy is going to take a massive hit. The fragility of our public services has been completely exposed.
“One of the reasons I think that we have fared so badly in the UK is because of the effect of austerity and the fragility of our economy. We’ve got to face up to that. We’ve got to rebuild in a better way.”
The Labour leader said that he didn’t have “any problem” with publishing his tax returns, as Jeremy Corbyn had done, and suggested that Boris Johnson should follow suit. The PM has failed to do so, despite having done so before he became a cabinet minister.
Asked about reports in The Times recently that Johnson was “struggling” on his £150,000 salary and was worried about being able to afford a nanny and to live without a housekeeper, Starmer said he would not be “complaining” if he got into No.10.
“I didn’t know whether any of that was true or whether it was spun by others. If it is true it doesn’t reflect well on the prime minister,” he said.
“Look, my plan between now and 2024 is to make sure we are in No.10 and I won’t be complaining when I get there.”
Starmer also responded for the first time to Labour voters on Channel 4’s Gogglebox show, who last week ridiculed his position of supporting the government on coronavirus without having his own alternative plans. One family said he was “a lot of wind”, one that he had to stop being “Captain Hindsight”, while others were confused which party he stood for.
Starmer said he had watched the show and insisted that he would not be changing his stance of supporting some government pandemic measures while challenging them where necessary.
“You’ve got to take all this on the chin. Frankly if you can get through my household with my kids not taking anything I do seriously, then you can take Gogglebox. This is all part and parcel of being leader of a political party. It’s perfectly open to everybody to challenge, laugh, joke, cajole. All of my friends and family do it to me all of the time, so I’m pretty used to it.
“Some people do think that if you’re the opposition you should oppose everything the government does. I don’t agree. I think in a crisis like this pandemic there are some issues where we need to support what the government is doing. That’s why we supported national lockdown, that’s why we supported restrictions. We also supported the furlough scheme.
“Actually the government’s complaint against me is that we are doing too much challenging – they don’t like it. But we are challenging them in areas where they need to be challenged and where the challenge can actually bring around some change.”
Asked about the advice from Gogglebox’s Sophie Sandiford that he should tell the prime minister: “Don’t call me Captain Hindsight, call me Bruce Foresight”, Starmer said: “Actually, if you look at what we’ve done over the past few months, we have flagged up in advance what the problem is going to be.
“The prime minister has ignored it and walked into the problem, then when he’s realised where the problem is he’s blamed everyone else for hindsight. He’s governing by hindsight. He’s always looking back at the car crash and wondering how he got into the problem.”
Starmer, who has been criticised by some Black members of the party for his handling of Black Lives Matter issues, said that he had learned more about himself after unconscious bias training this summer.
Asked if he had “passed” the test, he said: “Yes that’s the way to describe it.” But he added: “On its own it’s obviously not enough because we have got structural inequalities baked into almost every part of the system and we need to be more understanding. Eradicating structural inequality has to be a defining cause of the next Labour government.”
He also said that Labour would tackle the educational inequality that saw white working class boys rank lowest of any group in getting into university.
“It’s not just university, it’s through schooling as well. Of course we have to address it. Wherever we see inequality we have to address it in terms,” he said.
“Put your money into young people, put your money into zero-to-five SureStart, have adequate housing and facilities for people.
“You can see it across the country. I have it in my constituency where inequality starts so young. If you don’t invest there, then trying to sort out the inequality 10, 20, 30 years down the line is so much more difficult.
“You have to start at the very beginning. That’s why SureStart was such an important part of what the last Labour government did.”
Starmer also defended the BBC, after Andrew Marr said this week that it was “in a dangerous place” given the speculation about the future of the licence fee. And he condemned Labour activists who booed Laura Kuenssberg during the election campaign.
“I think the BBC is really important – has got incredible services and programmes on it, including the World Service. I don’t subscribe to this view, whether it’s the BBC or anyone else, of attacking journalists asking difficult questions. It’s a really important part of accountability.”
Asked whether he agreed with shadow minister Andy McDonald who said that the BBC had “played a part” in Labour’s loss last December, Starmer replied: “No, I don’t. [...] You don’t turn around and start blaming the electorate or other people – you look in the mirror and ask yourself: ‘What did we do wrong?’ We need to learn that lesson as a party if we are going to get from where we are now to where we need to be in 2024.”
Starmer also rejected suggestions that he was destined to become like Neil Kinnock, rebuilding the party after a shattering defeat but not managing to win an election. He said he would “own” the next four years, rather than referring to the past.
“I don’t know how many times I have to say that I’m not a past Labour leader. People are forever trying to get me to hug a past Labour leader, or be that person. We can learn from all of them but I’m not any of them.
“I’m deeply conscious, and this is really serious for me and for the party, that the next stage of the journey is for us. It’s for us in the circumstances as they confront us, the circumstances framed by the pandemic but obviously with the context of huge cuts to public services, austerity, baked-in injustice. That part of the journey is for us.
“And this leadership team and this party has to own those next four years and therefore pointing back to what other people did is helpful where you can draw lessons from that – but actually this is for us. We have to accept that responsibility and what happens the next four years will reflect on us and not on anybody else.”
Asked about how he had handled lockdown this year, and whether he had done his fair share of household duties, Starmer replied: “I would say yes, but you need to double check that with my wife. She would say no.
“But have I been the one hoovering the stairs? Yes, I have. And dealing with the bins and that sort of thing. But she does far more than I do.”
Put to him that many men had failed to help their partners who had to cope with both extra childcare, housework and their own work, he said: “I think that varies from household to household. Everybody has their own set of arrangements but, as I say, I think I play my part, do my bit. But you’d have to check with my wife!”