Tuesday, April 16

Not radical enough? Starmer’s caution may yet carry Labor to power | Polly Toynbee

The official opposition is within touching distance of victory. As minor skirmishes break out within the party, Labor people should keep their eyes firmly fixed on that prize. All the disasters must belong to the Tories.

By the end of this year, Keir Starmer may be in No 10, with the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, next door, and with a cabinet table filled with serious new ministers hitting the ground running, after Liz Truss (let’s assume it’s her) has “hit the ground”, as she mis-tweeted recently. The Tory cabinet will fade as if a bad dream: surely Nadine Dorries, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Suella Braverman, Grant Shapps and the rest never happened?

But right now, expect Prime Minister Truss to get a poll bounce, which is why she may grab her only election chance sooner rather than later. Even if she waits for 2023’s boundary changes to come into effect, those extra five to 10 seats won’t be able to outweigh the electoral damage of an escalating cost of living calamity.

Nothing but trouble awaits her, shackled to those impossible pledges. Her low-tax bidding war leaves no money. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has exploded the fantasy that tax cuts bring growth. If so, the IFS says, why have countries with higher taxes than ours, such as France and Germany, achieved higher growth? The Conservatives’ plans only allow for unacceptable 2-3% increases in public-sector pay. Meanwhile, services are already collapsing, with backlogs of 6.6 million people waiting for NHS England operations, 60,000 court cases pending in England and Wales, and 90% of English schools waiting for urgent repairs. So where will her “smaller state” cuts come from?

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The damage from Brexit will harden if Truss breaks the Northern Ireland protocol, triggering an EU trade war. If she veers an inch from a rock-hard Brexit then the European Research Group will make her life from her hell. Her vociferous climate refusers will keep her to abolishing green levies and “not letting net zero affect business”, while long-neglected infrastructure is exposed in energy and water shortages. Boris Johnson sitting behind her, yearning to return, will relish every failure of her.

Whenever the general election comes, Labor looks likely to win: governments fall when voters suffer unmanageable drops in income. A wave of social democratic wins in Australia, Germany, US, Portugal, Norway, Finland, Denmark and others augurs well. recent polling from Savanta ComRes, Survation, Ipsos and more put the Labor lead in double digits. Starmer beats either contend as best prime minister when “red wall” voters are asked, according to fresh polling from Redfield & Wilton Strategies.

When the new Tory leader gets a poll bounce, expect impatient Labor people to panic at Starmer’s caution. He only says what he’s against, they complain. Yes, to stop the Tories gleefully turning the election into another Brexit route, it was essential (although painful) to take a stand against rejoining the single market or customs union: the word “rejoin” ignites old fires. But there’s no doubt the party would make EU peace and trade deals, join the Horizon and Erasmus programs, and agree equal food and goods standards, easy visas for artists, agree EU professional qualifications and more. I back rejoin movements – but I don’t think Labor should.

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It’s the same with strikes. All of Labor backs the fight to prevent massive cuts for those whose pay fell or stagnated for a decade. Strikers stand for everyone, the un-unionized are pulled up by union rates. But Starmer is not wrong to think that a convincing government-in-waiting shouldn’t be seen as protesters: parliament is their forum. Labor shadow ministers gnashed their teeth over the picket line grandstanding of Sam Tarry, who reacted to the prospect of being deselected in Ilford South by claiming, “I am on the side of ordinary British workers”, as if the rest weren’t. Mick Lynch is a great advocate, but the shadow cabinet has a more complex task than he does.

The party’s position, as a senior Labor official tells me, is “100% behind the right to strike” and “to make sure workers get the pay they deserve”. The commitment to ending “the scourge of low pay” means Labor would introduce fair pay agreements across every sector: no zero-hour contracts, no fire-and-rehire, flexible working and the right for unions to recruit in every workplace. The £28bn Green New Deal will create good jobs by setting up electric car battery factories and insulating 19m homes.

Last week’s howl at Starmer and Reeves’ betrayal was over renationalising utilities. But is it wise for Labor to spend billions buying these back, before spending on them or anything else? As Reeves’s team pointed out, rail is effectively state-owned already. Pragmatism means super-tough regulation can do more without wasting a penny. Southern Water is imposing hose pipe bans while reportedly leaking 21m gallons a day. Who wants to pay its owner, the investment bank Macquarie, who loaded it with another £1bn debt while its CEO earns £14.8m? England’s water regulator, Ofwat, warns that rising interest rates will see some water companies go bust – that needs state takeovers.

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As for Labour’s taxes, Reeves says she will target the £174bn lost in tax relief loopholes, so “the broadest shoulders” pay most. She would take another £5bn windfall from energy profits. Making private equity managers pay income tax on earnings that they claim are “carried interest” could raise £440m annually from 2,000 people, according to the BBC: taxing earned and unearned income the same yields a lot. Charging VAT on private school fees would bring £1.7bn for state schools, where, as promised in last year’s conference speech, Starmer guarantees every child the experience of arts, sports and expeditions. The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, promises universal breakfast and after-school clubs and mental health hubs. Sure Start, I’m told, will be back. There’s a great deal more to eat.

Labor people want more radicalism now. For us, nothing can be enough. But Starmer’s Labor is far less cautious than in 1997 when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown welded themselves to a crippling two-year fall in spending. The quintessence of life on the left is Labor losing over and over again. But all the auguries say not this time.

Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist


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