©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

For Starmerites, apostasy on ‘tax and spend’ is central to the creed

Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer recently sat down for an interview with The Economist magazine for a conversation that was framed around unpicking as yet “curiously undefined” Starmerism. 

First of all, it is worth saying that the fact Sir Keir’s political beliefs are a topic of debate right now is good news for the Labour party and its strategists. 

“Starmerism’s” moment in the spotlight speaks volumes about Labour’s opponents in the Conservative party and their struggle to be taken seriously intellectually. The churn of Conservative leaders and the party’s vacillating ideological emphasises have imbued Sir Keir with a political authority only dreamt of by past Leaders of the Opposition. And in the cycle of British politics, where political authority and thought leadership go, high office tends to follow. 

But this is not to say the new imperative to subject Starmerism to finer and finer scrutiny will be plain sailing for Sir Keir. Indeed, serving as Labour leader since 2020, Starmer’s most common criticism is not that he’s merely an “undefined” politician, but someone who is ideologically untethered — altering principles and values at a whim, defined simply by what is politically propitious.

It is a view — set to further ensnare the public psyche as the Conservative party’s general election campaign machine cranks into gear — that centres above all on the “ten pledges” Sir Keir inscribed when running for the Labour leadership in 2020. Sold at the time as “based on the moral case for socialism”, three years later the Labour leader is accused of ritualistically sacrificing the commitments one by one. 

The abolition of tuition fees (featured in commandment two under the “social justice” label) is the latest to be abandoned, joining the “common ownership of … mail, energy and water” on the Starmerite scrapheap. The U-turn looks set to fuel Conservative attacks over why Starmer’s recent pledges should be trusted more than older ones.

But what is probably more revealing about Sir Keir’s political intentions — tuition fees about-face aside — is his updated position on the “economic justice” aspect of his 10 pledges.

Asked about the status of this pledge on Tuesday morning, and the specific commitment to increase income tax “for the top 5% of earners”, Sir Keir told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme: “We’ve got the highest tax burden for since the Second World War and what we’ve had from the government is tax rise upon tax rise on tax rise — and if they’ve proved one thing it’s that their high tax, low growth economy doesn’t work”.

“I accept I’m giving you a different answer to perhaps previous Labour leaders which would always go straight to tax and spend”, Sir Keir happily acknowledged moreover, wearing his party apostasy as a mark of pride. 

“I’m saying my central focus is on growing our economy”, he added. 

Sir Keir’s refusal to recommit to his leadership tax pledge follows a series of new policy announcements from Labour, each consciously orientated to dispel fears the party would head a high-tax economy. 

Kicking off Labour’s local election campaign, Sir Keir said his party would freeze council tax this year if it was in government. The announcement came after an interview by Rachel Reeves, also on the “Today” programme, in which the shadow chancellor explained: “I don’t have any plans to increase capital gains tax”. 

As for the tax reforms Labour has championed, they are crowd-pleasing and designed to be insusceptible to “tax and spend” retorts from Conservative opponents. They include the closing of exemptions for private schools, private-equity bosses and non-domicile taxpayers. The latter pledge is itself part of a targeted attack at Rishi Sunak’s wife and her own “non-dom” status. 

From an electoral strategy perspective, Labour’s approach to tax mirrors that taken by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the lead-up to the 1997 election, who pledged jointly that the top personal income tax rate would not go above the 40 per cent rate they inherited. There can ultimately be little doubting how central a role tax played in the Blairite worldview — and it is only natural that it features so prominently in the Starmerite one too. 

Just as high taxes symbolised “Old Labour” and Blair’s ancien régime, Starmer calculates that any overbearing commitments on tax will associate his brand with that of his problem predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. The spectre of Labour’s reputation as a party of profligate “tax and spend” — those evil twins of left-wing mythology — looms large over Starmer and his strategists. 

While we do not yet have a promise from Starmer that Labour would not raise taxes overall in government, the comments given to BBC Radio 4 are clearly intended to sound like it.

And, arguably, the approach goes even further than this. For Starmer’s comments on Britain’s tax burden point to a belief that taxes are a fundamentally bad thing and that reducing them is a genuine stepping stone to sustained economic growth. This was after all the central message of his Economist interview, namely: “The wider [Starmerite] project is not to simply go down the tax route; it is to go down the growth route”. 

Crucially, Sir Keir not only wants to shake Labour’s reputation as a party of high taxes, but force the Conservative party to own its record of overseeing a Treasury regime with the highest tax burden since WW2. The subtext of the Radio 4 interview was clear: faced with the trade-off between economic growth and high taxes, Labour would choose the former; the Conservatives have opted for the latter. Starmer labelled Rishi Sunak “Mr 24 tax rises” at prime minister’s questions last week. 

In this way, Starmer endeavours to tie the dire key measures of economic health — such as business investment, household incomes and productivity — to the broader issue of Britain’s high tax burden. 

“We’ve had people will be asking themselves after 13 years: ‘Am I any better off?’ And the answer to that is no”, Sir Keir explained to Radio 4, “Now [of] the question you then put to me … I think the high tax low growth model doesn’t work. I think it’s busted. I think this government has busted the economy”.

It is fundamentally apparent that Starmer does not see his backtracking on his ten commandments and Labour’s fiscal instincts as a problem. In so many senses, the riling up of his party’s left and soft left factions is not a bug but a feature of his political approach. 

Party apostasy, especially on tax and spend, is hence central to the Starmerite creed. The more the left kick and scream, the closer Sir Keir thinks he is to government.