Sir Keir Starmer has refused to commit to unfreezing tax thresholds if Labour wins the next general election, saying he won’t make promises he can’t keep.
However, the Labour leader was firmer in his position on inheritance tax, telling Sky News if the Tories reduce it, he will reverse that change because he does not believe “further tax cuts for those that are very wealthy” is the right way forward.
He also warned the Tories he will meet their “fire with fire” as he expects Rishi Sunak will “go low” in a fiercely contested general election.
It comes after the prime minister indicated he will call the national vote in the second half of this year.
Sir Keir, who is about 20 points ahead in the polls, accused the Tory leader of “squatting in Downing Street” and called for an election “as soon as possible”.
When asked by our political editor Beth Rigby if a Labour government would commit to cutting taxes “on day one”, Sir Keir said his priority would be to grow the economy “because that’s been the single biggest failure of the last 14 years”.
He added: “We have said on taxes that we do want to lower the burden of working people, but that has got to be fair and it’s got to be affordable.
“And we’re likely to have a budget before the election, whatever the date is, so nobody quite knows the state of affairs.”
Pressed specifically on whether he would unfreeze tax thresholds – having criticised these as “stealth taxes” – he said: “I’m not going to make promises that I can’t keep.”
The government’s policy is to keep income tax and national insurance thresholds frozen until 2028, meaning millions of workers will be pushed into higher tax bands because of inflation.
Although Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has since announced a cut to National Insurance of two percentage points, the frozen tax thresholds mean the election will happen at a time when the tax burden is at a record post-war high.
Sir Keir challenged the claim the Tories are reversing tax rises, saying “they’ve taken £10 out your pocket, and put £2 back in”.
He said if the economy, which is at risk of recession, doesn’t grow, “we don’t get more wealth created in this country, then we are taxing an ever-reducing pie”.
Inheritance tax cut would be ‘tax cut for the wealthy’
While he refused to say whether he would change personal taxes or unfreeze the thresholds, Sir Keir was more firm on inheritance tax.
It has been reported the Tories could reduce this or even scrap it to create dividing lines with Labour and boost their chances of victory at the election.
Sir Keir said he would reverse any such changes the Tories make.
“I don’t think that further tax cuts for those that are very wealthy with nothing for working people is the right way forward.
“So I’d oppose it, it wouldn’t be what we would do, and of course we would change that if we got the opportunity to do so.”
‘Fight fire with fire’
Sir Keir was speaking after delivering a New Year’s speech in Bristol in which he told disillusioned and disaffected voters “things can be better” under Labour and rejected criticism he is being too cautious.
If his party wins the election, this would bring to an end 14 years of the Conservatives in power under five prime ministers and usher in the first elected Labour prime minister since Tony Blair in 2005.
With so much to play for, it is feared the general election campaign could get dirty and nasty, with the two main parties unleashing bitter personal attacks on their opponent’s leader.
Labour already faced criticism last year for a series of personal attacks on the prime minister, accusing Mr Sunak of not wanting to see child sex abusers jailed because of his law and order record.
But Sir Keir stood by this approach, telling Beth Rigby he is focused on making a positive case, but: “They [the Tories] will go low. What I’m saying is if they want to go with fire into this election, we will meet their fire with fire.”
He added that it was justified because “the stakes at this election are so high for working people”.
“We have to win this election and bring about the change that is so desperately needed by the country.”