OPINION - Labour’s lack of honesty — with themselves and us — about tax will haunt them

Labour has committed to major green investment, but plans for spending on the rest of the public sector are less clear (Jordan Pettitt/PA) (PA Wire)
Labour has committed to major green investment, but plans for spending on the rest of the public sector are less clear (Jordan Pettitt/PA) (PA Wire)

“If you’re explaining, you’re losing” is one of those Ronald Reagan quotes that sounds clever — so long as you don’t give it too much thought. Sometimes, it really is the Government’s job to break down a complex problem or set out its response to a crisis. That said, if you’re explaining why you can’t tell parents whether or not their child’s school may contain concrete likely to come crashing down on their heads, you probably are losing.

This has been a brutal couple of weeks for the Government, and the metronome of politics dictates it must therefore have been a good one for the Opposition. And it was. This would have been the case even if Sir Keir Starmer had not further stamped his authority over his party with a clinical reshuffle that left his shadow cabinet with more Blairites than many of Sir Tony Blair’s.

Moreover, the public debate has shifted further in a direction favourable to Labour. When schools threaten to collapse, interest in otherwise esoteric questions of capital spending begins to rise. We are all Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, now. Yet this also poses questions for Labour it does not seem at all eager to address.

The platonic ideal for all opposition parties is simple: to offer change without risk. The first part is straight forward enough — Sir Keir looks and sounds different to Rishi Sunak. It’s the risk thing the party often struggles with. Voters sometimes like the policies Labour has to offer, but balk at actually putting it in charge. Much safer to elect the cold-hearted but competent Tories.

We are told that Britain is a nation on the brink, yet at the same time no-one will have to pay more to fix it

To that end, Sir Keir and his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have been on a reassurance offensive. On spending, Reeves rules with an iron first. And on tax, she has gone further, ruling out not only raising income tax but a wealth tax as well. Yet therein lies the contradiction at the heart of Labour’s pitch. We are told that Britain is a nation on the brink, crying out for transformation. Our schools are crumbling, prisoners escaping, local councils going broke, sewage flowing into rivers, GDP falling. At the same time, no-one will have to pay a penny more to fix any of this. Even if this line holds during the campaign, it is unlikely to survive a Budget.

It also speaks to a reality denied by both main parties: that current Treasury spending plans are science fiction. That even under Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan, investment will be falling over the next parliament. That the NHS workforce plan is unfunded. That we must pay more for an ageing society and the end of the post-Cold War peace dividend. Starmer and Reeves judge that ruling out higher taxes now is the only way Labour can win. They may even be right. But such promises will drastically restrict their room for manoeuvre in government. If the plan is to fix the mess with a larger state, the Liz Truss experiment serves as a reminder that cannot be funded by additional borrowing alone.

Given that the Tories aren’t being honest about the scale of tax rises to come, why should Labour? The answer is that, as it turns out, we are not in a post-truth world. Voters still know the difference between promises kept and broken. Even if Sir Keir and Reeves don’t want to do full disclosure, they could perhaps not quite so categorically rule out what they will have to do once in government.

Japan offers a vision of the future (and game-changing McFlurrys)

From one ageing, under-defended island nation where the centre-Right party has been in power for most of the post-war period to another —greetings from Japan.

I’ve enjoyed the usual tourist fare: drinking buckets of miso soup, visiting shrines and marvelling at the provision of public toilets. I just wish my greatest discovery wasn’t that at Japanese McDonald’s, the McFlurry toppings (ie the best bit) are evenly distributed throughout the ice cream. This is a genuine game-changer and may be responsible for the country’s flatlining labour productivity figures.

I’ve eaten real food, of course. At a dive bar in Osaka with world-famous curry. Sashimi in Hiroshima and the fluffiest pancakes in Tokyo. But the McFlurry thing really ought to be on billboards.

This is not my first visit — I adore Japan. It is a vision of the future set in 1989, something this middle-aged millennial can wholeheartedly get behind.