Starmer shifts left in attempt to crowd Long-Bailey out of Labour contest

Frontrunner pledges to follow Corbyn tax plans as leadership hopefuls clash over candidate selection and Brexit

Keir Starmer will on Sunday promise to endorse Labour’s commitment to increase tax on the highest-paid, as part of his pledge not to ditch Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy should he become the party’s next leader.

In a leadership hustings in Cardiff, the shadow Brexit secretary will announce that he intends to stick to the party’s plan to increase income tax on the top 5% of earners, which equates to those on incomes of about £80,000 a year or more.

The frontrunner in the contest will say that Labour “cannot step back from our core principles or commitment to build a fairer economy and society”. However, he will not be using the exact tax bands recommended by Labour in the election campaign, which included a top rate for those earning more than £125,000 a year.

It is the latest attempt by the leadership contender to reassure the party’s strongly leftwing membership that there will not be a sudden shift away from policies drawn up since Corbyn became leader in 2015. At a hustings in Bristol yesterday, fellow contender Lisa Nandy struck a similar note by announcing that she wanted to see an end to references to the British Empire in the honours system.

“It was Benjamin Zephaniah who baulked at the prospect of accepting an OBE – Order of the British Empire,” she said. “Why not a choice to provide the Order of British Excellence? Why does the honours system – which should recognise the contribution of our people – shut people out, rather than bring people in?

“That is the country I want to build, and the Labour Party I will lead – that never accepts the world as it is but builds the world as it should be. As Benjamin Zephaniah asks, What happened to the verse of fire? We can be far more ambitious.”

Several senior Labour figures said Starmer’s move left “no political room” for Rebecca Long-Bailey to exploit. Long-Bailey is the candidate seen as closest to Corbyn, and is supported by the current leader’s biggest backers, the Unite union and the Momentum campaign group.

Starmer has already warned the party not to “oversteer” away from Corbyn’s radical left policies as a result of the disastrous election result, which saw the party fall to its lowest share of seats since 1935. He has also portrayed himself as the candidate who can unite the party after years of infighting.

As well as his tax pledges, Starmer will today commit to reversing cuts in corporation tax and clamping down on tax avoidance, especially by large corporations such as Amazon and Virgin. Speaking in Cardiff, he will point to official figures suggesting that £1.8bn was lost through tax avoidance in 2017-18, enough to pay for the salaries of 55,500 nurses and health visitors a year.

“Labour didn’t lose the last election because we promised to raise tax on the highest 5% of earners or to make corporations pay their fair share of tax,” he will say. “If elected Labour leader, I will want to work towards writing a tax and economic plan that is radical and relevant for the end of the 2020s and 2030s. However, I want to make a clear commitment now: we cannot step back from our core principles or commitment to build a fairer economy and society.

“If we want to rebalance our economy and invest in public services, it’s right that we ask those with the broadest shoulders – the top 5% of earners – to pay more in tax. And we need to clamp down on tax avoidance – by companies and individuals – which costs the taxpayer billions.”

Despite the calls for unity, leadership contenders clashed yesterday over the issue of selection of Labour MPs, which has often proved divisive. Long-Bailey reiterated her pledge to bring in open selections if she becomes leader, a move that would effectively allow local Labour activists to deselect their MP. Being an MP “is not a job for life”, she warned.

However, she was confronted by Nandy, who warned against focusing on the party’s internal power struggles. “The MPs I want to get rid of are Tories, not Labour,” she said.

The candidates also clashed over Brexit during the first hustings event since Britain’s departure from the EU. Long-Bailey and Nandy called on the party to accept Brexit and move on. However, the firmly pro-Remain shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, who still lacks the necessary grassroots support to win a place on the leadership ballot paper, said that the bumpy negotiations ahead meant Labour needed a leader who had been “on the right side of the argument all along”.

Long-Bailey warned that the party’s next election campaign must not be based on “we told you so” over the dangers of Brexit.

Starmer, who helped steer Labour towards backing a second referendum, said that the debate around Leave or Remain was over. However, he accused the government of failing to tackle the issues that had led to the Brexit vote.

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