Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown and Corbyn loyalist Lloyd Russell-Moyle has triggered what might be the first unscheduled political row of the election campaign after saying that he “doesn’t think anyone in this country should be a billionaire” on BBC5Live.
The striking thing about the remarks is not the content themselves, but the fuss. The policy case is well-articulated and well-known: as the FT’s Chris Giles, no-one’s idea of a Corbynite, puts it: “1. You should be a billionaire if you’re worth it 2. Probably, no one is 3. If you’re not worth it and a billionaire – you’ve got your money from rent exploitation – which should be stopped/taxed.”
In a sense, it’s about as surprising as if a Corbyn loyalist declared that they thought that far more of the British economy should be publicly owned. But it feels newsworthy because of a deliberate strategic decision taken by John McDonnell not to talk all that much about income and wealth directly and explicitly. Labour has opted to support tax cuts for people earning in the £50,000-£70,000 band, confining its tax rises to those earning above £80,000 (who will pay a rate of 45p in the pound) and £123,000 (who would pay 50p).
There are number of significant but under-promoted tax rises (capital gains tax would increase to 18 per cent basic rate and 28 per cent higher rate; a lifetime gifts tax on gifts over £125,000; an increase in corporation tax, albeit only to the levels seen under New Labour; and new land taxes), but McDonnell has preferred to talk about who he won’t tax rather than who he will.
In a way, that it is surprising to anyone that Russell-Moyle thinks every billionaire is a policy failure is a testament to the success of McDonnell’s approach. But to sceptics of McDonnell’s approach, it is evidence that his softly-softly method has failed to take the public on a journey as far as tax-and-spend is concerned. For supporters of the McDonnell method, Russell-Moyle’s interview may make them very nervous indeed.