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6 April 2017

The universal free school meals reaction shows Labour is damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t

If you are criticising this policy, you should also be hammering the Tories for increasing the basic-rate income tax threshold.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Labour has announced that it would extend free school meals to all primary school children. It would pay for this by introducing VAT on private school fees. As my colleague Stephen writes in his Morning Call, it “ticks all the boxes” of a good opposition policy.

But from the way it’s been received, you wouldn’t think so. The argument from most commentators goes: It is a bad policy, even if it would be popular, so Labour has got it wrong again.

Yes, it has flaws. As Stephen points out, there would be better ways of helping struggling families and stretched school budgets than bunging middle-class families a load of free meals who could afford to pay for them.

But can you imagine if the Conservatives introduced such a policy now? How Theresa May would be praised for her skill in reaching out to middle England, attracting the “just about managing” voters while keeping those with higher incomes content? How she has successfully parked her tanks on Labour’s lawn?

Instead, Labour is hammered for introducing a “popular” proposal at the expense of deeper policy thinking.

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But the party can’t win, can it? Most of the other policies it has recommended so far have been criticised for failing to appeal to the bulk of voters. Too radical, not radical enough, or too focused on the poorest to have any cut-through.

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And yet as soon as it does propose a slightly more superficial policy to appeal to middle-class voters – as well as genuinely helping those who are worse-off – it faces claims of “economic incompetence”.

Those who decry this as a hollow, economically-flawed policy aimed purely at wooing voters should really be saying the same about the Tories’ personal tax allowance rise, which comes in today. Another popular-sounding but ultimately regressive policy – yet hailed as a genius vote-winner.