At the New Statesman‘s Politics Live the Labour leader accused the Prime Minister of failing to understand the anguish caused by rising mortgage rates and the general squeeze on household budgets because he had “never been in that position”. Asked whether he and his wife, Victoria, had been affected by rising rates, Starmer said: “Yes, we have a mortgage and ours has just gone up.”
He said mortgage costs were just one aspect of the cost-of-living crisis, however: “We have to remember it’s only the latest of a number of bills of one sort or another that are rising for families across the country. This is a very, very real cost-of-living crisis. Cost of living has been the issue, for the whole of this twelve months, and right now as well.”
Starmer, who himself earned more than £360,000 in the last two years, said he “does not criticise” the multi-millionaire Prime Minister for his wealth or “where he sends his children to school”, but said that Sunak didn’t understand the experience of struggling with costs. “Sometimes you do need to know what it feels like to sit around a table and not know how you’re actually going to pay your monthly bills,” he said.
Starmer also called Sunak’s language describing the mortgage rates crisis over the past week “extraordinary”. In response to rising interest rates and mortgage deals, Sunak had implored the nation to “hold our nerve” and insisted that he was “totally, 100 per cent on it”. He has pledged to halve inflation by the end of the year, but many experts are now concerned that he will be unable to meet this target.
Starmer said: ” ‘I’m on it.’ ‘Hold your nerve.’ … The idea that people that are struggling every day do not understand the economic context they’re in is frankly real evidence of just how out of touch he is.”
Starmer contrasted his own, working-class, background with Sunak’s. “My dad worked in a factory all his life, that was his working environment,” he said. “I’ve never known any work environment other than the factory until I left home. My mum was a nurse and then she was able to carry on. So this was a classic working-class family.
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“We holidayed here. We never went abroad. We didn’t really eat out very much. It’s not a sob story, it’s a story of what it’s like to grow up working class, but more importantly, it gave me an insight into respect and dignity.
“There were times where we couldn’t pay all the bills and we had to decide what we wouldn’t have any more… That is a feeling of anxiety but also shame, of not being able to do something. I don’t think [Sunak’s] been in that position.”
Increasing housing costs were having a negative impact on social mobility in the UK, he said: “It’s a small example of the journeys of individuals and families going the wrong way under this government… Some people are going backwards because of the pain inflicted by this government.”
On the cost-of-living crisis more broadly, however, Starmer would not say whether Labour would block higher public sector pay deals in an attempt to curb inflation; nor did he bow to calls for his party to back the policy of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, of universal free school meals for primary pupils. Nor would he admit that Brexit is damaging the economy or be drawn on whether corporate profits are contributing to rising inflation – a trend described as “greedflation” – despite even the International Monetary Fund saying that profiteering is a more significant factor than the rising cost of energy imports.
Pushed on free school meals, Starmer said: “Well, that isn’t our policy. We’ve got different policies, for example breakfast clubs where they’re needed, etc. So that isn’t our policy, but there isn’t one silver bullet, there is a strategy, which is to run the country in a way which is for working people.”
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Starmer was also asked about Daniel Korski, one of the people running to become the Tories’ candidate for mayor of London, who has been accused of groping a female journalist in 2013. Korski denies the allegation. Starmer told the conference that he knew “very little detail” of the allegation, but that there will be a “level of concern that, yet again, there’s a sort of pattern of behaviour in politics” and that Korski has “clearly got to answer this allegation”.
The Labour leader also denied “nonsense” reports he had offered peerages to a string of Labour figures, including party stalwarts such as Ed Balls and David Miliband. “It is perfectly true that there’s that imbalance in the House of Lords,” he said. “We have many less members in there than the government does, and any incoming government wants to get his business through… but I haven’t personally discussed this with anyone nor have I offered anybody a peerage, or named anybody who might be approved.”
When asked whether the Labour Party’s double-digit poll lead was being driven more by the public’s dislike of the Tories than a hunger for a Labour government, he said: “First thing is: don’t inhale polls. The only votes that count in the end are the ones that go through the ballot box and, therefore, what happens in the local elections is what I study in great detail. To some extent, when the government’s made such a mess of the country, everybody is feeling it, then of course they’re likely to turn against the government.
“We’re now on the third prime minister with a government that is falling apart, with people departing left, right and centre. So of course it’s partly them [driving Labour’s poll lead] but it is also us. We have changed the Labour Party.”
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