Workers are entitled to ask for a pay rise after a gruelling pandemic and faced with a severe cost-of-living crisis, Keir Starmer has said as official figures showed wages falling in real terms.
The Labour leader’s call came in contrast to comments by the Bank of England governor, Andrew Bailey, who warned this month that wage rises would fuel inflation, saying the UK needed to see “restraint in pay bargaining, otherwise it will get out of control”.
Data from the Office for National Statistics on Tuesday showed real wages fell behind increasing inflation, which is likely to exacerbate the cost-of-living squeeze from rising prices, high energy bills and a national insurance rise this April.
In an interview with the Guardian on Tuesday, Starmer also said:
Labour would oppose the end of free Covid testing – though he stopped short of calling for mandatory isolation to continue in England beyond next week.
Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, made the right decision to force out Cressida Dick as commissioner of the Metropolitan police.
Dozens of Conservative MPs had been in private contact with him expressing dismay at Boris Johnson’s false claim he had failed to prosecute the child abuser Jimmy Savile.
In veiled criticism of Bailey’s comments on pay, Starmer said it was reasonable for workers to demand higher wages but said he wanted to put the main onus on the government to tackle the cost of living. “It’s very difficult to universally say to people – you are not entitled to even ask for a pay rise,” he said.
Bailey’s remarks, which were prompted by fears that higher wage demands could push companies to increase prices further, sparked widespread criticism including from trade unions and the chair of Tesco, plus a rebuke from Downing Street.
Official figures are expected to confirm on Wednesday an inflation rate of close to 5.4% in January – the highest level in three decades. The Bank has said the measure for the annual increase in the cost of living could peak at about 7.25% by April as surging energy prices feed through.
Starmer said ministers should cancel the pending rise in national insurance and intervene more directly in the cost of families’ energy bills, repeating calls for a windfall tax on oil and gas companies who have outperformed projections.
“The government is forever saying these are forces beyond its control, that it can’t do anything because this is all global,” he said. “Actually, those tax increases are the government’s own deliberate policy and half their own side don’t think they’re right.”
Last week, BP’s chief executive dismissed calls for a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies but also described his company as a “cash machine” given gas prices reached all-time highs and oil prices hit a seven-year record.
Starmer said the comments were a “a pretty honest reflection of the situation they think they find themselves in” but said the government had made the choice for the burden to be borne by working families.
“To hear the prime minister say that he wants to protect oil and gas companies and their windfall profits at the expense of working families is a very clear answer to the question, you know, whose side are you on?” he said.
Labour has been keen to draw a dividing line with the Tories on issues beyond the “partygate” scandal, while Westminster waits for the Met police inquiry to conclude. Labour sources said Starmer would keep his focus on divisive issues such as tax and the cost of living during prime minister’s questions to keep the heat on Tory divisions, as well as put the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in the spotlight.
Johnson, who has been given seven days since Friday to answer a police questionnaire along with at least 50 other staffers and aides, is expected to deny any wrongdoing and will make the argument that No 10 is both his home and workplace.
Starmer said the public’s verdict on Johnson was likely to be the same whatever the Met’s conclusion. “There aren’t many members of the public that don’t think that Boris Johnson was involved in parties,” he said.
“Not many members of the public think Boris Johnson has been honest about this. But if you take the public for fools, you’re making a huge mistake because people see through this.”
Starmer admitted there was a wider concern that all politicians were tarnished by the recent scandals, saying “dozens” of Tory MPs had been in touch about Johnson’s remark that Starmer had failed to prosecute Savile a decade ago. Starmer did not take the decision as director of public prosecutions but did apologise for institutional failings.
The Labour leader said Johnson wanted to “degrade the rules and drag everybody down with it”, adding: “And that degrades politics. And it means that more and more people feel disaffected, it ends up with a situation where too many people feel that politics simply can’t be a force for good.”
The investigation into Johnson and Downing Street lockdown parties is expected to continue as the Met begins its search for a replacement for Dick, who resigned after Khan withdrew his backing following a string of police scandals.
Starmer said Khan was right to take the action that forced her resignation. “It’s a huge job now in terms of the culture change that’s needed in the Metropolitan police. But this is not just the Metropolitan police. This is across the wider police force across the country. We need that cultural change, leadership change, training changes. So there’s a big job of work to be done now,” he said.
Johnson will return to parliament next week to lay out plans for “living with Covid” with measures that are widely expected to lift all mandatory isolation periods after a positive test and end free testing for the virus.
Starmer said it was “a mistake to end free Covid tests” – a measure which Sunak is pushing. But he said he would reserve judgment on ending isolation until the proposals are put forward next week.