Politics

All of Keir Starmer’s U-turns and abandoned policy pledges, from child benefits to private schools

Since becoming Labour leader in 2020, Keir Starmer has abandoned some of his key promises. We've broken them down

Keir Starmer, U-turn, broken promises

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer makes a speech at UK Finance outlining the party's growth mission, which targets the UK having the highest sustained growth in the G7 in Labour's first term in office. Image: Ray Tang/LNP/Shutterstock

Keir Starmer is not afraid of a U-turn. After running for the Labour leadership on a platform promising nationalised public services, restricted foreign arms sales, and tax hikes for the richest, Starmer’s policies now look a little different.

It’s been called a “Ming vase” strategy – slimming down what he’s offering to the public, hoping to avoid dropping the metaphorical vase as he makes the slippery journey to power. Starmer and his top team say a struggling economy has forced them to change tack.

Experts are divided on whether a U-turn itself damages a politician. While a reputation for “flip-flopping” is to be avoided, they say, there is also more room for manoeuvre in opposition when fewer voters are paying real attention.

Whether you think it’s sensible or sly, here’s a recap of Keir Starmer’s abandoned pledges, from tuition fees to green investment.

Deciding not to scrap private schools’ charitable status

Cast your mind back to January – as in, this January – and Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson was talking about the benefits of scrapping charitable status for private schools.

It echoed comments from shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, who said at the party’s 2021 conference: “Here’s the truth: private schools are not charities. And so we will end that exemption and put that money straight into our state schools. That is what a Labour government will do.”

Making the change would raise £1.7 billion by getting rid of the tax breaks the schools receive.

But the party now says that’s not necessary. Charitable status will remain, but VAT will be imposed on private schools and business rates relief will end. Other tax breaks associated with charitable status look set to remain.

Part of the money raised by the end of these tax breaks will go towards Starmer’s pre-election pledge to “crack down on antisocial behaviour”.

In a statement to the i newspaper, which revealed the U-turn, a Labour spokesperson said: “Our policy remains. We will remove the unfair tax breaks that private schools benefit from, to fund desperately needed teachers and mental health counselling in every secondary school.

“This doesn’t require removing charitable status, however, driving high and rising standards for every child against the backdrop of a broken economy requires political choices. Labour isn’t afraid to make them.”

Refusing to end the two-child limit

Back when he was running to be Labour leader in 2020, Keir Starmer tweeted: “Too many people today are struggling to make ends meet, held back by jobs that don’t pay enough; a social security system that has subjected people to the most appalling indignity; and a public sector that is on its knees after a decade of cuts.”

He added that he would scrap universal credit, “scrap the inhuman work capability assessments and private provision of disability assessments (e.g. Atos), scrap punitive sanctions, two-child limit and benefits cap”. 

But on 16 July, Starmer told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg Labour was “not changing” the Tory policy regarding the two-child limit. This has sparked outrage among campaigners and his own party. 

Labour MP Zarah Sultana tweeted: “The two-child limit is an unspeakably cruel policy, inflicting destitution and misery on children and parents. It absolutely should be abolished.”

Starmer has been branded Sir Kids Starver across the internet and compared to Margaret Thatcher, who was dubbed ‘Thatcher, Thatcher Milk Snatcher’ for ending free milk for over sevens. 

Scrapping tuition fees

Labour’s promise to scrap tuition fees was a core part of its manifestos in the 2017 and 2019 elections. But this wasn’t just a zombie policy Keir Starmer forgot to get rid of: he made it part of one of his key pledges while running to be leader in 2020.

Keir Starmer tuition fees
‘Support the abolition of tuition fees’ was one of Starmer’s leadership pledges. Image: KeirStarmer.com

That looks set to be abandoned.

“We are likely to move on from that commitment because we do find ourselves in a different financial situation,” Starmer said on the Today Programme on May 2, mentioning the cost of eliminating fees- estimated to be at least £6bn a year.

Instead, the Labour leader promised a “fairer solution” and insisted the vast majority of his other pledges still stood.

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Increasing income tax for the top five per cent of earners

Another of Keir Starmer’s 10 key pledges while running for leader was to increase income tax for the top five per cent of earners.

In fact, it was the first sentence of his first pledge. But Starmer has hinted a move away from it.

Increasing income tax for the top five per cent of earners was another key promise. Image: KeirStarmer.com

“We are in a different situation now, because obviously I think we’ve got the highest tax burden since World War II,” he told the BBC on Tuesday when asked about the policy.

https://twitter.com/jrc1921/status/1653304050769698816
There had been hints for a while, with reports that the party was likely to ditch the policy. But Tuesday’s comments have been leapt on as proof of Starmer abandoning his headline pledge.

Nationalisation of public services

“Public services should be in public hands, not making profits for shareholders,” read another of Keir Starmer’s leadership pledges.

“Support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water; end outsourcing in our NHS, local government and justice system.”

At Labour’s conference in 2022, Starmer promised to create a nationalised energy company, “Great British Energy”, within the first year of a Labour government.

But those promises are shifting for Labour in some key sectors.

In March, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves confirmed the policy had been scrapped, with only rail in line for nationalisation under a Labour government. And speaking on the BBC on Tuesday, Starmer suggested “a massive move forward” on water quality could be made without nationalisation.

“I think with stronger regulation, stronger enforcement of regulation, and accountability at the top of the water companies we can make a massive move forward on this,” Starmer said on Radio 4.

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Freedom of movement

One of Keir Starmer’s 10 key pledges as he ran for Labour leader was to “defend free movement as we leave the EU”.

However, he subsequently abandoned this, telling the Mail on Sunday in November 2022: “A Swiss deal simply wouldn’t work for Britain. We’ll have a stronger trading relationship and we’ll reduce red tape for British business – but freedom of movement is a red line for me. 

“It was part of the deal of being in the EU but since we left I’ve been clear it won’t come back under my government.”

He explained that he didn’t want to rip up the Brexit deal, and said his support was in the context of ongoing negotiations. Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy also said the party was reading the room with public appetite, and the mood of the EU regarding renegotiations

“I don’t think there’s much of an appetite in this country, either,” Nandy told Sky News.

“We’ve divided amongst ourselves for nearly a decade now on a whole succession of issues and this country’s got to move forwards.”

A £28 billion ‘green prosperity plan’

Labour’s green prosperity plan would have seen the party pump £28 billion a year into the green economy until 2030, a policy billed as the “vehicle through which we will turn Britain’s economy around”.

Keir Starmer delivered the pledge in a speech to the Labour Party conference in 2022, outlining: “Our climate investment pledge that invests £28bn a year to help us win the race for the next generation of jobs.”

But it’s been watered down. Instead, Labour will “ramp up” to that figure by the midpoint of their first term in office.

“We will get to the £28bn – it will be in the second half of the first parliament. But we will get to that £28bn,” said Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, and added the originally planned level of borrowing was not feasible as the Conservatives have “crashed the economy”.

“Economic stability, financial stability, always has to come first”, Reeves said, in the wake of sky-high inflation and interest rates.

Labour insists it’s not binned the plans entirely – but the u-turn still represents what is likely to be tens of billions of pounds less in investment.

No new North sea oil and gas

Keir Starmer made a high-profile promise to block new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, as part of his plans to move the country towards renewable energy.

But a Labour government would not block drilling or revoke licenses for the Rosebank oil and gas field, Starmer reportedly told the boss of Equinor, which will operate the site.

A party spokesperson, however, denied it was a u-turn, saying: “Labour’s policy is unchanged. We will not grant licenses to explore new fields. 

“We have also always said we would not revoke existing licenses. So if Rosebank, for example, is licensed by the time of the election, then it will be able to continue to operate.’”

Universal Credit

Another of Starmer’s key campaign ideas was to abolish Universal Credit. In the years since his promise, the Conservative government has announced fresh crackdowns on benefits claimants, including a recent plan to hire 2,500 “agents” tasked with tackling fraud and error. Alongside this, almost 180,000 people will have to look for more work thanks to rule changes – with fears it will hit single parents, younger workers and carers the hardest.

But Labour’s policy has changed. In 2023, Jonathan Ashworth said the party will “fundamentally reform Universal Credit”. His successor as shadow work and pensions secretary, Liz Kendall, this year said there would be “no option of a life on benefits” under Labour.

Abolishing the House of Lords

Starmer promised to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected chamber. But Labour’s plans now amount to “interim reform” which could see hereditary peers phased out.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

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