With Keir Starmer on holiday, Labour treads water on cost of living

<span>Photograph: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP/Getty Images

Gordon Brown has thrown down the gauntlet with his plan to halt a winter energy crisis – but not just to the Tory leadership candidates. The call to revoke the energy price cap and consider nationalising energy firms will attract a lot of attention but fundamentally it is also a chance for Labour to choose to be radical. It is likely to compound calls from activists for the party to find a new sense of urgency.

In the middle of August, politicians can often afford to take long breaks away from Westminster to recharge – and sometimes get a valuable dose of perspective. But the extent to which politicians – including those in the Labour party – have gone missing this summer is particularly striking.

As the energy price cap soars and millions of households face having to pay thousands more in bills, the most prominent voices calling for solutions have been Gordon Brown, Martin Lewis and Ed Davey – three men who won’t hold power any time soon. Keir Starmer is on holiday and Labour’s summer campaign on the cost of living crisis appears not to have yet begun.

Davey’s call in the Guardian this week for the government to cancel the price cap rise and pay the billions in difference – as well as impose a new windfall tax on oil and gas profits – is imperfect. But it immediately led to cries of anguish from Labour activists that their own party was not coming up with similar bold proposals.

Brown has sometimes coordinated his interventions with the leader’s office, especially on crucial economic and child poverty issues. But the former prime minister is now making his calls unbidden.

On the airwaves over the past few days, capable shadow ministers including Justin Madders and Kerry McCarthy have found themselves treading water on the issue of what Labour would do to help working families.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, reiterated in a statement that the party still favoured scrapping tax breaks on oil and gas producers and “providing more help to people who are struggling to pay their energy bills”.

No one thinks that will be the extent of the offer by next week. But so far, all Labour is able to talk about in terms of specific direct help is cutting VAT on energy bills, the same pledge as Rishi Sunak, who makes it despite having resisted the measure as chancellor.

The calls from Davey for a far more radical approach will make life difficult for Starmer next week. Labour sources promise that a policy offer is in the works and will come before the final announcement of the price cap on 26 August – but it will be a tough job not to make it seem weaker compared with proposals from other quarters.

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Starmer is also likely to face a new round of tough questions over the Don’t Pay campaign, a grassroots movement against increased bills that he is likely to be advised to distance himself from – bringing further conflict with passionate activists and MPs.

The Labour leader has often been criticised for not being bold. But in fact Labour has often made the weather on the cost of living crisis – far more than it is given much credit for.

It was Labour who championed a windfall tax and the use of post-Brexit freedom to remove VAT on energy bills – both of which gained such widespread public support that the first was adopted by Boris Johnson at the demand of many Tory MPs and the other is now a key component of Sunak’s leadership campaign.

The party now has a moment to capitalise again, capture the urgency of what is coming this winter – and put to bed those doubts.