Labour £2,000 tax figure “a nonsense” says Sunday Times Economics Editor David Smith

“What makes me quite … angry about this is that Sunak knows completely its wrong”

David Smith

The past week has seen things go from bad to worse for Rishi Sunak, being called out for lying in the debate against Keir Starmer on the claim that Labour would increase taxes by £2,000 per household, then being accused of a lack of respect for coming home early from the D-Day celebrations, for which he has apologised.

He cancelled media interviews at the weekend as support for the Conservatives dipped even further in the polls, with a clear 22% gap between Labour and the Tories and Reform picking up support after the announcement from Nigel Farage that he would after all be standing as its leader.

Also this week we hear from pollsters Techne UK that Britain is heading for the lowest general election turnout in modern history, reflecting mass apathy, particularly amongst young people, fed by a general mistrust of politicians.

David Smith, Economics Editor of the The Sunday Times, records the Three Old Hacks podcast with fellow journalists Mihir Bose and Nigel Dudley, for The Chiswick Calendar.

They have decades of experience and knowledge of election tactics, having been in the thick of reporting it all since the 1980s.

“What makes me quite … angry about this is that Sunak knows completely its wrong”, says David. “He knows enough about the numbers to know this is not a way you should present any figures of this sort, and yet still says it and denies he’s lying.”

He unpicks the figures and explains exactly why it was wrong for Sunak to have made the claim, and for Penny Mordaunt to have repeated it in the second TV debate, and says if you used the same methodology on the Conservatives’ claims you would cost their policies at £3,000 per household.

Audio clip: David Smith speaking on the Three Old Hacks podcast

“The £2,000 figure is of course a nonsense”

The row over the claim that Labour would increase taxes by £2,000 per household, which he hammered home repeatedly in Monday’s ITV debate with Labour Leader Keir Starmer, blew up when it was revealed in a leaked letter from the Treasury’s senior official, Permanent Secretary James Bowler, that Treasury officials had not produced the figures, as the Conservative Party had claimed.

‘As you would expect, civil servants were not involved in the production or presentation of the Conservative Party’s document ‘Labour’s Tax Rises’ or in the calculation of the total figure used.’

Discussing the row in Friday’s recording of The Three Old Hacks (Friday 7 June), Mihir Bose asked David Smith to explain how the £2,000 figure was arrived at. Here’s what he said:

“The £2,000 figure is of course a nonsense. It breaks at least four rules, four fundamental rules of trying to calculate these things.

“The first is that the assumptions behind it were from Conservative special advisers. Not all the calculations – some of them were – but not all the calculations were done by Treasury officials, which is why they’ve denied responsibility for it.

“This adding up – you only get to £2,000 by adding up £500 a year and multiplying it by four, and this kind of quadruple counting – it was actually triple counting in the late nineties – used by Gordon Brown, and it really is a completely discredited way of doing any calculation of any tax increase.

“If you want to say that Labour has increased taxes, you take the fourth year, you say that taxes are £500 more than they otherwise would be and that is then the number.

“But also, if you take what is already planned by the Conservatives, and the Spectator did this, you get to a much larger figure than £2,000. By using the same methodology you get £3,000 from what is already planned by the Conservatives. And there’s another way of doing it, which has been done by the Sunday Times, by which you can get to an even higher figure than that.

“Of course, taxes have gone up a lot, they are still going up a lot under Conservative plans, so this was a real example of a prime minister shooting himself in the foot, in many ways.

I think the aim is quite simple, which is to lodge it in the public consciousness in the same way that a similar figure which was completely wrong – the £350m weekly contribution to the EU was completely wrong, but stuck during the referendum campaign. I think they’re hoping that the £2,000, however wrong it is, will stick this time.

“I think what makes me quite, not upset, but particularly angry about this is that Sunak knows completely it’s wrong. He knows enough about the numbers to know this is not a way you should present any figures of this sort, and yet still says it and denies he’s lying, and says the Labour Party’s rattled and so on.

“So I think it’s really bad form. I don’t think it’s done him any good. The polls certainly don’t suggest that. So it shouldn’t have been said, but I know why it was said.”

Image: Houses of Parliament; UK Parliament

Reporting the election – Chiswick Media Club, Wednesday 19 June

The polls have led the coverage of the election campaign so far – the 20% gap between Labour and the Conservatives has framed the whole debate.  Everything that is said and done by the leading figures in the campaign is scrutinized and assessed against that backdrop.

The Lib Dems appear to have the most popular policies so far: awarding blue flag status to rivers and reducing sewage discharge scored 87% approval, and free school meals for all primary school pupils in England received 74% support in a You Gov poll.

Voters are split on the Labour and Conservative pledges not to raise the three main taxes. They like Labour’s policy of charging VAT on private school fees (61% support), and creating a publicly owned renewable energy provider (74% support), but they don’t like the Conservatives’ plans to bring back National Service (52% against to 39% in favour). The least popular policy appears to be Labour’s policy of lowering the voting age to 16.

The role of pollsters is critical during an election, as is that of journalists in ascertaining fact from rhetoric.Our event on Wednesday 19 June features one of the country’s top pollsters – Joe Twynan, who after heading up YouGov’s Political and Social Research department went on to set up his own company Deltapoll with others.

BBC Political correspondent and presenter Carolyn Quinn talks to Joe and Katy Searle, who was the head of the BBC’s Westminster newsroom during three election campaigns, two referendums and the Covid crisis.

Come and hear what goes on behind the scenes and ask them about some of the tricky issues involved in election coverage.

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