(Bloomberg) -- Labour leader Keir Starmer called on Rishi Sunak to end the “scandal” of tax breaks given to private schools in the UK, taking aim at the prime minister’s alma mater as the opposition party tries to draw a clear battle line with the ruling Conservatives ahead of the next general election.
“Winchester College has a rowing club, a rifle club, an extensive art collection, they charge over £45,000 ($54,000) a year,” Starmer told Sunak in Parliament. “Why did he hand them nearly £6 million of taxpayers’ money this year?”
British private schools, which often started hundreds of years ago as charities to educate poor scholars, are exempt from paying value-added tax at 20% -- though they are expected to offer reduced fees to the less privileged or share their first-class facilities with state-run schools and their communities.
But their charitable status is controversial, especially as state schools lag so far behind in funding and facilities, as well as teacher-to-pupil ratios and attainment. Labour has long opposed the tax giveaway, and with Britons facing another round of punishing austerity driven by soaring inflation, the party is calculating there is political mileage in putting the issue into focus.
It also plays into Labour’s strategy to portray Sunak as being too rich -- he’s the first prime minister to be wealthier than the monarch -- to understand the needs of voters during a cost-of-living crisis. The recent attacks on private schools follow a recent focus on his access to private health care.
“It is simple, he can carry on being pushed around by the lobbyists, giving away £1.7 billion to private schools every year or we can put that money to good use,” Starmer said on Wednesday. Bursaries given to poorer students are not enough, he argued. “Trickle-down education is nonsense.”
According to YouGov polling in September, about 47% of Britons think private schools should lose their charitable status, while 24% thought they should keep it if they help state schools more.
A campaign this week by the Conservative-supporting Daily Mail newspaper attacking Starmer’s plan has been re-tweeted by members of Labour’s shadow ministerial team, who believe the policy is popular with voters and creates a clear divide with Sunak’s Tories.
Still, it’s not a risk-free policy.
There are questions over what would happen to the sector if, for example, raising fees by 20% to cover VAT meant more students leave private schools to enter budget-squeezed state education. A Labour spokesman denied that would be the case during a regular briefing with reporters on Wednesday.
It also risks giving the Conservatives their own attack line, similar to the one deployed to great effect against Labour’s former leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Then, the Tories accused the party of trying to fuel resentment with socialist policies. There were echoes of that in Sunak’s response to Starmer.
“Whenever he attacks me about where I went to school, he is attacking the hard-working aspiration of millions of people in this country, he’s attacking people like my parents,” Sunak said in the House of Commons. “This is a country that believes in opportunity, not resentment. He doesn’t understand that, and that’s why he’s not fit to lead.”
Private schools cut to the heart of the debate around wealth and privilege in the UK. They educate only 7% of under-16s in England, but their graduates have disproportionate representation across politics and finance.
Stripping them of their tax advantage would require a sizable Labour majority in Parliament. But Starmer’s party is riding high, more than 20 points ahead of Sunak’s Tories in most recent polls.
The party wants to do it in its first term if it wins power, Labour’s spokesman told reporters. The next general election is due by January 2025 at the latest.
--With assistance from Joe Mayes.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.
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