MPs backed the health and social care levy last night. 319 voted in favour and 248 against. Any murmur of rebellion against the proposal, which will see National Insurance contributions rise by 1.25 percentage points, was squashed. Despite the not inconsiderable backbench (and frontbench) grumbling over the past few days, just five Conservatives voted against the government. Labour voted against the resolution. Its amendment to require the government to conduct an impact assessment of the levy on jobs and businesses, plus an assessment of the impact on different income groups and regions, was rejected.
Keir Starmer clashed with Boris Johnson over the plan earlier in the day. The Labour leader highlighted the unfairness and inadequacy of the policy, and challenged Johnson to stand by his manifesto commitment that nobody would have to sell their home to pay for care – something he could not do. “There we have it – working people will pay higher tax, those in need will still lose their homes to pay for care, and he can’t even say if the NHS backlog will be cleared,” Starmer told MPs. Highlighting the Universal Credit cut taking effect next month, the Labour leader accused Johnson of “hammering working people”. Rachel Reeves tore into the minister a couple of hours later in a robust contribution littered with soundbites, describing the policy as a “job taxing, manifesto-shredding, tax bombshell” and seeming to genuinely enjoy taking interventions from Tories.
Johnson’s proposals do nothing to tackle the rationing of services that sees around two million denied access to care, the low standards of care for people who do receive it, or the low pay and poor conditions of the workers in the sector. We do not know how much funding will eventually trickle down to social care after the Covid backlog has been tackled, which will happen at some undefined point in time. It is not, then, even a funding package actually for care at this point. As Nadra Ahmed from the National Care Association said: “This is a recovery plan for the NHS and that is very obvious.” Johnson’s defence seems to be that having a plan, even a bad one, is better than nothing. He repeatedly accused Starmer of not having a counter-proposal.
Labour needs to articulate an alternative vision. Starmer and Reeves made a comprehensive critique of the Conservative proposals yesterday, but people need to see what else is on offer. No-one would expect a detailed policy proposal at this stage – even the 2019 manifesto pledge of a free and universal care system would have needed further detailing. But the principles can be established. Polling shows strong opposition to the Tory plan. Labour has the chance right now to advocate for a care system funded through progressive taxation, free at the point of use and available to all, with properly paid workers. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.