SIR KEIR Starmer has been accused of breaking his pledge to put the big energy companies into “common ownership” after he ruled out nationalising them without saying what else he had in mind.

The UK Labour leader said he would take a “pragmatic” rather than ideological approach, breaking with the nationalisation plan proposed by his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.

Within hours, delegates at this week’s Labour conference in Brighton voted in favour of a “socialist green deal” that included “public ownership of... energy companies”.

Labour’s 2019 general election manifesto said energy, including “the supply arms of the Big  Six energy companies”, would be brought into “democratic public ownership”.

With a spike in wholesale gas prices leading to small suppliers failing and a looming rise in household bills, Sir Keir was asked about the issue on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

Asked if he would nationalise the Big Six energy companies, Sir Keir said: “No.”

He was then shown one of his 10 campaign pledges stating “public services should be in public hands” and that he would “support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water”.

Sir Keir responded: “I don’t see nationalisation there. When it comes to common ownership I’m pragmatic about this. I do not agree with the argument that says we must be ideological.”

However he repeatedly failed to explain what he meant by common ownership other than nationalisation, trying instead to talk about Boris Johnson and NHS Track and Trace.

His aides were also unable to explain what he meant afterwards.

Sir Keir said: “I’d be pragmatic about it, and where common ownership is value for money for the taxpayer and delivers better services, then there should be common ownership.”

His comments are likely to further antagonise with the Labour left. 

The Unite and Communication Workers Union have already urged him not to make “timid tweaks” and said there is a clear case for “extending public ownership” post-Covid.

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbot, Mr Crobyn’s deputy leader, suggested Sir Keir had gone back on his pledge to the party.

Tweeting out his campaign pledge on common ownership fo energy, she said: “Campaigning for the leadership of @UKLabour Keir Starmer said he was in favour of common ownership. “It was one of his ten pledges. Everyone assumed he meant nationalisation. 

“But on Andrew Marr this morning Starmer denied supporting any such thing.”

The left-wing commentator Owen Jones also tweeted a clip of Sir Keir during the party’s 2020 leadership contest in which he raised his hand when he and his two fellow candidates were asked if they supported “renationalising water and electricity”. 

Mr Jones added: “Today, Keir Starmer ruled out public ownership of energy, despite polling consistently showing most voters in support.

He's violated the explicit promises he made to get elected leader.

“This is dishonesty - and it destroys faith in democracy.”

Elsewhere in his interview, Sir Keir, who is holding his first physical conference as leader in Brighton this week, was also asked about the public finances.

Despite his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves appearing to rule out income tax rises under Labour, he said the party was merely not considering a rise “at the moment”. 

He said: “We are looking at tax, nothing is off the table, but we don’t know what the state of the national finances will be as we go to the election.

“What we don’t want to do – whether it’s income tax, or any other sort of tax, National Insurance – is unfairly to hit working families, which is what this Government is doing.”

Citing the gap between the children of wealthy and poor families highlighted by the pandemic, Sir Keir also set out a plan to increase the tax burden on private schools.

A Labour government would end the charitable status of England’s private schools, raising an estimated £1.6bn from VAT and £100m from business rates.

He said: “This is a political choice to take that money and switch it to our state schools so that children and young people in our state schools have the best chance they can have to come out of schools ready for life, ready for work.”

SNP MSP Rona Mackay said: “Keir Starmer’s evasive and defensive interview managed to encapsulate all of Labour’s problems in a nutshell – division, acrimony and a complete lack of vision to build a fairer society.

“As has been the case for years, Labour are more interested in fighting amongst themselves than fighting the cruel Tory policies which are wreaking so much misery on the most vulnerable in our society, and the chaos that the Tory Brexit has unleashed on our economy.

“The truth is that Labour are further from power than ever – leaving open the prospect of Scotland continuing to be governed for years and years by Tory governments that we don’t vote for.”

“It’s no surprise that more and more traditional Labour voters are backing Scottish independence as the only way to escape the Westminster chaos and build a fairer, greener and more prosperous Scotland.”