Can Starmer’s Labour meet the post-pandemic challenge?

As the UK emerges from a year of Covid-induced lockdowns and restrictions, Labour’s ‘softly, softly’ style of opposition will be put to the test. Polling indicates Labour is lagging when we should be ahead. Winning back the ‘red wall’ seats and elsewhere still seems a long shot. Local, Scottish and Welsh elections will show if gains are possible but auguries are not good.

The NHS-led vaccine programme, in contrast to the failed £32 billion Test and Trace scheme outsourced to the private sector, has paved the way for a resumption of something resembling normal life.

Damage has been extensive to both life and livelihoods, with 126,000 deaths – one of the highest rates in the world – due to a catalogue of Government failures. With the Tories’ new-found magic money tree we’ve seen the biggest bailout since the Second World War, disguising the impact of the pandemic and of Brexit, and pushing debt to record levels. However, furlough schemes benefitting over 10 million workers will be withdrawn by September. Already, unemployment is creeping up. It is likely to rise significantly. Labour must be clearer about its economic alternatives. It must be greener, more radical and more committed to investment in green jobs and socially useful employment. Ebyan Abdirahman makes clear that women – who have carried us through the pandemic in hospitals, in childcare and in care homes – deserve not just more than a 2% pay award but serious public investment. Sunak’s budget barely mentioned women, health and care workers. Ten years of cuts have deepened inequality, now multiplied by the pandemic. It’s a scandal that public sector workers, from transport to schools, face an effective pay freeze.

Dennis Leech critiques Labour’s timidity on reversing decades of neoliberalism. Whilst shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds has been one of the feistier of Labour’s front bench, unfurling a more radical programme for a fiscal stimulus and a green industrial revolution needs to be centre and front of stage. We should not be timid about taxing the giant corporations or redistributing wealth. Instead of the broken anti-Keynesian economic model, we should use the trillion-dollar Biden recovery programme as a guide.

Labour is now looking at some open goals. With Tory sleaze beginning to bleed from the pores of this Government, Starmer has a real opportunity to put the boot in. As Prem Sikka explains, numerous corporations, wealthy aristocrats, tax exiles, Middle Eastern royals and many more were given billions in public money for contracts without proper tendering processes or monitoring. Many were Tory donors and mates. Worse is now emerging, with revelations from the spurned Dominic Cummings that Boris Johnson was involved in a dodgy deal with Brexiteer tax exile James Dyson for tax breaks for his employees. Cummings is likely to reveal more.

While big business and the wealthy got huge handouts, small and medium-sized businesses and the recently self-employed fell through the net. Worse, as Jan Savage reports, the NHS is being undermined through the vehicle of Integrated Care Systems, allowing further incursions from private companies.

Labour not only needs a robust socialist economics that builds on the best of Corbynism; it must also reignite the enthusiasm of its members and embrace a radical democratic agenda involving PR, spearheaded by Labour for a New Democracy, as emphasised by Ewan Wadd. A constitutional convention on the antiquated British state, devo-max in Scotland and Wales, and local devolution of powers and resources to local communities squeezed by ten years of cuts must also be on that democratic agenda. Tom Miller of Open Labour echoes these themes.

A deeper discussion of why Labour lost has yet to be had in Labour ranks. Starmer’s director of policy, Claire Ainsley (The New Working Class), and Labour MP Jon Cruddas (The Dignity of Labour) have both published books on the importance of winning working class votes. But which working class? There is a tension between the older traditional workers who have suffered deindustrialisation, perhaps now home-owners and socially conservative, and the youthful precariat and tech workers in cities and towns. The latter have become strong Labour voters, embracing Europe, liberal values and green policies. If Starmer tacks too close to the views of the former there is a danger of losing support of the latter to the Greens and Lib Dems. Marina Prentoulis outlines the case for a radical left populism to overcome this dilemma. She draws lessons from the experiences of Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and Corbynism in the UK, arguing that a politics that roots itself in communities, builds prefigurative projects and champions radical democratic redistributionist policies could help Labour build a winning majority.

Besides post-pandemic rebuilding, two big clouds hang over our politics: post-Brexit fallout and the global climate crisis. Paul Teasdale outlines key economic, social and cultural challenges that Labour must grasp. Andy Gregg highlights the shocking cut in the UK overseas aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP (in breach of the Tory manifesto). He outlines the dire implications for developing and war-torn nations, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. Johnson’s commitment to a faster carbon reduction programme belies the actions of his Government, from the aid cut to green lights for coalmining, airport expansion and axing green home grants. Glyn Ford and Julie Ward highlight the dangers of nostalgic empire nationalism and the migrant-bashing rhetoric behind building new detention centres for asylum seekers.

Countering a strident nationalist and racist rhetoric must also be an intrinsic part of Labour’s positive plan for post-pandemic renewal. The corruption, lies and incompetence of this wretched Government must be relentlessly exposed alongside the unfolding of a positive programme for prosperity and social justice.

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