Divided Britain – Starmer failing to meet the challenge

Editorial 311

The government handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been a fiasco. The Cummings revelations on Johnson’s ‘hopeless Hancock’, incompetence, lack of preparation and delays in the first phase of Covid-19 underline the evident chaos running through Downing Street, the Cabinet and beyond.

Only the rollout of the vaccine through the NHS networks, in contrast to the £32bn virtually privatised Test & Trace system, is saving the government. But nothing can disguise one of the worst preventable death rates (now over 128,000) in the world.

This all underlines the urgency of the campaign for a full public enquiry now and an early report – not next year or after an early 2023 general election. Lessons should to be learned now.

When the government did commission an expert, in the form of Kevan Collins, to provide information and direction on how to enable millions of school children to catch up on lost learning, the findings and recommendations were rejected. Collins resigned as a result, highlighting that without the £10bn resources needed, the government’s paltry £1bn would utterly fail. Dave Lister explains the realities of yawning educational division. It’s a similar story on race equality, with the Downing Street race advisor, Samuel Kalumu, resigning because of government ministers stoking divisive culture wars.

Keir Starmer’s leadership failed to cut through in the recent local elections, with the Tories holding on to many of the areas won in the 2019 general election and winning Hartlepool. Lacking vision and clear articulation of radical policies, contributors in this issue reflect on what the results mean. Pete Rowlands draws lessons from positive results in Wales, while re-elected Bristol Labour mayor Marvin Rees and Robin Hambleton outline the impact of the Bristol One City approach as a template of community alliance building. Combined with the work of Andy Burnham we see a more rigorous assault on the Tories and an outline of a path for Labour.

Labour continues to fail in Scotland. Gerry Hassan looks at the SNP/Green administration and the prospects for a second independence referendum, and ponders whether Labour can recover without some firm backing for a second indyref.

The state of the union in the UK is examined by John Palmer in a keynote article reviewing the 100-year history of British division and discrimination since the partition of Ireland.

All this raises the wider question of the future of Labour, alongside social democracy across Europe, and whether Starmer’s leadership is capable of transforming the party’s fortunes. Labour’s narrow victory in the Batley & Spen by-election has done little to settle the question of Labour’s direction. Don Flynn looks at two pitches to define a way forward: Paul Mason and Jon Cruddas MP, both from the broad left of the party, offer different prescriptions. Without a revival of an adventurous spirit of left populism it is unlikely Labour will regain ‘red wall’ seats or make headway across southern England. To move beyond the fragments Labour needs to focus on the conditions in which a progressive alliance of citizens can be built from the bottom up. This includes using many ideas developed during the Corbyn years.

Ed Miliband wants Labour to think big. Ann Black wants Labour to start thinking how to engage the whole membership on policy issues, from poverty reduction to climate change, through a renewal of the Policy Review process.

Naturalist Mark Cocker and Buxton Labour councillors look at the vexed issue of brownfield versus greenbelt areas for housing, showing that sometimes the former, as in the beautiful Hogshaw fields, can be richer in biodiversity and needing more protection than the latter. We should also note that the Tories’ new planning bill, which removes local democratic powers to block developers, alongside HS2, helped sink them in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.

Meanwhile Richard Chessum writes about his personal experience of being a victim of spy cops in the 1970 and 80s, showing the practice is nothing new.

Cat Smith MP alerts us to the Boundary Commission reviews while Mary Southcott highlights voter suppression in the Tories’ latest proposals and how this affects our democracy.

Maël Galisson exposes the deadly realities of border controls, while Dutch MEP Lara Wolters reports on a radical due diligence policy adopted by the European Parliament aimed at protecting workers in supply chains.

Progressive Europeanism versus blind-alley nationalism characterises our special Europe supplement produced with Another Europe is Possible. If Labour is to retain internationalist credentials it needs to champion progressive aspects of the EU with a forward-looking strategy. This is not only essential in an era of globalisation, it is also vital if the party is to secure and expand support from liberal-minded millennials and Remain voters and to expose the Tory rhetoric of ‘global Britain’. If Labour doesn’t then the Greens and the Lib Dems will, as shown in the Tories’ loss of Chesham & Amersham.

Johnson’s ‘global’ pitch was much in evidence at the recent G7 where the fissures over the Northern Ireland protocol cast a shadow over his glad-handing. Our supplement has Alena Ivanova and Laura Parker on the damaging consequences of Brexit for free movement and for EU citizens, while Luke Cooper, Glyn Ford, Mary Kaldor and Ann Pettifor look at other aspects of Brexit and Europe.

This all serves to underline the hollowness of the Tories’ global Britain agenda, which has managed to alienate loyalist Northern Ireland, fisherfolk, farmers and their own backbenchers with the cut in overseas aid. More will see through the empty promises on the NHS as the pandemic retreats. Bleating about an Australian free trade deal which covers less than 0.2% of trade highlights the Tories’ desperation.

All this highlights the importance of Labour pulling its forces together inside and out of the Labour Party. It means ending the attacks on the Corbyn left and the attempts to suppress party democracy, and harnessing the ideas, activism and energy of all members. Will Starmer rise to the challenge?

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