Peter Kenyon reviews the new Leader of the Labour Party’s prospects following defeat in the 2019 General Election, the coronavirus pandemic and climate change
By any measure in UK political life, Keir Starmer, the British Labour Party’s newly elected leader, has a mountain to climb to win the next General Election in 2024. Within days of his victory being declared, the task got a lot bigger. Bizarrely, if polls are to believed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has strengthened his position in the eyes of the public since coronavirus gripped his lungs. Worse, bickering broke out in the Labour Party again: this time over an unofficial report of alleged misconduct by Labour party officials opposed to his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.
Starmer must not be distracted. Too many people are dying from this new virus sweeping the globe. His opening gambit in his acceptance speech on 4th April was to work constructively with the government. Today, it is not unreasonable to ask, “How can you work constructively with one of the most callous and incompetent governments in British history?” Remember former British prime minister Harold Macmillan, when asked what was most likely to blow his government off course, replied: “Events, dear boy, events.” They are now so frequent as to be overwhelming. Nudging the public to recognise their significance must be part of the opposition’s strategy from now on.
Starmer was seen by the majority of Labour Party members who voted in the leadership election as the most prime ministerial. His initial poll ratings were positive. He knows he has to retain and build up his confidence rating at the expense of the Conservatives and their hapless leader. Screaming from the rooftops for Johnson’s resignation is a waste of breath. That could only happen if there is a coup within the Conservative Party, as there was in 1940 to remove Neville Chamberlain as leader and prime minister.
Our new leader needs our help in holding true to Labour values and turning events to the best outcome. He can’t rely on a Black Wednesday moment. That was in 1992 (when sterling was forced out of the European Exchange Rate mechanism) when the public lost confidence in the Tories, and helped seal their electoral fate in 1997.
Johnson made a triumphalist speech in Greenwich on 3rd February immediately after the UK formally left the European Union, just as the spread of the virus went global. Here is an excerpt from how he set out the Tory government’s global policy post-Brexit:
“Trade used to grow at roughly double global GDP – from 1987 to 2007. Now it barely keeps pace and global growth is itself anaemic and the decline in global poverty is beginning to slow. And in that context, we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other. And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.”
Has catching Covid-19 given Johnson pause for thought? We simply don’t know. But what we do know is that unlike the financial crash in 2008, this coronavirus pandemic is putting many of the issues we democratic socialists hold close – fairness, equality, justice, for example – into much sharper focus. Ancillary workers are now key. Multi-billionaires are being castigated for seeking government financial support for their businesses tottering on the edge of bankruptcy. Britain’s ability to cope on its own, as a sovereign nation, having taken back control, is being shown to be a lie. Could these awakenings help reshape the world we live in, not just here in the UK, but across the planet and Britain’s place on it? Of course, it was prudent of Starmer to bat away Brexit during the leadership campaign, as it was, when his victory was assured, to leave open the question of re-joining the European Union. Labour activists and most right-thinking people know Britain has been reduced to an insignificant sideshow in international affairs by the shenanigans of previous Labour, Conservative/Liberal and now Conservative governments.
A global perspective in these troubled times could improve Starmer’s chances of making those judgement calls that could put Labour back in power in Westminster. In an extended essay published in April by Open Democracy, Laurie McFarlane raised the spectre of ‘authoritarian capitalism’ as a risk arising from the crisis. He sees the populist right copying facets of the economic and social model developed by Communist-dominated People’s Republic of China (PRC). While the Conservatives are pointing fingers at the PRC about its role in the spread of the virus and demanding reparations, Labour must remain focused on reducing the death toll, keeping people as safe as possible, ensuring adequate supplies and providing compensation for economic disruption.
People are beginning to understand that the National Health Service (or socialist health as some of us prefer to call it) has been made vulnerable by a decade of Tory/Liberal underfunding and Conservative privatisation. Over-dependence on imported supplies at the expense of domestic production has been exposed. The disproportionate number of BAME medics, nurses and health workers who have lost their lives due to Covid-19 so far has shown up an underinvestment in skills training in the UK. We must ensure that shortages of personal protection equipment due to the Conservatives’ failure to act on a pandemic contingency planning report published in 2016, compounded by sheer negligence to secure supply chains, must be owned by them. Three times the EU invited the UK to join its joint procurement schemes. Three times, Johnson refused to join in. Labour must be tireless in seeking out the most effective ways of managing the crisis in the interests of patients and NHS/carers.
The UK total death toll has now far exceeded the 20,000 forecast by the national medical director of NHS England, Stephen Powis on 28 March. Labour must remind voters of the underlying reasons for this heavy loss of life. More people will die. Not all of them will have underlying health conditions. Many needlessly, but for the want of a capable government. Against this background millions have had to switch to working from home (“WFM”) or have already been sacked. There is widespread uncertainty about how food or housing will be paid for. Yawning gaps in social security provision have been identified.
More public policy issues have been posed. Complexities with the administration of additional financial support for people, whether through the benefits system for those out of work, or their employers, have prompted fresh debate about a Universal Basic Income. Discoveries from WFM and distant learning for school, college and university pupils are unlikely to be forgotten when social distancing and the wearing of face masks are absorbed into folklore. Then there are myriads of questions about how all the schemes to mitigate the pandemic, from the NHS, through to local government, to swathes of idle industries, are going to be paid for. Multi-billion-pound packages of aid have been announced, which some on the left have wryly observed could have been lifted from the Corbyn playbook (aka Labour’s 2019 election manifesto). In addition to the supply chain issue is that of state aid. Surely, EU state aid rules (the main stock in trade enjoining the Tories to get Brexit done) would prevent any such actions? Not so: the EU suspended their state aid rules to enable member states to reassure business. Stock markets crashed globally as the threat of recession was transformed by the spreading virus into a 100% certainty.
On the plus side, with most of Europe in lockdown, air quality has improved dramatically. People are undertaking more exercise. Homeless people have been housed. Poorer students are being offered their own laptops and web access for educational purposes. It is said we are eating better, generating less food waste, enjoying keeping an eye out for our neighbours and volunteering to ‘do our bit’.
Now that the lunacy of the Conservatives’ response to the pandemic is being revealed to anyone who cares about facts and the truth, Starmer’s task remains to build up public confidence. The risks of a return to ‘business as usual’ remain very high. The richest 1% include people who believe tax dodging, profiteering, evading environmental and consumer protections and exploiting their workers are their rights. They must be challenged repeatedly.
And then there is the ever-present spectre of austerity as the Tories’ preferred policy tool for controlling the masses, and condemning vast numbers of the population to poverty incomes, poor housing and inadequate public services. Starmer is right to demand an exit strategy from the Tories. The world economy is going into recession, possibly worse than the Great Depression in the 1930s. That challenge can’t be addressed from the UK alone. Now is the time for Starmer to offer Britain a coherent alternative narrative about its future both domestically and globally with climate change embedded. Watch out for fresh policy thinking about industrial strategy and state aid rules being drafted now in Brussels for publication in June. In the meantime, what focus groups and polling is Labour organising back home in that relentless search for signs that voters have lost confidence in the Tories? By skilful handling, Starmer might succeed.