Labour and the coronavirus crisis
Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader comes at the end of a long election process during which the country has changed significantly. When the candidates sought nominations at the beginning of the year, we could enjoy full freedom of movement within the country and across much of the world. Although the economy was not growing as fast as had been hoped, employment was at all time high levels and unemployment was low. The re-elected Conservative government was well on the way to extracting the UK from the European Union, which was achieved at the end of January. Coronavirus was on the radar but it appeared to be some distance away. In March, a new Chancellor of the Exchequer attempted to reset the agenda by signalling an increase in government spending. The pandemic has shattered that world and as we fight for the health of our people, the political and economic outlook is highly uncertain.
Labour suffered its fourth election defeat in a row in December, and in winning only 203 seats had its worst result since 1935. Since becoming leader in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn led his party on a journey towards the far left of politics, in a political experiment with significant consequences. Despite a divided Conservative Party, Labour lost in 2017 and lost again last year when the public largely rejected both the leader and the manifesto on which he campaigned. His time as leader was characterised by rancorous local party meetings as some of his more extreme supporters sought to marginalise long standing members. Furthermore, the past five years have seen a rise in anti-Semitic abuse in and around the Party, with Jewish MPs suffering especially. This resulted in the Equalities and Human Rights Commission launching an investigation last year. The manifesto contained some good ideas but turned out to be a far left wish list and Labour struggled to be credible on its management of the economy and public spending. In December, despite concerns about Boris Johnson and a more right wing Conservative Party, overall the electorate turned against Labour and its leader, giving the government a clear majority.
In his victory speech, Keir Starmer signalled a change of approach. He announced that Labour would support the government’s efforts to combat the coronavirus but would test the arguments and point out where it finds errors. He was clear on anti-Semitism; he apologised on behalf of the Party and stated that he would “tear out this poison by its roots”. In both his speech and in a later interview, Mr Starmer talked about the experience of the low paid, many of whom are in the front line in the fight against the pandemic.
Keir Starmer also outlined four tests by which Labour will judge the government. These are: delivery on the promise of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April; a comprehensive vaccination programme in place in time for a new vaccine; blockages in equipment supply to be cleared; and a clear exit strategy to be published.
Any government would have struggled to respond well to the coronavirus threat. Believed at first to be a localised outbreak in China it took some time for experts elsewhere, including the UK, to understand the risk it posed. The UK government has imposed the most stringent restrictions on freedoms this country has seen in peacetime, and some are stricter than during past wars. It is easy with hindsight, and partial information, to criticise.
Nevertheless, it is clear that some errors have been made. The first is that Western governments did not learn the lessons of past outbreaks, such as SARs. Some countries, such as South Korea, seem to have done so and increased testing capacity in preparation. The likelihood of another ‘Spanish flu’-like pandemic had been much discussed, but our health service did not have the ability to respond quickly, and is still struggling with shortages of vital equipment including protection for NHS staff.
A second criticism is that there have been failures of political leadership. There is no doubt that ministers such as the Prime Minister and Health Secretary have been working hard. They will have been facing a remorseless series of crises to deal with each day. It is clear however that there has been a failure of ‘grip’, with delays in procurement of equipment and roll out of tests. Moreover, the public messages have been confused, with attempts to fine-tune public behaviour accompanied by optimistic promises about action that the government has been unable to fulfil. At the same time, there have been notable achievements, such as the establishment of the new Nightingale hospitals for coronavirus patients and the lockdown does appear to be restricting the spread of disease.
We face a challenge. The brakes have been put on the economy and the longer this goes on, the greater the challenge to recover. Only with government support can millions of people get through this period, particularly people working in the private sector. Those people in essential services, including both NHS workers and those ensuring we have food available, are in many cases not well paid. We need to think now, amidst the crisis, about what sort of economy and society we want to have as the situation recovers. This is a debate in which Christians should be involved, because it is about values. This is also why politics still matters, as it did when the Second World War came to an end and the country was faced with a choice between going back to a pre-war settlement or a more equitable outcome. Christians on the Left will be involved in that debate and forging a new politics for the time ahead. In the meantime, our prayers are for all those involved in the fight against the coronavirus and for those who are suffering.
This article was first published by the Church of England Newspaper on 9 April 2020.