Starmer must beware of praise from our enemies

6th April 2020

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Thoughts on the election of Keir Starmer as Labour Leader from our COO

There’s been a sigh of relief from many moderate Labour Party members at Keir Starmer’s election as leader. Disconcertingly, though, that relief has also been expressed across the political aisle in a cosy mood of establishment collaboration.

George Osborne has taken to the airwaves to welcome a return to sensible opposition. Sajid Javid is looking forward to “opposition working in the national interest”. Ed Davey of the Liberal Democrats enthusiastically embraced moving forward together, away from “divisive politics”. Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times advises a “patient game” for Starmer until COVID-19 is beaten.

Beware when your enemies are praising you. Taking over as leader in the middle of a pandemic is tricky, but the idea that opposition should pull its punches out of some sense of national unity during COVID-19 is wrong.

For the sake of healthcare workers, it’s crucial that Labour holds the Government to account over its promises on NHS resourcing, testing and protective equipment.

And on an economic front, the coronavirus pandemic has led the Government to ditch all orthodoxy. Any semblance of austerity, or of “small state” capitalism, is out of the window. Ministers, who have for years shirked responsibility for following any meaningful industrial strategy, are suddenly faced with urgent choices about which companies and industries should be bailed out by the taxpayer, and which should be allowed to run out of cash.

Those choices have huge consequences. Simply adopting a “survival of the fittest” attitude, bailing out those with a high credit rating or those that were most profitable before the crisis, is an inadequate approach.

Is it fair to help rail and bus companies, but not airlines? Should we help construction companies as well as self-employed builders? What about the hospitality industry? Tour operators? Manufacturers? It’s more important than ever that the Labour Party sets out a coherent strategy of its own.

The way we value different jobs has also been upended. Nurses, retail workers, refuse collectors and bus drivers are all now on the front line, while office workers, we’ve discovered, are mostly able to function quite happily from home. Now is the time to build public support for revisiting public sector pay, the minimum wage and the rights of those on low-hours contracts.

Once we come out of the other side of the pandemic, our economy will look very different. Many strategically important businesses, kept on the barest of life support, will have very low equity value and could be vulnerable to predatory buyouts. Banks will need to make quick, smart decisions on releasing capital to SMEs to allow for recovery – something they’ve not always been adept at doing.

There will be tough decisions to be taken on public spending – are big infrastructure projects such as HS2 still a priority, for example? How can we avoid being plunged into a fresh bout of austerity?

Labour were in office the last time the global economy took a plunge. The Tories didn’t pull any punches – the premise of their successful 2010 election campaign, somewhat bizarrely, was that the global financial crisis was the Labour Party’s fault.

Labour shouldn’t lose control of the narrative so spectacularly again. We are putting the economy into hibernation and will need to reboot it once the impact of the pandemic subsides. This will be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-write our priorities.

We could – at last – set out a coherent industrial strategy that incorporates long-term trends such as decarbonisation and automation into the necessary economic restructuring that will take place. We could think creatively about the changing nature of work. We could plot a roadmap on how Britain can adapt and set out a vision on where we want the economy to be in 20 years’ time. The time to start talking about that is now.

Our party must be bold. Politics doesn’t end because of a national crisis. We must not be seduced into nodding respectfully at flailing Government ministers. The importance of the decisions being made day-by-day make an alternative choice for voters more important than ever.

Article written by Andrew Clark