5th April 2020
Kier Starmer changing the balance of power, or just getting Labour back into office?
Backing illegal US wars, buying in to the Trident deterrent illusion, not saying boo to the bankers and the fat cats in the City of London. Is this what we can expect from a Kier Starmer leadership of the Labour Party? A return to the pre-Jeremy Corbyn days of electability at all costs, rather than mapping out the changes needed to the society we live in, which allows billionaires to thrive while others live in cardboard boxes on the street?
The intensity of the media and establishment onslaught against Corbyn was precisely because the policies Labour advocated under his leadership were a challenge to the established order and were gaining increasing popularity. The 2019 election result would not tell that story because by then the ruling class in the UK had ensured that anything associated with Corbyn was regarded by sufficient sections of the public as toxic. Defeat at the polls was almost a foregone conclusion.
Inevitably, following the election of a new leader, there is talk of unity, all sections of the party pulling together, getting behind the new man and giving him the chance of being elected. A similar response to Jeremy Corbyn after the relative success of the 2017 election would have been welcome but, as ever with Labour, it is the Left who will compromise for unity, with the Right crying foul if the membership elect anyone with remotely radical credentials.
Starmer will get a honeymoon period with the press, not least due to the national emergency situation the country faces, and his declaration to work with Boris Johnson “in the national interest” to fight COVID-19. Not even the Daily Mail will hold that against him.
Is Kier Starmer the man to challenge the balance of power, or just to get Labour elected back into office on a safe programme? The real test will come when the current emergency is over, when the opportunity to draw conclusions and map a way forward for Labour in a changed world is presented. The necessity of planning, co-operation and the mobilisation of the nation’s resources in a national effort is evident for all to see at the moment. It could be argued that this should be the new normal, rather than the spectrum of inequality, from billionaires to cardboard boxes.
It has certainly become evident to many just how important, undervalued and underpaid the nation’s public sector workforce is in the present system. Those workers deemed ‘business critical’ in the present crisis are not running social media, speculating on the stock exchange or building careers in advertising. They are nurses, doctors, refuse collectors, care workers, social workers and local government staff, all mobilised to defend the vulnerable and provide a vital lifeline for the most socially isolated.
Co-operation is only possible under capitalism when circumstances dictate that there is no alternative. Hence the constant war time analogies in relation to the present pandemic situation.
Even then, such co-operation goes against the free market grain of the current government and the desires of the private sector to pursue huge wealth. Calls by the trade unions for the government to intervene in order to mobilise idle factories, to engage in the socially useful production of vital personal protective equipment for the NHS, have been slow to translate into action.
Starmer has taken the opportunity to level some criticism at the government, suggesting in a Sunday Times article that there have been “serious mistakes” in tackling the COVID-19 crisis, including the failure to provide enough protective equipment for frontline workers and delays over testing. This is relatively safe ground and not out of step with the view of many epidemiologists.
The government target, announced this week by Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, of increasing testing ten fold to 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, is widely seen as ambitious, if not necessarily achievable.
There continues to be disagreement on the way forward. Mark Woolhouse, at Edinburgh University, has suggested three strategies for dealing with the epidemic,
“Once lockdown has driven down the virus to low enough levels in the community we can go back to chasing down individual cases. At the same time we build more ICU capacity in the NHS so that we can relax the lockdown without the health service being overwhelmed. And thirdly we place new emphasis in shielding the vulnerable.”
John Edmunds, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has said that the lockdown policy needs to continue for many months, stating,
“Testing on its own will not stop this epidemic.”
The test for Labour, and Starmer in particular in his new role, will be to articulate a vision of society beyond the crisis, which resonates with the experience of ordinary people. That will mean having to challenge some sacred cows, such as spending billions on Trident when the NHS is in crisis; giving the City of London free rein to gamble with pension funds; addressing the homelessness crisis when billionaire properties stand empty; and tackling the shortfalls and unequal distribution of funding across local government.
In short, it may have to be a programme the like of which the Labour Left, and Jeremy Corbyn, would approve. Let’s see how long the press honeymoon with Starmer lasts if we get to that point.