26th April 2020
Labour Leader, Kier Starmer – choices to be made
It is a well known characteristic of the leopard that it cannot change its spots. The chameleon however is a creature of quite a different type, able to change it skin colour in order to blend in with its background. Red, green or blue, the chameleon adapts in order not to stand out, becoming indistinguishable from any context it happens to find itself.
In his campaign to become Leader of the Labour Party, Kier Starmer was conscious of the popularity with the Labour membership of the policies developed under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Nationalisation of railways, the mail service and water have not been ruled out under Starmer for example. Part of his ten point plan is to repeal the Tory Trade Union Act, which restricts the rights of workers. He has been quoted as saying he will defend his party’s values including opposing “the moral injustice of poverty, inequality, homelessness”.
If Starmer is to be true to these promises then he will need a team around him which is capable of delivering and one which believes in this vision as the way forward for Labour. So far, the signs are not good. Starmer has been quick to remove Rebecca Long Bailey, Dianne Abbott and Jon Trickett from the National Executive Committee. They are replaced by key Starmer supporters Jim McMahon, Jo Stevens and Jonathan Reynolds, who do not inspire confidence in sustaining progressive policies.
Starmer has found space for Long Bailey in the Shadow Cabinet, as Shadow Education Secretary, but she is very much in a minority of even remotely left wing voices in Labour’s top team.
Starmer is faced with two immediate issues he needs to address in order to determine Labour’s way forward under his leadership.
Firstly, there is the question of the leaked report into Labour officials effectively sabotaging Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and in particular the 2017 election campaign. There can be little doubt that those engaged in such activity should be excluded from Labour’s ranks and that their actions should be universally condemned. Starmer has said that the investigation he has initiated with Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, will report by July. Action arising from that report will be awaited with interest.
Secondly, there is the stance of Labour on the issue of COVID-19 and how to handle the current pandemic. In general, Starmer has taken the ‘national unity’ approach, offering ‘constructive criticism’ of the government while at the same time broadly supporting its efforts to get the pandemic under control.
The consensus of the political and media establishment is that it would be wrong to ‘play politics’ at such a crucial time. Yet, as ever, politics it is. Every decision taken by the government is a political one, however much it claims to be led by the science. The Chief Medical Officer can express his opinion but it is the government which must decide what to do.
Not to ‘play politics’ is merely to cover up the scandal of the government’s mishandling of the pandemic and fail to expose the fact that thousands of deaths could have been avoided with quicker, more decisive action.
A confidential Cabinet Office briefing from 2019, leaked to The Guardian recently, is clear on the need to stockpile PPE, establish protocols for contact tracing and draw up plans to manage a surge in excess deaths. This report appears to have been sidestepped. In addition, the government’s initial herd immunity strategy, flying in the face of World Health Organisation (WHO) advice, proved disastrous and was quickly reversed when it was clear that deaths were escalating.
While lockdown measures appear to be flattening the curve of the pandemic the PPE situation for frontline NHS staff and carers remains a scandal, while plans to expand testing and reintroduce contact tracing look cumbersome at best.
In the face of the mounting body count leading Tories appear more concerned about finding ways of lifting the lockdown and allowing businesses to function. In the longer term this will be necessary but the country has the wealth to support business through this, if the government is prepared to take the necessary measures to squeeze the taxes of the rich, repatriate unearned income from offshore tax havens and commit to public investment post crisis to keep the economy moving.
The first priority must be to save lives. Labour should be making this clear while making it equally clear that investment in the NHS, public health, social care and local government infrastructure will be vital to preparations for any future pandemic. It will also mean better lives for working class families in the meantime.
If that is playing politics, Kier Starmer needs to get into the game, pick his side and make it clear which colour shirt he is wearing. Unlike the chameleon, this is no time to be changing colour midway through the match.