By Sacha Ismail
In his first statement as Labour leader, Keir Starmer discussed how he wants the Labour Party to relate to the Tory government on the Covid-19 crisis.
In it, he argued that responding to the immediate crisis “is not the only task for the Labour Party” and that “when we do get through this, we cannot go back to business as usual… Things are going to have to change”. And he argues to make a better deal for workers central.
That is good, though what Starmer advocates in terms of change is extremely vague. But he also said:
“Under my leadership we will engage constructively with the government, not opposition for opposition’s sake. Not scoring party political points or making impossible demands. But with the courage to support where that’s the right thing to do.
“But we will test the arguments that are put forward. We will shine a torch on critical issues and where we see mistakes or faltering government or things not happening as quickly as they should we’ll challenge that and call that out.
“Our purpose when we do that is the same as the government’s, to save lives and to protect our country, a shared purpose.”
This is not so good.
Does Starmer think the Labour Party has refused to “engage” to fight Covid-19 so far? Clearly he means that under his leadership Labour will not be too critical of the government.
It is not surprising that the crisis has seen the government get a boost in support. This is sort of like a war, and governments, perhaps most of all right-wing and authoritarian ones, often achieve a rallying round in the early days of wars. Later on disillusionment and rebellion are likely, but a lot depends on clear opposition being built now.
The labour movement should not pretend (or actually think!) that the government is well-intentioned or that its disagreements with it are just a matter of detail. If we do, we will only prolong and strengthen the Tories’ possibilities to do what they want and emerge from the crisis triumphant.
On numerous levels – dragging their feet over social distancing to placate employers, keeping economic changes to a bare minimum, preparing to return to a “normal” free-market set up as fast as possible, persisting with insane plans for a fast Brexit – we should indict the Tories for putting profit-making and their nationalist ideology before people’s lives.
These are the same people whose gutting of the NHS, public services and workers’ rights has put millions in such a vulnerable position in the face of the pandemic. That history, that reality, did not disappear with the first case of Covid-19.
The labour movement should not relate to the government as “critical friends”, as right-wing MP Jess Phillips absurdly put it, but as an enemy whom reality is forcing to cooperate.
Demand the impossible
It is not possible to draw a clear line between a “realistic”, conservative policy now and radical “change” in the future. The less that changes now, the more likely and the more thoroughgoing will be the eventual return to something like the disastrous pre-crisis status quo.
The situation where the Tories have been forced into measures they would not have dreamed of a month ago allows and demands genuine radicalism. This is less than ever a time to fear looking too radical.
Despite what Keir Starmer says, the government has already conceded economic and social measures which, in terms of pre-crisis politics, amount to “the impossible”. If it it serious about rejecting “business as usual”, at a bare minimum Labour should demand radical strengthening of these measures — not intone blandly that it does not want to advocate anything unrealistic.
That is what is needed to defeat the infection as quickly as possible, and in a way that defends and promotes the interests of the majority.
In this context, Starmer’s conservatism and timidity are incongruous – and do not bode well for what a future “radical Labour government” would look like.
It is worth noting that Starmer repeated the phrase about not “demanding the impossible” in his first round of interviews.
As the government’s scandalous response to Covid-19 has shown, there is no single “national interest”. Despite society’s collective interest in tackling the pandemic, there remain the opposed interests of different classes. The Tories stand for the interests of capital, which have fundamentally shaped their response. Labour should stand for the interests of the working class in the broad sense, which at the same time are international interests.
By all means let the left relate to the Starmer/Rayner leadership with good will, but let’s not be naive. This is not a left-wing start. In any case, we need clear demands to fight for, independently of and as necessary against the leadership.
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