The challenge awaiting Labour’s expected new leader could hardly be greater. Glen O’Hara reports on the man about to be pitched into an unprecedented crisis
Sir Keir Starmer must feel as if he’s been asked to raise the Titanic. The last decade has done enormous, perhaps long-term damage to Labour’s image; if all predictions prove correct, this Easter he will replace in Jeremy Corbyn a man still idolised by many party members, who will be on the look-out for any back-sliding or compromise; and now the public policy challenges ahead look not so much forbidding as genuinely frightening.
As Starmer’s deep-sea dive circles the darkened wreck of what used to be the Labour Party, he may divine at least three deep holes in its hull.
The first is the fact that voters just don’t like it. Not what it’s selling – many of its policies are popular – but the party itself. Ipsos-Mori polling immediately after the general election showed that only 27% of adults had a ‘favourable’ view of Labour, as against 54% who thought of the party unfavourably: a net score of -27 when compared with ‘just’ -1 for the Tories.
That problem is linked to the second breach in the hull: Labour is beholden to members who think and feel nothing like the public.
Yes, they are willing to compromise with them, and the vast majority of Labour members simply want a fairer, more cooperative society: but a small number have turned social media in particular into a sinkhole of ultra-partisan rage and hatred.
Third and last, there’s the problem of policy. Voters thought Labour’s 2019 manifesto overloaded and unrealistic: one told a focus group assembled by Lord Ashcroft that ‘what [Corbyn] promised was just impossible. The billions of pounds they were promising for this, that and the other… It was pie in the sky. People are not daft’. How does Starmer keep some of the idealism and clarity of the Corbyn years – elements that attracted so many voters in 2017 – while jettisoning some of the absurdities that made voters laugh at Labour in 2019?
And now, on top of all that, comes the coronavirus crisis, a tragic, debilitating disaster that will leave many people stunned, bereft and grieving.
If it is not crass to say so – and national life has to continue in some way, somehow – this awful adversity makes Starmer’s challenges even worse, at least for now.
Public attention will be elsewhere, and Starmer can expect no fanfare of introduction and attention.
The pronouncements and struggles of prime minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet will drown out any other voices for a long time to come.
Parliament is scattered in early recess, and if things get worse it may not reassemble in anything like the form familiar to us.
And after a slow, uncertain start the government is pulling every lever it can find, and then building a few more. There just isn’t much for the opposition to get hold of, to get its teeth into: little, in short, to oppose.
The net effect is to put rocket boosters underneath the government’s poll ratings.
Two polls over the weekend gave them huge 26-point leads, and the Conservatives hit 54% in both surveys: record numbers for the party while in government.
Johnson is popular: a poll by Number Cruncher Politics showed that 72% of the public were satisfied with his performance, and only 25% dissatisfied.
To some extent, all this plays to Starmer’s strengths. He is intelligent, serious, considered; he thinks before he speaks; he has a story to tell about a more united, more professional Labour Party.
For good or ill, he looks like most voters’ caricature of a prime minister, and he is not Corbyn.
People in general like what little they have seen of him, one Ipsos-Mori poll in February giving him a net rating of +7 among those who expressed a preference (32 points to 25).
The government’s crisis honeymoon may well not last in any case. That depends on what happens next, and there are a number of scenarios that could cause its position to collapse.
If a shortage of kit for heroic National Health Service workers gets fixed in the public mind, if the government loses control of the situation in Britain’s hospitals, if it is seen incontrovertibly to have added to the death toll by failing to act sooner, if the public loses patience with a long-term lockdown: any or all of those factors could play a role.
The Conservative government of Lord Salisbury won a huge majority in the so-called ‘khaki election’ of 1900, at a time when the voting public thought the government’s war in South Africa was basically won: once it had dragged on for years afterwards, the Liberals’ cause in opposition was rejuvenated.
Most of the public applauded Tony Blair’s government when George W. Bush’s ‘coalition of the willing’ captured Baghdad in April 2003: 66% told YouGov they thought that the government had been right to invade Iraq. By 2014, and after years of disastrous sectarian civil war had ripped Iraq to pieces, that number had fallen to 23%.
So politics, as ever, is simply at the mercy of events. No-one knows what is going to happen during the coronavirus outbreak, how the public are going to take it, what the political parties will say.
Starmer gives Labour a chance of looking businesslike and considered, rather than obsessively carping from the sidelines about how this tragedy had proved them right all along – a failure of tone and empathy on Corbyn’s part that will have done Labour further harm. Anyone who wants to sell you an analysis on ‘the lessons of coronavirus’ right now is a charlatan.
One way in which Labour might find itself in government is via the formation of a multi- or all-party coalition.
In some ways, this has already happened, because the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh governments are all trying to play a fully joined-up role in this epidemic, and in none of them are the Conservatives in charge.
Some at Westminster are openly ruminating about the need for such an administration. Parliament will struggle to scrutinise the executive, especially if and when more MPs fall sick.
The government has just given itself sweeping new powers, albeit with a six-month ‘sunset clause’ which will need approval again in the autumn.
A national government is not, in reality, going to happen any time soon. There are too many obstacles in its way. The Tories have only just won a majority, and they are clinging – ever more unrealistically – to the idea that the UK will exit transitional Brexit arrangements at the end of this year.
It is hard to see which seats around the cabinet table could be filled by Labour ministers. Who would Conservatives accept in the place of Priti Patel, for instance? They would certainly not trade such a right-wing home secretary for Starmer, deeply identified with the civil liberties cause as he is: even Yvette Cooper might be thought too liberal.
But there are circumstances where it could happen. London is giving off very worrying signals of becoming a coronavirus hotspot, as Wuhan and Lombardy were before it.
If the capital has to be locked down tighter and tighter, perhaps isolated like northern Lombardy, calls for an emergency cabinet may grow.
If demand for intensive care beds or ventilators far exceeds what can be done to meet it, then the crisis will take on an even darker character which may call for cross-party agreement. Here, too, the future is deeply, radically uncertain.
Just as Johnson’s premiership may well be defined by this crisis, so Starmer’s reaction to it may well fix him in the public mind for good.
Does he offer more-or-less total backing to the government, does he criticise, does he mount a joined-up critique, and if the worst happens does he even take up some sort of official role? No-one said being leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition would be easy, and it certainly won’t be now.
In the longer term, as Britain emerges from its coronavirus tragedy – and it will – Starmer will try to fix the impression that Labour is the new nasty party; that it doesn’t care what voters think; and that it is prepared to offer an everyday Christmas on the cheap.
It looks like a tall order. But it’s not impossible. At this moment among all others, anything could happen.
Glen O’Hara is professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books and articles about modern Britain, including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-1973 (2012) and The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017). He is currently working on a history of the Blair government of 1997-2007