Harry Truman on learning that he had become President of the United States said, ‘I feel like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me’.
Like Truman, Sir Keir Starmer has been elevated to a position of authority at time of national emergency. The crisis we are living through requires a Leader of the Opposition to be effective from the get-go. He does not have the luxury of his successful predecessors like Blair and Wilson to grow into the role over time.
Starmer’s task even before the pandemic was an unenviable one, as the UK Labour Party was grieving from its worst election results since 1935. The party had already lost Scotland and in 2019 it had lost the North. Another election defeat for Labour and it could be left with only a handful of London seats.
However, the Coronavirus pandemic means that concentrating on reconnecting with former Labour voters must be put to one side. The pandemic has even morphed Brexit in terms of significance. However bad the final Brexit settlement is, it is not going to be bad as this. The challenge for the new Leader of the Opposition is a counterintuitive one. Not to oppose the government for opposition’s sake. Do that and it will appear to the general public as exploiting deaths for political gain. One must be seen as helping the government and not wishing it to fail.
Fortunately for Starmer there is a template from former Labour Leaders in which to follow. Michael Foot supported the 1982 Falklands War but criticised some of the decisions the Thatcher Government made. Particularly over the sinking of the Argentine warship the Belgrano. He supported calls for an inquiry after it was revealed the ship was attacked sailing away from the Falkland Islands - meaning that it did not pose an imminent threat to British forces. Clearly something that cannot go without challenge in a developed democracy which has a commitment to international law.
Labour Leader Clement Atlee even became part of Churchill's government in May 1940. First as Lord Privy Seal and later as Deputy Prime Minister. Of course, some may be anxious at joining forces with the Tories citing the devastating consequences of Miliband working with Cameron in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum. But 2014 is not April 2020. It is unlikely if Labour joins the Conservatives in government that it will be viewed by the public as an act of treachery. Coalition did not hurt the Labour Party at the polls in 1945. Starmer's decision to have a meeting with Johnson and officials next week is already a step in the right direction. If he gets an opportunity to help govern, he should take it.
Another imperative for Starmer is to get rid of anti-Semitism in the party. This should not be too difficult. The previous regime struggled to deal with the poison in its ranks because they lacked the will to remove it. The complaints procedure was hijacked by the Party Leader’s Office where anti-Semitism expulsions took months to process. Yet purging former Blairites like Alistair Campbell was almost instantaneous. An important remedy for this will be a new shadow cabinet. Appointing new faces with less political baggage should help move anti-Semitism back to the extreme fringes of the party and not onto the front bench. Previously appointing MPs like Richard Burgon when he made comments calling ‘Zionism as the enemy of peace’ was the height of folly. The fact that Starmer put tackling anti-Semitism at the forefront in his acceptance speech suggests thankfully he is going to take a new proactive stance.
The most important thing for Starmer now, is to be ideologically nimble. The Conservatives, to their credit, have thrown their Laissez-faire free market ideology out the window. The truth is that no political doctrine offers a coherent solution to the pandemic. Starmer needs to support policies that he believes have a high chance of working. If that means relying on the private sector instead of the state to deliver a nation-wide roll-out of a potential vaccine, then so be it.
As for Jeremy Corbyn, he used his final days as Labour Leader to give a sermon that his policies had been right all along. Yes Jeremy, you were right. The size of the state has increased beyond all recognition. The trains have been nationalised, the government is paying people’s wages and the police are conducting surveillance on the mass population. Britain has become more like Venezuela in the past few weeks than you could have possibly dreamt of.
But for most upstanding and open-minded folks (which is the majority in this country) a once in a century plague, with a death toll in the thousands, would be too high a price to pay to prove their own ideological purity.
Bring on Sir Keir.