I have a question, and feel free to answer it in your own time: if what we are witnessing from the Labour Party is “constructive opposition”, and if this is, as advertised, a new approach, then in what essential details does it differ from previous eras?
Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds’s response to Rishi Sunak’s latest Covid statement was replete with the usual opposition tropes we have come to expect in the last few decades: “At last the government has taken our advice”, “Why no mention of X (or Y or Z)?” and that old perennial, “There’s much we support but…”
Go back in time to just about any Treasury statement or Budget and you will find the tone and content of the opposition response to be virtually identical, especially where the shadow chancellor of the day suspects (or fears) that much of what has just been announced will prove infuriatingly popular with the public.
Dodds’s boss, Keir Starmer, was right to promise “constructive opposition” when he was first elected to his new job – he could hardly do anything else given the national and international crisis perpetuated by Coronavirus – but it is hardly sensational or controversial for an opposition party to offer support for measures that virtually the entire country would welcome anyway. Does Labour expect gratitude for supporting the furlough scheme and borrowing to the tune of many billions in order to keep the economy on the road?
Labour – and Starmer – have become the victims of events and one of the consequences of these peculiar political times is that what the party is offering is neither constructive nor opposition. It’s not constructive because the rhetoric deployed in order to gain political advantage is unchanged from previous eras. And it’s not opposition because of reasons outside the control of the party or of Starmer.
One of the profound consequences of social distancing when applied to the benches of the House of Commons is that holding ministers to account is surprisingly difficult when the chamber is nearly empty. Who could have expected the yah-booing hordes so disapproved of by the chattering classes to be an essential tool for putting ministers on the defensive and helping them gauge the anger and disapproval in response to policy?
Even beyond the chamber, there is a widespread, if unspoken, acknowledgement that the business of politics should be, if not paused, then certainly favoured with less attention than in normal times. There is a feeling abroad that the cut and thrust of adversarial politics is all very well, but right now we have more important things to worry about, thank you very much. We should all be grateful that this crisis is occurring shortly after a general election and not in the run up to one.
All of this means that Starmer is following in the footsteps of at least one of his predecessors: Neil Kinnock. Robert Harris, towards the end of his 1984 biography of the (at the time serving) Labour leader concluded that Kinnock, despite the challenges he faced, had that essential political gift: luck. Within a year this assessment had been proved laughably wrong, and in the cruel absence of luck, both Kinnock and Starmer are comrades. The latter could not have taken over as Labour leader in worse political circumstances, in times when the normal rules of engagement – social, personal as well as political – were about to change out of all recognition.
How to construct an alternative government from a shallow talent pool (Labour has barely 200 MPs on which to draw), at a time when party divisions of the last five years are far from healed, in the face of a government with an 80-seat majority, and when citizens fear for the very safety of their families while all the rules of politics and economics are being shelved?
That Starmer’s promise of “constructive opposition” turned out to be merely the headline on a press release rather than signalling any measurable change to the job of opposing the government matters far less than the fact that gaining a foothold in the climb towards relevance in such circumstances are beyond not just him and his party, but would be beyond anyone.
And time is running out. Received political wisdom is that new leaders have a narrow window of opportunity in which to define themselves in a positive light, or else risk being defined in a negative one by their opponents. Through no fault of his own, Starmer has struggled – even in the week in which he delivered an impressive leader’s speech to Not The Labour Party Conference – to deliver that positive definition, except to his own partisans.
But if every other political rule is to be discarded and sacrificed on the altar of Covid-19, then who’s to say that the above received wisdom hasn’t also had its day? If we accept these are unusual circumstances, perhaps Starmer and his party will be granted an extension of their own Job Retention Scheme, Starmer’s very own political Bounce Back Loan, repayable only after all this unpleasantness is behind us and we can return to normal. He should hope that’s the case. The next problem will be the looming general election. By all means allow unpaid VAT to be recouped over longer periods, but there are some deadlines that simply won’t be shifted.