Thursday 8 July 2021

Make or Break Time

Keir Starmer did well at Prime Minister's Questions this Wednesday lunch time. He asked searching questions about the "uncontrolled" removal of Covid restrictions, about projections of infection numbers and hospitalisations. He made suggestions about the next steps, and raised the likely danger of new mutations of the disease. Taking his cue from thousands of Twitter users, he accused the Prime Minister of leaving the door open for the "Johnson variant". Good stuff that won plaudits from the Labour leader's centrist media fans and yes, it was welcome. It's not a good thing that the government are bent on a psychopathic course, and challenging their reckless necropolitical startegy is the minimum one would expect from a competent opposition leader. The pity is Keir wasn't making these sorts of criticisms over a year ago.

On the cusp of the fourth wave, the sad and unpalatable truth is the Labour leader is partly culpable for the dangerous situation we find ourselves in. The warning signs were there from the off, with Keir treading carefully around the government's tardy efforts and treating it like a management exercise as opposed to a political challenge. And from there things haven't picked up much. As his defenders have argued, he didn't have much choice to go softly-softly at the beginning of his leadership. With life abruptly, unexpectedly thrown into abeyance and people clinging to government against an unknown enemy, a mood of national unity was in the air. The Tories were posting ridiculous poll leads, and the public at large weren't tuned in to what politicians other than the government were saying. Had Keir gone hard on the Tories, so goes the argument, he would have looked like he was scoring points as people were succumbing by the thousands. The Tories knew this and took advantage.

Timing is everything in politics. Unfortunately, Keir wasn't watching the clock. Stressing measured opposition was probably the right move initially. What wasn't was interpreting 'constructive' as 'keeping shtum'. In the dying days of his tenure, Jeremy Corbyn tempered his criticisms with suggestions and demands. Despite trailing in the polls by a wide margin and a dead man walking in conventional political terms, the government adopted these policies in part or in whole. As the party of working people with a direct link to the front line against the pandemic, when he took over he could have carried on where his predecessor left off. Keir had an opportunity to speak up for those who were up against it. But he didn't. When criticisms did issue from the Labour leader's lips, they were spreadsheet criticisms. They didn't take the Tories to task for slow action, nor the scandal in the care homes which was well known as it was happening, nor the outright corruption of PPE procurement. The politics weren't contested, there was no alternative plan, nor a vision about how life might be after the pandemic had receded. Instead, Keir Starmer insisted on road maps out of lockdowns and an "expectation" that children be back at school come September. He couldn't even muster a criticism of Eat Out to Help Out.

But as long as the polls were steadily but perceptibly moving in Labour's direction, there was no pressure on the leadership to change course. The plan, as much as one existed, wasn't to contest anything and let the Tories own their mistakes. Points of intervention were necessary to demonstrate Labour was on the side of public opinion, but there was no effort to show leadership. And so in the autumn after scientists started sounding the infections alarm, it was only then Keir came out for a short lock down to stymie transmission, which the Tories reluctantly followed through with. Likewise, when holiday hunger came to public prominence Labour only got on board after Marcus Rashford put in the hard yards. As for the incoherencies of the Tory tier system, Keir absented himself and it fell to others to offer opposition and leadership. As such, saying very little about the management of the crisis left Labour in a vulnerable position. Because the Tories defined it, they determined what failure and success was. And so when the polls began to swing back towards the Tories, coincident with but not entirely reducible to the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour had little to fall back on. Keir refused to make the link between Tory recklessness and deaths, ceding the ground to the cultivated Tory view infection was a matter of rotten luck. Worse, because he hadn't bothered articulating a political critique, an alternative plan, and a way out when he did attack Johnson it came across as carping and hindsightism - so reported the party's red wall focus groups.

And so the scene was set for our present malaise. Johnson took the credit for the vaccines and their rollout, and with little to say and politically foolish right wing opportunism, the poll numbers kept tumbling. While the Tories enjoyed a so-called vaccine bounce, it did not explain why Keir's numbers were heading south. What did was a refusal to oppose and an active effort at demobilising Labour's existing coalition of voters. And so his authority bled away. The goodwill built up in the first half of his leadership went with it.

Ordinarily, and especially under the terms politics has conducted itself these last 40 years, Keir Starmer would be finished. 323 votes from the good people of Batley and Spen was all that stood between him and the end of his leadership. But he has got lucky. Unlike Gordon Brown and Theresa May, who were finished long before they left office, the fates present Keir with an opportunity. What might save him and revive Labour's fortunes is how he handles life after 19th July. Attacking the government for lifting restrictions, plans to charge for tests, the mounting numbers of hospitalisations, the stats for persistent long Covid, images of crammed public transport, and cases of retail bosses mandating mask removal for customer-facing workers, every single instance is a Tory failure and a demand Labour goes on the attack. A recent poll suggests the public back the removal of remaining restrictions on the 19th, this hides the complexity of anxietes and worries simmering beneath the surface and it could rapidly change as Covid cases surge. The moment requires Keir Starmer ventures out of his wonkish, managerial comfort zone into political leadership.

Already, Wednesday's PMQs has established at least a willingness to move on it among the opinion forming elite and politics watchers, which has duly been relayed by the main media outlets. But this is his last, best hope. He can turn around his year of inaction on Covid by sticking up for those at the sharp end, save his leadership, and put Labour back on track for 2023/24. There are never any guarantees in politics, but persistent criticism informed by the everyday difficulties of trying to navigate the health crisis safely will, in all likelihood, be rewarded. If he fluffs it and doesn't keep hammering the Tories on this, then others will. Keir has seen what has happened when he plays politics by the rules set by the Tories. He is in a position where a pushback can change them to their disadvantage. It's make or break time.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

«challenging their reckless necropolitical startegy is the minimum one would expect from a competent opposition leader.»

But he is not challenging that strategy, he is simply suggesting a different level of implementation of the same strategy.

If he wanted to challenge the strategy itself he would be mentioning at every PMQ the statistics I have already mentioned of SARS-2 deaths per 100,000 residents since the start of COVID-19:

211.70 Italy, 197.74 Poland, 192.25 United Kingdom,
184.48 United States, 166.01 France, 142.25 Sweden,
127.05 Switzerland, 109.95 Germany

17.63 Finland, 14.85 Norway, 11.92 Cuba, 11.72 Japan,
8.03 Iceland

3.20 Thailand, 2.89 China-Taiwan, 0.63 Singapore,
0.53 New Zealand, 0.35 China-mainland, 0.09 Vietnam

He would then talk about the test-trace-isolate strategy, not about a different level of the current strategy. But Keir Starmer seems to me entirely complicit with the "half baked lock-downs and then vaccinations" strategy, and has been complicit with it since the very beginning.

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

I am not sure there is a credible road back from the failure to challenge how the government has approached the pandemic. While I agree with anonymous that a proper test-trace-isolate policy was what should have happened, I suspect it is too late for that now. We are left with a lock-down-vaccinate-unlock cycle. But the very least that could be done is to provide for those who want to be responsible by continuing to make mask wearing mandatory in shops and on public transport. This should continue until at least 90% of the population has been vaccinated. There should also be legal changes so that remote working is available to those who want it (for jobs where it is feasible), including for council meetings (where currently you cannot vote or take part in any decision making process unless you are physically present - this is true for all levels of council from parish to county).

Blissex said...

«While I agree with anonymous»

Oops, me "Blissex" was guilty of that post. I had to repeat several times that post and somehow the attribution did not work.

«that a proper test-trace-isolate policy was what should have happened, I suspect it is too late for that now. We are left with a lock-down-vaccinate-unlock cycle.»

There is a difference between practical and political "too late":

* on the practical side, it is not too late, if the state/NHS could organize a high speed mass vaccination with the Pfizer vaccine, which requires complex logistics, it can surely do mass test-trace-isolate.

* On the political side, it may be too late for Conservatives, New Labour, Liberals to do an U-turn without losing face, but regardless they have no intention to do so: the critical detail is that the success of the TTI approach is not something that became clear only recently, it was clear in May-June 2020, over one year ago, yet Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer, Ed Davey did not switch away from their thatcherite propaganda.

That is the real "necropolitics" of those thatcherites, not quibbles about soft/hard lockdown, mask yes/no, etc. etc. etc. etc.

Dipper said...

However bad the pandemic has been for the Government it has been worse for opposition parties. The constant sniping to a government trying to get us through this pandemic just sounds dreadful; hypocritical and ignorant.

Proper politics starts on 19th July. The government will stand on its platform, the opposition will hold the government to account and put their case. Then we will find out whether Starmer has what it takes to get a national following.

Blissex said...

«the critical detail is that the success of the TTI approach is not something that became clear only recently, it was clear in May-June 2020, over one year ago»

Also the TTI approach had been proven during the previous SARS-1 epidemic, and it had been described as the best choice by the Conservative government's Chief Medical Officer and Chief Science Officer already in early 2020:
«Sir Patrick Vallance says testing needs to be done at scale to find outbreaks and isolate people [...] Sir Patrick Vallance’s comments echo those of Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, who said a week ago that Germany “got ahead” in testing people for Covid-19 and that the UK needed to learn from that.

But maybe a case could have been made that TTI was not yet proven for SARS-2, but by May-June the results from the countries that adopted it were very strong evidence already. Yet none of the UK thatcherite parties and none of the neoliberal governments of other european countries adopted it even when it was demonstrated as the most effective approach. Notably also the "mainstream" media reported that in muted terms, while repeating ceaselessly and prominently all the usual talking points.

Karl Greenall said...

Thank you for a classic example of the evidence- free assertion.
This government has never seriously tried "to get us through this pandemic".
The failures of private-sector operations, the mass looting of public money, and the overbearing cronyism in so many quarters is ample evidence of their malfeance.
On the other hand, it is due to public sector expertise that the vaccine rollout has been so successful.
Proper opposition would have been making mincemeat of this incompetent government every day, highlighting how the government are such a "dreadful, hypocritical and ignorant" shower.
And the majority of citizens would be cheering the opposition on, and enjoying the ridiculing of the Tory snowflakes.

Blissex said...

«entirely complicit with the "half baked lock-downs and then vaccinations" strategy»

I have just noticed an article in "The Guardian" that to me seems worded as if it were an advertorial for the "lockdowns plus big pharma vaccines" strategy, and in particular for Pfizer, even going as far as dissing the UK's "national champion", the AstraZeneca one, quoting extensively Pfizer's previous head of R&D as authority:
“Australia was, in fact, more than four months behind its allies in securing Pfizer. The United States, United Kingdom, Japan and Canada had all struck agreements with Pfizer in July and August 2020, and the company was expecting to produce 1.3bn doses to satisfy global demand. Not only was Australia late to the party, its order was minuscule. At two doses a person, the Pfizer order was enough to vaccinate one-fifth of Australia’s population, not accounting for wastage. [...] Instead Australia planned to make AstraZeneca and the University of Queensland vaccine the workhorses of its rollout. Both brought the valuable option of domestic production at CSL’s Melbourne facility. Time casts those decisions in a poor light. The UQ vaccine failed to get out of the starting gate, scuppered due to its tendency to generate false HIV positives. AstraZeneca has had its own well-publicised problems, greatly inhibiting its use among younger Australians and sending the government scurrying for more Pfizer.”

What is so revolting in this is that the failure of the Australian government to buy US$780m worth of Pfizer product reported by quote as "unconscionable" should be seen in context of Australia having had a COVID-19 death rate of 3.59 per 100,000 instead of the 100-200 common to countries who have bought a lot of Pfizer product, but this has been dismissed without quoting the figures with:

because the success in containing Covid-19 had afforded it more time than others

The other countries that have not adopted a lockdown-vaccine cycle have also been understandably slow at distributing vaccines: there is no hurry, and better let other countries be guinea pigs.

I must admire for its sheer zealous loyalty to thatcherism such an attack on the australian government that has uncharacteristically not been aligned with the "Washington Consensus" necro-political ideology. and has thus prevented many dozen of thousands of deaths (and grave illnesses) and many jobs and businesses.

Blissex said...

«Worse, because he hadn't bothered articulating a political critique, an alternative plan, and a way out when he did attack Johnson it came across as carping and hindsightism - so reported the party's red wall focus groups.»

It is with great surprise that I have just noticed "The Guardian" editorial view betraying thatcherism and agreeing with this:

Sir Keir should seize the chance to anchor a bigger role of the state in popular sentiment. Voters who switched from Labour in 2017 to the Conservatives in 2019 are leftwing on economic issues. [...] If Sir Keir opts for a quiet life, Labour risks ending up being Conservative-lite on the economy and Conservative-lite on its principles. It would be a mistake for him to think voters just want healthier versions of Tory policies. Labour’s “diet Johnson-ism” would pale in comparison to the real thing. [...] He would be going with the grain of his party if he tilts leftward on the economy.

But but but... Isn't thatcherism the end of history and the alternative without alternative, and the truth and the way? Aren't we all thatcherites now? Isn't is better for New Labour to lose elections than win them with left-wing politics? I guess Peter and Tony will have had a shock reading that editorial.

Regardless, "The Guardian" editorial still seems to base on the spatial model their understanding of voter choice, as being based on generic politics. Most swing voters have a "vote-moving issue", and for both those on the left and right that is housing inflation primarily, and wages secondarily. Jeremy Corbyn got a lot of popularity by looking the sort of politician that would address those issues differently from the Conservatives, but it takes a lot of courage to do that,

Blissex said...

«The failures of private-sector operations, the mass looting of public money, and the overbearing cronyism in so many quarters is ample evidence of their malfeance.»

Why not mention death (and sickness) rates 10 times those of Finland and 60 times those of Thailand?
Why so few people mention that enormous difference in the UK (and in several similarly thatcherite countries? Just to avoid embarrassing Keir Starmer's complicity?