Sunday 3 September 2023

A Display of Utter Poltroonery

It's a perfect metaphor for how Rishi Sunak and his predecessors have run the country. As public services, the functioning of the state, and the parlous condition of local government are biting and costing the Tories dear, its physical infrastructure is literally crumbling. That an unknown number of public buildings, including former council housing, are at risk of falling down is news the Prime Minister could do without. An expert interviewed by the BBC said the expiration of aeriated concrete buildings "also includes health, defence, justice, local government, national government, and also a lot of the private sector." In other words, we've gone from nought to crisis in record time. This has immediately disrupted the beginning of the new school term, with ministers ordering about a hundred head teachers to shut their doors until safe alternatives can be sorted out.

This problem came to the government's attention in 2018, but it's fair to say they've done very little about it. With Theresa May focused on appeasing its back benches over Brexit, it must have got lost amid all the other pressing issues that were put on hold. As Boris Johnson seemed to never bother reading his papers, preferring instead government-on-the-hoof it's debateable whether he was aware so much of Britain's building stock was at the end of its useful life. Indeed, as Labour have rightly been arguing, had the Tories not cancelled the bulk of its Building Schools for the Future programme, at least where schooling is concerned the problem might not be so bad.

On Laura Kuenssberg this Sunday morning Jeremy Hunt for once committed the government to sorting the mess out. They "will spend what it takes" said the Chancellor. But before he gets any credit for making a clear cut pledge, it turns out "what it takes" will come from unallocated funds in the existing education budget. In other words, not a skies the limit promise because, as per everything Sunak does, the Tories cannot possibly be seen to make the state look effective lest political expectations are raised. An open goal for Labour, surely?

Keir Starmer tweets a good game. And, indeed, when Bridget Phillipson went on Kuenssberg she rightly castigated the Tories for their failures. Rightly, she wants a list of affected schools made public. It would be interesting to cross reference that with the BSF cancellations. But in one crucial aspect, what anxious parents would have wanted to hear, instead the shadow education secretary completely fluffed it. Asked three times if Labour would make a commitment like Hunt did, she waffled and prevaricated before settling on a "we need to know the extent of the problem". The dead hand of Rachel Reeves strikes again. Hilariously, she earlier criticised the Tories for "failing to fix the roof" without making any commitment that she would either. Astonishing.

Politically, such a non-answer is a non-starter. Parents and teachers want to know that a Labour government would fix the problem. End of story. By not giving a clear response, they've allowed the Tories to appear more decisive. When the immediate and expanded bases of Labour support are looking less than enthusiastic this side of the election and will have a short fuse when Starmer enters Number 10, this is plain stupid. Do they think saying nothing is going to win plaudits from the Tory press, while their editorials demand Sunak and Hunt take action? Equivocating over the costs of child safety at school - it's remarkable and shaming that Starmer's Labour has come to this.

If there was anything about Starmer he would seize this as a major opportunity. He likes talking about his "missions", and circumstances have bequeathed him a problem that, if approached seriously, could occasion an excuse for the largest stimulus since the Second World War. Not money for asset price inflation. Not money for jobless recoveries. But money that would replace crumbling infrastructure and provide full employment for a generation. No need for silly gimmicks. It could overcome the divisions in Labour's base, and ensure the Tories and the reactionary constituencies clinging to them would be marginalised from politics for good. Here we have a clear mission that calls for a national effort, and instead of rising to the occasion and committing Labour to this ambitious but entirely deliverable project we get nothing. If a Starmer supporter ever asks why people are sceptical that a Labour government would deliver, just orient them to today's display of utter poltroonery.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The hot seats are apparently hot for once. Nerves clearly getting frayed...

Can't help but suspect that this will make her far more relatable to the public, for as long as they remember it. Perhaps the Tories could transfer some of the heat from their seats to Starmer by giving Sunak's job to Keegan.