The great vacillator: Starmer needs to find some backbone

The great vacillator: Starmer needs to find some backbone

He appears far too scared of Tory criticism

There has been a minor infectious outbreak in Westminster. Not Covid-19 in this instance, where recent case numbers remain much lower than in the Spring, despite Jacob Rees-Mogg’s efforts. No, in this case the infection is rebellion. On the Tory side, Chris Green – formerly PPS to the Leader of the Lords – quit over the government’s Covid-19 policy. Labour, by contrast, suffered a more substantial set of resignations, as two junior shadow ministers and five PPS’s quit over their party’s refusal to oppose the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill.

It’s not just Westminster where divisions are opening up. For the first time since the Covid-19 crisis began, real political divisions have now opened up on how to tackle the epidemic – between Whitehall and several of the devolved administrations, between Labour and the Tories, and within both Labour and the Tories.

That breaking consensus is, of course, not quite the same as the rebelling MPs. Parties are supposed to hold different opinions and an excess of unity in the name of ‘national solidarity’ is usually a bad thing as mistakes go unchallenged and opportunities are missed. Likewise, the whole point of devolution is (at least in theory) that policy can go in different directions in different parts of the country according to local conditions and political priorities.

It’s notable though that where the consensus has broken and political division on Covid has emerged, the Labour leadership has been largely absent. Perhaps the most prominent Labour critic of the government at the moment is Andy Burnham, whose elected role is Mayor of Greater Manchester but who frequently seeks to position himself as the spokesman and champion of northern England in general. He’s been the one who has finally said ‘no’ to the government after seven months in which it’s exercised extraordinary powers almost without constraint.

At the same time as Burnham is arguing that the regulations Whitehall wants to impose on Greater Manchester are too strict, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford is arguing the exact opposite and has banned Mancunians (and certain others) from Wales. Whether he is constitutionally able to do that – health is certainly a devolved matter but borders aren’t – is at best an open question and one which might find its way rapidly to the Supreme Court should an English visitor refuse to pay a fine levied under the restriction.

They’ve been able to have such a prominent say in the national debate in part because of how locally-focussed the policies are but also because they’ve been given the space by the absence from the field of the natural counter to the government: the Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer.

Starmer began his leadership with an air of ruthlessness, sacking many from the Shadow Cabinet who owed their position to loyalty or simple willingness to serve rather than ability. But since then, his leadership has failed to find a spark, never mind rouse a movement with passion.

Sure, Starmer was unlucky in that he came to office in the middle of a national (and global) crisis, where parliament was neutered and where practical politics mattered much more than ideological positioning. To begin with, he could do little other than give the government qualified support as it sought to handle a situation no-one quite understood or had seen in at least half a century.

But as time went on and it became clear that the UK was suffering not only one of the worst health outcomes but one of the worst economic ones, criticism should not only have become necessary but the duty of the man who is, after all, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. It’s his job to criticise.

He could, and should, have been vocal about the refusal to extend the Brexit transitional period when the Covid Crisis took so much time away from governments’ attentions. Probably it wouldn’t have made a difference in terms of the outcome but at the very least it would likely have meant not exacerbating a Covid recession with all the disruption of a Crash Brexit at the same time. (Technically, the UK won’t be in recession in 2020Q4 but that’s meaningless in reality: recession is when businesses are going bankrupt and jobs are being lost in large numbers).

Likewise, Starmer could, and should, have been far more vocal on both the Intelligence Bill mentioned earlier, which is not a big thing to the general public but does matter to many activists and MPs; and – of far more political importance – could and should have been far more vocal in criticising and, where necessary, opposing the government on its Covid strategy.

His supporters would no doubt say that his call for a brief Lockdown II does show him distancing himself from the government and as far as that goes, it’s true (although it’s also the wrong call both because case numbers are levelling off and because it’s delusional to think that it will have any meaningful impact in just a fortnight). However, deviating from the ministers to agree with government advisors is basically the kind of fine-tuning tinkering that’s marked Starmer’s criticism throughout.

What voters want, and what MPs want, is leadership. A sense of direction and purpose. This, Starmer is singularly failing to give. Nobody is enthused to campaign passionately in order to abstain on a Bill, for example. Why, then, has he been struck by such debilitating vacillation?

Some argue that it’s strategic sublime inaction, giving the government space to make mistakes. I don’t believe that. Politics is not (just) a game: failure to criticise or oppose policies at the time that result in deaths and misery is to be to some extent complicit in those outcomes, with both the moral and political weight which comes with that. And on a political level, chances are that if you’re not criticising the government on those matters, others – including some in your own party – will be doing so. Why give them that lead?

No, more likely, in my opinion, is that his reluctance to take to the offensive is because his overly scared about how the Tories would portray such opposition. “Soft on terrorism”, “seeking to deny the government the tools it needs for the Covid fight”, “opposition for opposition’s sake”, and so on. Such caution is, to an extent, warranted. Politicians should always think about what their opponents will say and how the public will respond, especially if it might chime with an unpopular record.

Starmer does not have a long personal history as a politician and his record as Shadow Brexit Secretary was one of acting as conciliator between rival camps seeking compromise and consensus rather than campaigner. Labour’s policy ultimately ended up a horrible muddle by trying to please too many people.

That may not all have been Starmer’s fault but nor can he escape blame. Especially when those same behaviours are on show now that he’s the leader. Abstaining on things you oppose is weak – all the more so when it has no practical impact. Waiting for others to take the first move is weak. Moving in half steps and criticising deep detail is the stuff of committees not campaign stumps. For all his faults, Jeremy Corbyn at least understood that to lead a political movement meant defining and selling a vision in bold colours; it meant leading. Starmer has yet to prove he can do that basic task.

At some point, he has to take the fight to the government (who are providing him with no shortage of opportunities), and accept that that will come with criticism – though if the Tories smell a fear in him of being attacked then that criticism will come anyway, just to keep him quiet. With increasingly authoritarian, intolerant and damaging policies to oppose, now would be a good time to find some backbone.

David Herdson

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