Keir Starmer was presented with a golden opportunity during the Coronavirus pandemic, but it is one he has not taken.
Starmer’s strategy throughout the coronavirus outbreak has been to build a ‘consensus’. In an interview on LBC this week he made it clear that the Labour party did not wish to put up ‘rival systems to the government’. However, what Starmer fails to realise is that Boris Johnson’s eighty seat majority government is not in the business of consensus building. Starmer’s consensus-building strategy has failed and the only way that the Labour Party can be an effective opposition is to present to the public alternatives which expose the objective problems with the government’s plans.
At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Labour failed to demand from the government an earlier lockdown. In fact, two weeks before the lockdown began, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds told the BBC’s Westminster Hour that she opposed the immediate banning of large scale events. Instead of providing an alternative to the government of an early lockdown, Labour simply supported the government going into lockdown when they did. This was a major mistake. This week, former government advisor, Professor Neil Ferguson said that the number of coronavirus deaths in the UK would have been halved if lockdown had been introduced a week earlier.
Coming out of the lockdown we saw the same problem. Starmer failed to answer the question of whether Labour was in favour of lifting lockdown. In an interview on the 3rd of May on Ridge on Sunday, when asked this question shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds simply responded by saying Labour wants lockdown lifted ‘as soon as possible but only when it’s safe’ and confessed that Labour had ‘no rival plan’.
Now, there is a huge debate about the reopening of schools. However, Labour has failed to set out solid proposals on when and how schools should reopen. Their response to the government’s strategy of reopening primary schools from the 1st June and allowing Year 10 and Year 12 pupils to return from the 15th June has been very mixed. Starmer has seemingly changed his mind on the matter from one Prime Minister’s Question to the next. Instead, Labour should set out an alternative to the government model of reopening schools. Saying that Johnson should form a consensus is just not good enough.
There is one striking problem with Starmer’s desire to build a ‘consensus’. Boris Johnson’s short record as Prime Minister shows that he is not the sort of person who is willing to make concessions. Take the deadlock in parliament at the end of last year. When Boris Johnson faced opposition over his Brexit deal, he tried to prorogue parliament, when this failed he called a general election. Johnson is the most adversarial Prime Minister that Britain has had in recent years. Labour as the opposition will not be effective until it accepts that it must play Johnson at his own game.
Starmer seems to think the country wants him not to criticise the government and instead support the government through this difficult time. In reality, this will make Labour useless as opposition and unable to change the government’s shambolic strategy which has led to Britain having the worst death rate in the world and the second-worst death toll worldwide. The public is begging Starmer to present alternative plans to the government. For example, if Labour were to oppose the government schedule of reopening schools and propose a later return date, this would likely be popular as a recent YouGov poll found that the majority of Brits (55%) don’t agree with how the government has handled returning primary aged children to school.
Starmer’s Labour shares some blame for Britain’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus due to its consensus strategy. Keir Starmer has misunderstood the role of the opposition in scrutinising the government. Scrutiny doesn’t solely require asking open questions, it also requires putting forward alternative strategies. Only when Starmer manages to gain support for alternative strategies will the government reconsider some of its disastrous policy decisions.