Opposition is always a difficult gig in a crisis – criticise the government too much and it looks like petty politicking when bigger things are at stake; support the government too much and it looks as if you’re not doing your job.
Sir Keir Starmer took over the helm of the UK Labour party in April last year, so his whole leadership so far has been in the shadow of Covid.
He struck a good balance between backing necessary far-reaching measures to tackle the pandemic and making effective use of his lawyer skills at Prime Minister’s Questions to put Boris Johnson on the spot over his exaggerated claims, policy failings and incompetent handling.
But such an unprecedented crisis leaves little scope for talking about wider issues and there began to be criticism that people did not know what Starmer’s Labour stood for. So last week he delivered what was billed as a “big vision” speech.
There were a couple of policy announcements: “recovery bonds” which he said could raise billions to invest in local communities, jobs and businesses, helping to build the infrastructure of the future and providing security for savers; and start-up loans for 100,000 new businesses to back a new generation of entrepreneurs.
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But the main thrust of the speech was to contrast Labour’s approach to a post-Covid future with that of the Conservatives.
He said the pandemic had exposed deep inequalities and injustices and evoked the post-war spirit which saw the creation of the NHS and so much more, saying Labour wanted to see a 1945-style ambition that “our collective sacrifice must lead to a better future”.
In contrast, he said, the Tories “don’t believe it’s the role of government to tackle inequality or insecurity”. They prefer government to “get out of the way”.
Labour is right to focus on poverty and inequality. The coronavirus crisis has not only highlighted but also exacerbated the gap between rich and poor.
Individuals and families living in comfortable houses with adequate resources and jobs which can be done from home have experienced Covid differently from those in poor housing, who are out of work or in low-paid jobs where they are forced to go out and risk their health to keep earning.
Of course, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has splashed the cash in an unprecedented way during the crisis, furloughing millions of workers and providing help to businesses.
But at the same time, the government’s reluctance to give free school meals to hungry children during the holidays and its foot-dragging over continuing the £20 uplift in Universal Credit, which benefits six million of the country’s poorest families by £1,000 a year, reveals a disturbing underlying attitude.
Labour in Scotland will have a new leader by the end of the month, completing the party’s changing of the guard. Whether it’s Anas Sarwar or Monica Lennon who emerges as winner of the internal election, the new Scottish leader will need to work closely with Sir Keir while also ensuring they cannot be portrayed as running a “branch office”.
Despite the Tories’ current poll lead, the next Westminster general election is not due until 2024. There is time for Labour north and south of the border to set out convincing and attractive policies to win over vital voters.
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