The Government is grief stricken. It is incoherent with it. Caught between the lurgy and the economy it faces both ways and makes both worse.
Only six months ago, they were basking in the sunshine while staring at an entirely benign political landscape. Labour had been ransacked in their heartlands, and the Conservatives had created a new class coalition, transforming the basis of our politics. They knew that had the Brexit Party not saved up to 40 Labour seats, the victory would have been far bigger. There was room to grow and Brexit was their guiding light and lodestar which would not stop giving, dominating the political scene for the next year.
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Brexit was the fault-line that destroyed the Left and created a one-nation Conservatism that would push Labour back to its progressive comfort zone in the big cities, sealing it off from the small towns and working class heartlands forever. The Conservatives would be in power for a generation and when Keir Starmer was elected leader, it sealed the deal. A Remainian lawyer could never heal the wounds.
In the boundless glow of uncontested rule, a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand appeared over Wuhan, but the Tories paid it scant attention. It was of no concern to a distant island like ours. It would blow over. The decimation of Bergamo didn’t have much effect either — though the EU seemed to fall apart immediately, re-asserting borders, suspending free movement and breaking all the rules on state aid.
But, then, the hard rain that Dominic Cummings prophesied falling on the Civil Service started to fall on the Government instead. It was not only the chlorinated chickens that were coming home to roost. Their casual contempt for experts morphed into a meek acquiescence to scientific advice, even when it was contested. Our industrial capacity to produce medicines, or even facemasks, had been transferred to China long ago. We could build hospitals, but they never saw a patient. Testing, tracing — no capacity for that. The rain started before the honeymoon was over; it hasn’t stopped falling since.
And the landscape became muddy, miserable and murky. And the man in the mask sitting alone on the frontbench opposite, the man who they thought would be defined forever by leading the Labour resistance to Brexit, and gifting them the election: that man was slowly coming into focus.
But such was their contempt, and their grief, that they couldn’t really see him. They didn’t notice when he said that the issue of Brexit had been resolved and Labour supported leaving the EU by the end of the year. The biggest issue in British politics had dissolved into a previous era and the Covid response was centre stage. They didn’t notice when Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked and all links with the Corbyn camp were severed. They didn’t notice the hundreds of letters of suspension that went out to people who had said strange things about Jews. They didn’t notice that he was writing articles on VE day in the Telegraph, on Memorial Sunday in the Mail and whenever he liked in the Sun — an act considered treachery by Labour leaders for more than a decade. They didn’t notice that he was tapping into a form of modest Labour patriotism that once had deep roots in the Party, and still does in the country.
Keir Starmer did all this while his party membership, the rest of the party leadership, even, was stuck on Zoom. There were no constituency Labour Party meetings, no public assemblies, no Parliament. There was no public discussion about whether to pursue a progressive coalition with the SNP, the Greens and the Lib Dems. Instead, Starmer quietly set his sights on the Red Wall seats that Labour had lost. That was where the war was to be fought but as Leonard Cohen might have said of the Government, it “didn’t even know there was a war”.
Tuesday’s speech was the first time that Starmer could speak directly to the nation about who he was and what he stood for. Labour is under no pressure to develop a manifesto, it needed a general direction of travel, a sense of mission and of vision. A sense of the temper of the man who was leading it. And he seized the opportunity to express the ethics of a profoundly conservative person in a way that no member of the Conservative front bench possibly could.
His credo was that “the greatest contribution we can make is to care for one another”. This puts relationships at the centre of it, and to emphasise that, he followed it up with the wish to live in “a country in which we put family first”. He actually used the word joy and family in the same sentence — I can’t remember any other Labour leader doing so. He spoke about Grandparents, and sacrifice, care workers, cleaners, shop workers, life savers.
He spoke about trust being lost and concentrating on security, jobs and community. He concluded with the thought that “the conservatives don’t conserve very much”. Which has the virtue of truth.
He did talk of a plan. It was related to the economy and skills. He spoke about a partnership between businesses and trade unions in a clean economy that “didn’t force people to move hundreds of miles to find a decent job”. The idea of regional economic renewal based upon a partnership between business, workers and the state was precisely the ‘plan’ the Government was elected on. Starmer’s stress on the “everyday economy” gives a clue to its future development. And if Labour has a plan, it is already ahead of the Government.
The Government broke with the previous 40 years of globalisation by insisting there was a bigger role for the nation state in the economy, by recognising the political importance of the working class and the places they lived. It seems that Labour too has accepted the change and is beginning to explore the possibilities.
Keir Starmer is not the first Labour leader to engage with this language and politics, but each of them dissolved back into a default globalisation and none could halt the long term decline of Labour in its heartlands. What Starmer’s speech did do was to dispel the idea that Labour will only fight on the issue of competence. In defining the party in terms of patriotism,”the country I love”, in terms of the ethics of care, for people and for nature, in terms of family, sacrifice and community, Starmer has given an intimation that his ‘plan’ goes much deeper than that.
For the Government, the days are getting shorter and the long night of winter already feels cold. They can no longer draw comfort from the quiet man who sits alone before them.
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