The Guardian view on Labour's advance: halted but not reversed

Figcaption The Guardian View On Labours Advance Halted But Not Reversed
Posted at: Author: Rain TV UK

Being leader of the opposition during a national crisis is probably the worst job in politics. The public instinctively feel they should rally around the government. People will put up with the ministerial mistakes when they can see a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. This goes some way to explain why Labour and the Conservatives are either level-pegging in polls or within a few points of each other.

Sir Keir Starmer’s advance has halted but not reversed. His approval ratings are positive. Boris Johnson’s are negative, reflecting voter unease over his indecisive and often incompetent Covid response. But a slowly growing share of the public who, polls suggest, feel unfavourable towards Sir Keir indicates that Tory attack lines are working. If local elections go ahead, Labour could end up losing seats. Why does the public prefer the devil they know when the UK has had the world’s highest coronavirus death rate per capita and its economy, globally, has been one of the hardest hit?

The answer lies, perhaps, in the public’s mood. Pandemics bring sadness but also fear. People have a tendency to blame others for the disease, which makes them feel like they have some influence over the spread of the pathogen. Ministers have, too often, reached for this spiel to deflect blame from the government. Sir Keir may be deterred from dissenting, worried he could be accused of turning a blind eye to rule-breaking. Yet he could also highlight the social inequalities that have grown under a decade of Tory cuts which lie behind the UK’s poor Covid performance. Government help, not ministerial hectoring is required. Purging informed criticism will make needless ignorance part of the government machine and render it less capable.

Sir Keir wants Labour to have a heart and a head. He has tempered policy adventurism, popular with younger voters, with safer competence, popular with older, suburban types. Good jobs, he said, will be his government’s goal. But for whom and how to get them? Answers to these questions will determine whether Labour can recapture the moral and ideological initiative with proposals that Conservatives cannot co-opt. Coronavirus has raised questions about the nature of society, about the role of the state and what a healthier Britain would look like. It has become possible to imagine a very different country. Mr Johnson understands this with a message of “building back better”. Sir Keir’s argument could be to “build back fairer”.

The Labour leader has yet to provide a critique of why the Tories have failed to cope with the crisis. Sir Keir might think it’s too early to say but the vacuum dangerously suggests the party does not have, even in embryonic form, an alternative plan. The Labour leader has outlined individual policies, but they deal with specific issues rather than tell a story about why his party is better for Britain than the Conservatives. Politicians last year found themselves in unknown territory, groping for the way ahead. Mr Johnson has swung from one emergency to the next, facing one direction and then another. The uncertainty means Labour’s sensible suggestions – such as vaccinating teachers at half-term – are scrutinised for U-turns rather than their content.

In the next few months, Sir Keir needs to develop a narrative around the biggest problems facing Britain. The government’s Brexit deal looks bad for almost everyone outside the City. Labour has not said how it can improve the deal. The UK risks breaking up, a threat that needs more than a commission. Sir Keir’s instinct might be to analyse rather than to lead. But that will get Labour nowhere. When things go wrong, Labour should look like it – not the government – has the answers that the country is looking for.

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