Labour wasted a year after the election defeat in 2010 failing to rebut the Tory claim that the 2008 financial crisis was “Labour’s mess”. Labour mustn’t make the same mistake again with the COVID-19 crisis.
The temptation will be there for Labour leaders to keep their heads down, especially as polling shows the Tories as leading by getting on for 30 points and Boris Johnson’s personal ratings transforming from negative to positive. People’s instinct to “rally round the flag” at a time of crisis is playing to their advantage.
Some of that is beginning to fray. “The country needs to know that Mr Johnson has a coherent strategy. Otherwise the prime minister who dreamt of being Churchill may find himself cast as Neville Chamberlain,” is the Times withering assessment of his bumbling approach – gleefully quoted by Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade.
So it was cheering to see Keir Starmer, days away from his expected election to the leadership, going onto the attack “Ministers have consistently failed to explain why we are miles behind where we need to be on testing for coronavirus. We need answers and we need solutions - and we need them now,” he recently said.
I think, however, that he needs to develop a longer term narrative about how we ended up where we are today and to be ready to name the villains.
Villain number one is undoubtedly former chancellor George Osborne – we haven’t heard much from him recently have we?
Jonathan Portes, Professor of Economics King's London, is on the money with his piece “George Osborne’s economic illiteracy left us exposed to this crisis.”
“Many of Osborne’s “savings” turned out not to be “savings” at all, just spending postponed, admittedly at a great social cost.
“Cutting NHS capacity to the bone to temporarily reduce the deficit, at the cost, at least in part, of greater readiness, was inexcusable.
Cutting central funding for local authority services in half—and by more in deprived areas— worked for the government, he says, “since much of the blame for the resulting cuts in social care, childrens’ services and the like could be redirected to local councils. Blaming immigrants for increased pressures on the NHS, and benefit scroungers for pressures on the welfare system, was also a successful political strategy on the right for a while.
Who will pay, and when? What are our priorities as a country, and what do we need to do to get ready for the next crisis (which, again, will be different from the last)? Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
The next obvious villain is Boris Johnson. No surprise that the man who gained power with the dodgy claim to get Brexit done should have failed to commit to joint procurement with the EU.
The charge sheet is set out by Oxford professor Simon Wren Lewis
"It seems that so convinced were [Johnson and Cummings] that nothing needed to be done that they failed to do what any good politician should do, and plan for contingencies."
“The time that was lost in those days before the “herd immunity” strategy was changed is the key to why so many things have gone so horribly wrong since. These range from minor, like Johnson continuing to shake hands, to critical failings like not ramping up testing capacity (the UK was among the first to develop a test, but is testing far fewer than other countries), not ordering more ventilators until dangerously late, a failure to deliver protective equipment to all doctors and nurses well before they were needed and the complete failure to quickly unroll a public information campaign.”
Keir Starmer has made it his mission to unite the country. The many examples of people stepping forward to “do their bit” during the crisis shows that there is an appetite for an appeal to solidarity and community. But it needs to be accompanied by an unflinching narrative about how we were unprepared for this crisis.