Does Keir Starmer think Ministers should act legally? We don’t really know.
Apparently the public do not think politicians should ask for other politicians’ heads during a health crisis, so that’s Labour’s line:
Sir Keir Starmer says he will not be calling for Matt Hancock to resign over the unlawful publishing of covid contracts saying "calling for people to resign is not what the public really want to see" #ridge
— Rob Powell (@robpowellnews) February 21, 2021
There is a legitimate argument to made that the extent to which Hancock acted unlawfully (which we know he did) is not enough reason to ask for his resignation (the enduring scandal of PPE procurement is actually more cause to make that demand but was not for what he was found guilty), but as I see it the essence is this: you make a judgment about asking for a resignation based on the scale of that person’s misdemeanours, not because you’re too scared to ask for a Minister to be ousted because you think that might play badly*.
What about the very real headaches that many small businesses are facing due to Brexit red tape? Labour MPs have been told not to talk about them, or raise the problems in Parliamentary Questions. And Starmer’s big economics speech a few days ago… steered clear of anything about the Britain’s trade relations with the big trade bloc just across the straits of Dover.
Don’t Mention Brexit is basically the Labour mantra.
Weirdly at this particular moment, Jeremy Corbyn – even though he is a life long eurosceptic – would be doing a better job holding the UK’s Tory Government to account. You can imagine him lambasting Hancock for breaking the law, and seeing the absurdity in the supposedly business friendly Tories imposing a mass of red tape on businesses because of a sub-standards Brexit Deal. Don’t get me wrong – I am glad Corbyn is no longer Labour leader, but he’s be doing a better job as Leader of the Opposition right now than Starmer is.
And as if that were not enough… the coverage of Starmer’s inaction by journalists who I think ought to know better is to apologise for it, because they think they have the inside track on why Starmer is behaving somewhere between timidly and in a contorted manner. All of this is an example of what Jay Rosen diagnoses in his seminal lecture “Why Political Coverage is Broken” – where journalists want to portray themselves as insiders, and that they are the gatekeepers in a cult of savviness.
They – and indeed Starmer – are just wrong.
If a government minister is breaking the law, it clearly and obviously is the job of the main opposition party to call for that minister to go. There’s a word for what Hancock did: corruption, and Labour should not be afraid to use it. Now there are different ways forward – Labour could promise to push for a public enquiry into COVID procurement problems once the pandemic has subsided, and fully investigate the bad behaviour and attribute blame that way. But I can just imagine courtier journalists telling us that “ah, no, focus groups in red wall seats tell us people want to move on from COVID, so let’s not push for an enquiry“.
And so the cycle continues.
The same with regard to Brexit. Brexit is not done. It does not go away. Labour cannot wish it away. The Deal struck between Johnson and the EU is by its very nature inadequate and unstable. I pondered that “just hope it goes away” would become Labour’s strategy back in November, and I am even more sure of it now. But this does not work – Labour has to try to win back some seats in northern England, but it also needs to make sure Lib Dems and Greens do not eat into its support in southern England and in university cities. Sure, the Lib Dems or Greens might not win enough votes to win those seats, but they will win enough votes to make Labour’s life difficult. And the only way Labour can possibly stop votes seeping to those parties is to offer something on the EU question – not rejoin (I understand that), but at least a serious effort to put right some of the real, everyday problems posed by Brexit. Refusing to talk about those problems does not make them go away.
The landing point for Labour strikes me as so damned obvious: a commitment to public service and public health, underpinned by a state that is respectable and not corrupt, and working through the problems of the UK’s relationship with the EU one by one and making the Deal struck by Johnson a bit less painful. And then, closer to the next General Election, either that message is appealing enough to stop votes seeping away to other progressive parties, or revisit the idea of a progressive alliance to get into power.
Above all Starmer – be it on the government’s corrupt and incompetent COVID response or on Brexit – needs to stop being so contorted in his responses, and argue for what is ethically right, rather than doing nothing or saying nothing because he fears how it comes across in a focus group. And from there begin to articulate what a Labour Government would do, conscious of the reality the country faces instead of skirting around that reality. This really should not be so complicated.
* – this paragraph added at 22.2.21, 2105, as a result of this discussion.