The Guardian view on Labour’s task: reading the signs of the times | Editorial

Keir Starmer’s new team should draw on Labour’s history and traditions as it develops a vision for when the worst of this crisis is over

Keir Starmer’s immediate task, as the new leader of the opposition, is to scrutinise and hold to account the government’s handling of the most serious public health crisis for a century. Sir Keir was right this weekend to insist that parliament must return after the Easter break, if only in virtual form. Flawed assumptions and poor planning in February and March made a terrible situation worse. Labour’s job is to provide constructive criticism and help prevent future errors being made.

But with the leadership question settled, the party must also begin to think through the implications of a crisis that has transformed the country. As Sir Keir revealed the makeup of his shadow team last week, the first drumbeats of dissent became audible. On the left, there was dismay at the return of well-known critics of Jeremy Corbyn, such as Liz Kendall, Wes Streeting and Pat McFadden. One MP anonymously sniped that members of the shadow Treasury team were to the right of the free-spending chancellor, Rishi Sunak.

A desire to read the runes of a new leader’s first moves is natural. But Labour must avoid at all costs the internal power struggles that bedevilled it during the last five years. Britain is currently experiencing the kind of event that redraws a political map already unrecognisable after Brexit; fresh thinking and analysis are required that are adequate to the times.

When the country eventually emerges from the crisis, there will be loud calls for a gradual return to business as usual. But the pandemic has ruthlessly exposed how unsatisfactory, in many respects, the status quo ante was. The global economy is unlikely to re-emerge unscathed once Covid-19 is under control; traumatised by this experience of vulnerability, nations may place a new premium on increased self-sufficiency, particularly in areas such as medical supplies.

Debate about what constitutes a moral economy is likely to take centre stage. In Britain, belated recognition of “key workers” has exposed the often grotesque mismatch between the market price and the social worth of their labour. A more communal sensibility may come to temper the language of meritocracy and aspiration – the dominant political idiom in Britain since the 1980s. Even before the epidemic struck, the “levelling up” agenda of the Boris Johnson government signalled an awareness that liberal individualism – the prime minister’s default political setting – did not speak to the core values and priorities of much of the country. What the Labour movement used to call “fraternity” may be coming back into fashion. The party needs to discern what that might mean in a modern setting.

In shaping a response to changing times, Labour has rich resources to draw on from its history. It should revisit the neglected communitarian strand of its tradition, which had its beginnings in the ethical socialism of late 19th-century pioneers such as William Morris and was later developed by thinkers such as RH Tawney. The latter, in particular, deserves to be read again: his call for a economy in which social purpose took precedence over commercial and individual gain would find a ready audience among many of those taking to their doorsteps each Thursday evening.

Conventional politics will not be resumed for a long time, but when a semblance of normality does return, a reckoning will take place on terrain that should play to Labour’s strengths and core values. The same, of course, was said after the 2008 crash; 10 years of Conservative government and austerity followed. If Labour, and its arguments, are to be better prepared this time, the intellectual work must start now.

Contributor

Editorial

The GuardianTramp

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