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What would be different if Starmer was in charge?

Keir Starmer’s weakness is a lack of healthy scepticism for the wisdom of experts

Artillery Row

What if Labour was in power? How would the government’s Covid strategy be different?

This is a different question to entering the alternative universe in which Jeremy Corbyn had won last December’s general election. Had he done so, perhaps Corbyn would have seized private healthcare assets because there was a health emergency and the state needed them. That is conjecture. But given his principled abhorrence of spending taxpayers’ money on big pharma and non-public sector health research, it would certainly have been interesting to see how many workable vaccines his taskforce secured for the British people.

We can never know and essentially it does not matter because Corbyn is history. He lost badly and it is the alternative offered by his successor that should be examined.

Fundamentally, Sir Keir Starmer has the same attitude to restrictions as the government. As he said in opening for the Opposition during Tuesday’s debate on the new three tier system, “we cannot protect the economy if we lose control of the virus – that just leads to more uncertainty, more restrictions and more long-term damage to the economy.” That could just as easily have been Matt Hancock speaking.

Indeed, the government’s main Covid measures have all enjoyed the Labour leader’s support at the time of their introduction. Such qualifications as he has made are that they should have come sooner rather than not at all. He has supported both the March and November lockdowns. Of the latter, which followed his call for a three-week version of the same thing, he said on Tuesday, “whatever view was taken of the timing, it is clear that the lockdown was necessary and has helped to reduce infections.” He has never ruled out supporting a lockdown in the new year should it be considered necessary.

Nor has he gone for the quick win by disputing the suitability of contentious and possibly ridiculous impositions – from church closures to why it is legal in tier 2 to sip a pint in a pub with a plate of food but illegal to simply sip a pint with a packet of crisps in the same pub. A more opportunistic Opposition leader with an eye to the headlines might have made the intrusion of some common sense a populist rallying call. But that is not Sir Keir’s style. He does not have a healthy scepticism expert wisdom.

Nor is he against the new three tier system per se, admitting that, “I do recognise that the tiers have been toughened, as it was obvious to everyone that the previous tiers were a one-way street to tier 3.” Those angered that they are in a higher tier than they feel fair should not imagine it would be much different if Starmer was in Downing Street. “The reality is that tough restrictions will be needed until the vaccine is rolled out, and that may be months away” he continued, and “we do not want the restrictions to come off.” Even the question of making the tiers more granular and localised – raised repeatedly be aggrieved MPs on Tuesday – was left unanswered in the contribution from Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary.

Starmer’s line of attack is one of competence, not policy. He shares and articulates a broadly held view that the government is slow in introducing restrictions and has been wasteful and negligent (he has not quite alleged corrupt, although some of his colleagues have done so) in a fraction of the multi-million pound contracts it has awarded – albeit that at the time of acute PPE shortage he urged the government to remove the bureaucratic blockages to securing production.

Starmer’s line of attack is one of competence, not policy

When parliament debated the imposition of the second lockdown on 4 November and the new tier restrictions system on Tuesday it was instructive that the threat to civil liberties was an issue raised almost entirely by Conservative backbenchers. It scarcely received a nod from the Opposition benches. It is intriguing that Starmer, a civil liberties lawyer, has not made this an issue at a time when even holding a private dinner party in England is now illegal.

On the economic consequences of ongoing restrictions, there is a noticeable division. Concerned Conservative MPs speak of the devastating effects to businesses large and small. Being wholly behind the restrictions driving these businesses to the wall, Labour’s focus is on securing better payments for those facing the resulting ruin and, in particular, renewed efforts to support those who have fallen through the cracks of furlough and other support packages.

Critics who despair of Labour’s opportunity to offer a clear alternative route, rather than a better version of the same thing, point to Tuesday’s debate in which Starmer directed his MPs to abstain. For his troubles, fifteen of them ignored him and voted against the new three tier restrictions. It is, of course, easy to mock a firm decision to abstain and at PMQs earlier today, Boris Johnson was full of stagey contempt: “Captain Hindsight is rising rapidly up the ranks,” he glowered across the despatch box, “and has become General Indecision.” Abstaining did look like a man without the resolve to back the government and yet also without the plan to oppose it.

However, there is more to it than that. The government’s margin of victory on Tuesday was sufficient for the issue of Labour support not to matter, but what if it had done? If Labour had successfully voted down the restrictions hours before they were due to be enforced, the prime minister would have laid every fatality and Covid setback in the coming weeks at the door of Sir Keir Starmer. Leaving himself open to this charge was a bigger gamble than the leader of the opposition was prepared to take.

It is intriguing that Starmer, a civil liberties lawyer, has not made this an issue at a time when even holding a private dinner party in England is now illegal

Which brings us back to the question of what would be substantively different if we he was in charge. Starmer’s sustained and principal line of attack is that no form of local restriction is going to work whilst the track and trace system fails to secure the required level of isolation from contacts of those who test positive. The issue has long ceased to be the number of tests conducted, but the low contact rate. More than half a million people who should have isolated in November did not do so.

Starmer has argued consistently that the economic cost to those who should isolate means that the person who gets a positive test does not identify their contacts because of the financial penalty involved in their isolating. Only one in eight workers qualify for the government’s one-off self-isolation benefit of £500 and so their punishment for isolating is statutory sick pay of £13 a day. As Starmer warns, “there is a real fear that self-isolation means a huge loss of income that they simply cannot afford.”

The failings of the tracing part of test and trace will be with us over Christmas and into the new year. But as winter drifts towards Easter the far bigger question will be whether the government has proved competent in rolling-out the vaccines (a tricky enterprise given that the Pfizer vaccine – the first to be administered before the others are approved – has to be stored at -70 degrees).

At PMQs today, Starmer started to probe the prime minister on how developed the distribution programme was to administer the first 800,000 doses and got an answer light on detail. As the government’s containment strategy has gone from protecting the NHS back in March to stopping the virus going above a R-rate of 1 until mass vaccination is achieved, this will ultimately be the great test. There is not a shred of doubt that the leader of the Opposition wills a successful roll out. But he is laying out Labour’s new line of attack if the task proves too great for this administration.

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