Is this the start of a big left turn? The British death rate has been appalling. The politics of easing the lockdown – higher taxes, blurred rules – are already looking much harder than the politics of imposing it. The state has swollen hugely. You might assume, therefore, that the opportunities for Labour are real and significant. To which the answer is a resounding: hold on; be very careful; maybe.
Coronavirus has reminded everyone of the power of the state to act fast when it has to; and the value to society of public sector, mostly manual, workers. Obvious mistakes have been made on Tory ministers’ watch.
The wider questions are more significant still. Does this global pandemic end a process of hyperglobalisation that began in the late 1980s? Will economies that are now much more heavily borrowed behave very differently during the 2020s? And above all, are voters likely to revise their attitudes to the “sweet treats” of recent times – from regular, cheap air travel, to out-of-season imported foods and cut-price clothing? This is not really a Westminster story at all.
To try to think through its implications for British politics we need to hold in our heads two seemingly contradictory truths. The first is that there are a few events big enough to send political history in a different direction, and that Covid-19 looks like being one of them.
The second is that of the “now-next illusion” – the trap of thinking that today’s vivid headlines are a good guide to the near future. Think back over the past few years. How long ago does the Cleggmania of 2010, and the revival of Liberal Democratic politics, seem? What’s the influence of the dramatic Corbyn revolution of 2015 right now? Remember when Boris Johnson was defenestrated in 2016; finally scuppered, it seemed, by Michael Gove?
The pace of change in politics has been dizzying. Things have changed hugely in the past couple of months, but they can change back again almost as quickly. There is an innate bias towards returning into the old groove, which excited commentators often forget.
We should assume that the political world in September 2020 will feel very different from the one of this spring and that the pressure to pick up things much as they were before Covid-19 will be strong. Of everything that wily master Harold Wilson said, “a week is a long time in politics” has slipped into ordinary speech because it is so usefully true.
The now-next illusion is a relatively banal concept, made interesting because of the tenacity with which our minds grab the immediate, crowding out the near future. An election result, a sudden rise or crash in the opinion polls – or in this case, the relative death numbers – can feel conclusive, even when we know perfectly well it concludes nothing.
So how does this fit with that first truth, that this viral epidemic can change everything? We must distinguish between important episodes in ordinary politics (Cleggmania, the spike in Labour membership under Jeremy Corbyn), and transformative, or hinge, moments. The latter happen when the intimate daily life of millions is directly affected in ways that don’t then fade from their minds. The transformative moments arrive in the home and are remembered.
The overturning and rewriting of daily life during world wars is an obvious example, although in general I think the war metaphor for coronavirus is an awful one. Closer, more recent, examples include the 1974 three-day week under Edward Heath. This lasted from the beginning of January to the start of March, so a not-dissimilar amount of time to the 2020 lockdown so far. It too was a local response to a global problem – the oil-price shock – and it too had a direct impact on British households. Electricity rationing meant limited television and families using candles. Many workplaces had to shut down for at least some of the week. Many pubs closed. It was a moment when the politics “out there” walked into our private lives. Heath was never forgiven. People remembered.
The worst of times: rubbish piled on a London street during the winter of discontent, 1979. Credit: Maurice Hibberd/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The winter of discontent in 1978-79 did for old Labour what the three-day week had done for Heath. Again, ordinary, apolitical people noticed the rubbish piling up in the streets, the closure of parks and public services, the shortages caused by the lorry drivers’ strike and much else. It destroyed the government’s incomes policy and its relationship with the trade unions. Again, it was remembered for a long time (not least because Margaret Thatcher made it a central part of her rhetoric).
One final crisis is worth mentioning, because it has been largely forgotten. I vividly remember the fuel protest crisis of September 2000 because as a reporter I was travelling with Tony Blair when his motorcade came up against lorry drivers bringing motorway traffic to a near halt. As petrol pumps ran out of fuel and refineries were blockaded, panic-buying spread around the country. In many ways, the episode provides a useful parallel with events this spring. The NHS had to cancel non-urgent operations and was put on “red alert” by the government. Supermarkets warned that they might run out of stocks. Hoarders hoarded. The military was brought in to help. Cobra was summoned and Blair hurriedly returned to London to direct events.
Alastair Campbell recalled this in his recent interesting, well-written philippic against almost everybody else in the New European. But apart from those directly involved, the fuel revolt has largely vanished from the national memory. The reason is that public opinion, having been behind the protesters, turned as soon as hospitals were threatened. The protest began to recede and, quite quickly, the government introduced budget help for motorists. The revolt was something most people noticed for a couple of weeks in the media, perhaps provoking them to fill up the car. But the government listened. The anger faded. Life went on.
This crisis is, of course, much more dramatic. A UK excess death toll standing at more than 50,000 people; the almost universal nature of the lockdown, and the potential damage to the economy – £300bn and counting, with big tax rises ahead, according to a Treasury document leaked to the Telegraph – make it more serious than 1974 or 1978, never mind 2000.
Both the three-day week and the winter of discontent changed the course of British politics, so it is logical to expect this crisis to do so as well. Although “now-next” is a useful cautionary corrective to keep in mind, this event seems transformative, not “political” in the usual sense.
Might Boris Johnson’s Conservatives be able to ride this crisis in the way that Heath’s Tories or Callaghan’s Labour government could not ride theirs? That is quite possible. Nobody can say the arrival of Covid-19 was Johnson’s fault. But then Heath was hardly responsible for the price of oil, nor Callaghan, personally, for inflation or a union culture that had built up over decades.
When the inquiry comes, it is hard to imagine that today’s ministers will find it anything other than agonising. Keir Starmer’s charge sheet from his first Prime Minister’s Questions – that the government was slow on recognising the scale of the threat and on the lockdown, tardy on personal protective equipment, and slow on testing – will form the core of any critique. Care homes, too, will be front and centre.
It looks likely that the inquiry will come from parliament, rather than being a slow, judge-led one. Tory MPs will be marking their own ministers, which will make any criticism more biting. The blame game has already started, with briefings against the Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
But how will the public react? It’s still early in the life of this parliament. The Tories are polling well. Ministers can’t stop the public looking at the records of other countries that are out of lockdown before Britain, and with lower death rates. But there are similar mistakes occurring in France, Italy and even Germany. Britain has had her national successes, from the creation of the Nightingale hospitals to the dramatic funding of furloughing for employees. For the politically committed – Labour supporters, in particular – the government’s failings may be obvious. But for the majority the situation may not be as clear-cut.
Today’s ministers have forms of personal protection that earlier politicians did not. First, they have leaned on scientists, who are themselves generally respected. The crucial issue will be whether there was a lackadaisical, over-optimistic and not-quite-serious attitude at the top of government when the key decisions were made. But will the answer to this question be clear enough to sway the view of uncommitted people in the political middle ground?
That is crucial in terms of the national mood and verdict because this has been a national effort. We have fallen back fully in love with the NHS together, clapped together, given up social events and meeting loved ones together, and we have been frightened together.
But beyond that, we aren’t experiencing the crisis in the same way. Being confined in a high-rise flat is dramatically worse than being limited to a big suburban house with a sunny, spacious garden. The gap between those who might be expected to keep working on short-term contracts in conditions that make social distancing difficult and those who can work from a new computer while sat at their kitchen table is a vast one. The generational divide and the higher death rates for black, Asian and minority ethnic Britons are other obvious divisions.
A politically brutal and angry time lies ahead, with a huge spike in unemployment and company bankruptcies over the next year, while taxes could rise by the equivalent of 5p in the pound, if we go by proposals in the leaked Treasury document. But there’s also still an age before the next election.
There is a third factor which, to his many critics, seems incomprehensible: Boris Johnson has been, so far, a popular leader. When he fell ill and came close to death in a London hospital there was a widespread sense of shock and grief. It wasn’t all confected by an unctuously hand-rubbing “Tory press”. His recovery and the arrival of his son were welcomed as good news by people who don’t consider themselves natural Conservatives. His recent address on ending the lockdown, however short on essential detail, showed him finding a new, more serious tone. He is a man who learns.
Johnson is also still a relatively new prime minister. He doesn’t face the weariness people felt when they watched Edward Heath or James Callaghan. Starmer’s cautious, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, dryly sceptical tone feels well judged. The left is frustrated that he has not gone straight into “they are trying to cull the working classes” denunciation mode, but this is still the time for questions.
All of that is the case for the coronavirus crisis not taking Britain in a radically different direction. Even so, I think it will. Let’s turn to the other side of the account.
Covid-19 is re-teaching us old lessons about the state – and here alone parallels with wartime conditions are not completely fanciful. When it needs to, it seems that the state can act with remarkable speed. It can kit out huge, modern hospitals in days. It can tell tens of millions of individualistic, stroppy people how to change their lives, in excruciating detail – and be largely obeyed.
It can close down much of the economy, and yet use its power to bring millions of people on to the public payroll, while supporting individual companies in ways that would, in normal times, be regarded as a Stalinist fantasy.
Yes, the state has also made plenty of mistakes. But in the end, it has shown its might. Privately run companies slash their workforces and beg for help: even under Conservative control, the Treasury steps in.
Much of what traditional Toryism said was impossible or bonkers – the huge rates of borrowing and spending, the new police powers, the daily behavioural instructions and the overt, frank, eager reliance on experts – came about overnight, and with almost no dissent. Discussions about the role of the state won’t be quite the same again. Beatrice Webb would be skipping around her garden, arm in arm with Sidney, singing secular hymns.
Meanwhile, the authority of the trade union movement may also be on the up. When union leaders urge caution and safety-first in the return to work, they are going with the grain of recent government advice, and nervous public opinion. Union criticism of the gig economy and short-term contracts will have sounded more resonant in worried households up and down the country during lockdown.
We have all, meanwhile, rediscovered the importance of basic, public, physical work: the refuse workers and delivery drivers who kept going; the cleaners, the care home staff. A politics that speaks to them, and for them, is going to sound ever more patriotic and of the moment.
All this seems to roll the pitch in Labour’s favour, even before the real political trouble for the government starts. That comes not when you are standing boldly at the podium during the storm, but when you’re coping with the wreckage later. Winding back state support will be agonisingly difficult. Very many companies still alive today will go under. Who to support with state money – and for how long – will start to divide Tory MPs.
And then there’s an even bigger question about how this is all going to be paid for. The recent leaked Treasury paper discusses new taxes on incomes, ending the pensions “triple lock”, a public sector pay freeze, and renewed spending restrictions. Compared with a £55bn forecast deficit in the March Budget, it may rise to nearly £340bn. Even at low interest rates, this is an awesome extra borrowing burden, suggesting Britain’s public finances are as weak as they were when Clement Attlee took over from Winston Churchill in 1945.
What to do? Johnson’s problems are going to come from the right. He appears to believe that a huge, animal-spirits revival of the economy will sort things out. That seems heroically optimistic. Conservative MPs elected in former Labour seats in the North and the Midlands will take one view, many radical Thatcherites the other.
Johnson’s arguments after winning the 2019 general election would point to major public works programmes and borrowing as the way out. A higher spending, higher taxing Tory party certainly causes trouble for Labour. But reviving the activist state causes internal problems for the Conservatives too. On the right of the party they are talking about Covid-19 being Johnson’s Iraq War. He may soon find his 80-seat majority also gives rebels greater scope. Blair could give him a warning about the political perils of triangulation.
But nothing here is inevitable. Starmer will have to be remarkably adroit in reminding people of the value of the state and the cause of poorer-paid workers, while levering open Tory divisions and exposing Tory mistakes – without sounding like he is simply hand-wringing or carping. This is indeed his moment, but only if he proves himself bold, sharp and fast on his feet.
Above all, he needs a big, serious, properly inspiring cause. Labour does well when it sounds optimistic. The power of the state is only of any interest if you have something you really want to do with it. A bruised and slowly recovering Britain, burdened by high levels of unemployment, salved by much larger amounts of state action than usual, will need a good reason to change direction. Post-Covid class politics won’t be enough.
Looking at profound problems in the eurozone, and public weariness over Brexit, I don’t see a “rejoin” agenda being that big a cause. Quitting the EU without a trade deal will cause a huge political row later this year. Companies bent under the pressure of the lockdown will protest loudly. But the economic catastrophe of Covid-19 may make it difficult for voters to determine whether job losses have been caused by nation-state ideology or the virus – a near perfect camouflage for those who want the maximum possible break. Again, Starmer’s bland caution is eloquent; though a moment will come when bland caution isn’t enough.
Nothing that we have learned so far from the outbreak across the EU itself is terribly surprising. The Commission has been slow; national governments have been much more important; support from the richer northern nations to the poorer southern ones has been niggardly. Countries with the best funded health systems, best educated populations and most trusted officials have done better in suppressing death rates. Perhaps, rather than advocating an earlier return to the EU, the left would do better to open a discussion on “how can we be more like Germany?” Or, if that is too provocative, the Netherlands.
Yet still, none of this feels galvanising. Labour needs to think about the biggest threat facing Britain, and we all know what that is. The obvious approach is to use the enhanced authority of the state, increased respect for science and current feeling of solidarity to push a revived climate change agenda. Global warming, which may soon threaten food supplies around the world, is a far bigger threat to humanity than Covid-19 or even the next “Virus X”. (An antibacterial-resistant pandemic would be something else.)
Essential viewing: David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet is due for release later this year. Credit: Netflix
At this point: a brief commercial break. The World Wide Fund for Nature’s documentary, David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, will be released later this year. You are hereby implored to watch it. The film not only brings home the devastating impact we are having on our thin planetary skin, and the proximity of apocalypse, but it also offers ways out of this hideous dilemma that are plausible, affordable and attractive to anyone with a streak of romanticism. A state that can throw up a Nightingale Hospital in a few days is a state that can throw up coastal barriers, reconfigure our energy system and promote much more sustainable farming and fishing.
As an added inducement, this is a rare policy shift that would not divide but reunite the Labour family. John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, is an enthusiast for the cause. A lively environmentalism goes back a long way in Labour, to the early Fabians and before: this was William Morris’s movement too.
None of which makes it easy. Take flying. The extra delay and faff, and the greatly increased costs of air travel after Covid-19 offers politicians a choice. Do they move Heaven and Earth to reopen the airports and support cheap flights so that business traffic and holiday companies are functioning next year much as they were in 2019? Or do they seize this as a moment to change direction, asking us all to reconsider regular flying as a basic human right?
Then there is the geopolitics. In global terms, Covid-19 has already ramped up the increasingly poisonous feud between Donald Trump’s White House and Xi Jinping’s China. A global recession followed by a global trade war would indeed make the echoes of the 1930s unbearable. But to stop importing so many material goods from the other side of the world would be an environmental win.
This may be the time to start thinking about making such a change. This spring many of us have been reconsidering our values – with life, friends and family mattering more; travel and consumption less. We have noticed bluer skies and faster growing greenery as a result of a brief cessation in pollution. Nature bounces back quickly. There is something here to celebrate. Building a new green agenda needs optimism. It must be more than the politics of doing less and saying no. It can only be achieved by offering a brighter, better landscape and healthier life – clean air, revived local nature, more time – in return for less wearily repetitive consumption.
Again, nothing is inevitable. It will need big leaders with considerable courage and imagination. The first thing they will have to do is to distinguish pro-environment localism from nationalism. This pandemic demonstrates the interconnectedness of the modern world. It doesn’t matter to most of us where an effective vaccine is discovered first. We have been learning lessons from countries as varied as South Korea and Sweden. Yet there are already the first signs, from the US to Austria and Italy, that a pandemic spurs nationalism. It’s an obvious argument against open borders that the centre left will have to resist.
None of this is easy. Nor are predictions. But I would make, nervously, two tentative ones – an “if” and an “unless”. If the Tories try to pay for this by returning to austerity, hitting public sector workers disproportionately, they will destroy themselves, as well as making Britain an even angrier country. And unless Labour uses this moment in politics – when the state has shown its power anew, and “we are following the science” has become a universal motto – to put a revived and popular environmentalism front and centre, then it will find getting back into power almost impossibly difficult.
This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show