How should opposition parties respond to the coronavirus crisis?

The tug-and-pull between opposition and government must serve its purest democratic aim: to genuinely improve government policy, rather than simply undermining it. 

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There would normally be nothing extraordinary about the leader of the opposition describing the government of the day as “complacent” on a certain issue. Indeed, in normal times, it would hardly be news. But as the UK faces a pandemic, do the usual rules of politics apply? 

There was something striking this weekend about Jeremy Corbyn doing exactly the above. He described the government as “complacent” and “behind on this” in relation to its coronavirus strategy. Echoing what has worried plenty of members of the public, he said: “They are giving advice which is different to that given in almost every other European country. This is something strange.”

He added: “It seems to me that at every stage, the government just isn't on it and isn't fast enough.”

Through his comments, Corbyn, who remains Labour leader until his successor is elected on 4 April, lent credibility to the concern that the UK government, by following a markedly different path to other European countries, is endangering the public. 

Such a bold statement has raised questions about the role of the opposition at times like these. Corbyn’s defenders say that he is amplifying the valid concerns of the British public; his critics say he is undermining public trust in the government during a crisis in which maintaining such trust is paramount. 

If Twitter (which is by no means a representative sample of the UK) is anything to go by, people are looking at our political norms through fresh eyes in this crisis and interrogating the usefulness of certain interventions by politicians and journalists. Is Corbyn doing his job by adopting the lowest common denominator criticism of the government that is circling on social media? By not just asking questions about the government’s approach, but stating as fact that it is “complacent”? 

Is Robert Peston, the ITV political editor, doing his job by reporting anonymous briefings he receives about government plans to ask the over-70s to isolate themselves for months, causing panic in some cases among those older people? Both figures are carrying out their jobs exactly as they have been in recent years, but in a crisis it’s suddenly uncertain whether it’s helpful. 

Coronavirus poses huge questions for all opposition politicians: how can they hold the government to account in a responsible way, without “playing politics”? Or should they still “play politics”? Labour, the official opposition, has three prospective leaders as well as its acting leader, each trying to model effective opposition at this challenging time, and each taking different approaches. Notably, all three are taking different approaches to Corbyn.

He is the only opposition party leader or prospective leader to have presented these criticisms of the government as facts, rather than questions. Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and the Liberal Democrats have in their own ways all addressed public concerns about the government’s approach by asking for more information, rather than jumping to conclusions about the efficacy of the underlying strategy. 

The Liberal Democrats published a list of questions they would seek to have answered by the Prime Minister, accompanied by a statement that: “Whilst we have full confidence in the CMO [chief medical officer] and his team, Boris Johnson is failing to explain convincingly his strategic approach to dealing with coronavirus. The government’s position still looks at odds with the actions taken by other countries and the advice of the WHO [World Health Oragnisation], and people deserve to know why.” 

Likewise, in Starmer and Nandy’s responses , here is a clear effort to criticise the government’s communications strategy while steering clear of anything that would undermine public trust in the underlying approach. Starmer took issue with the anonymous briefing to Peston, saying he was “deeply concerned that over the past 48 hours ministers have been failing in their responsibilities to provide consistent and transparent public health advice".

He added that “anonymous and speculative briefings to journalists about a significant step-change in the government’s response to the outbreak” were “irresponsible”.

Nandy, meanwhile, has been more visible: in an interview with Andrew Marr and in a speech previewed by LabourList, she called for greater public information and a Marshall Plan-style programme to deliver supplies to older people.

The higher profile of her interventions compared with other candidates again raises questions over whether the normal rules of politics apply. In the normal game of politics, as many politicians and journalists see it, unfolding events provide a key opportunity for opponents in something like a leadership contest to compete to respond in the most “leaderly” way. But in this case, you only have to look at the clip of Nandy on Marr to see accusations of political point-scoring. 

And then there is Rebecca Long-Bailey, who has differentiated herself from her rivals, the Liberal Democrats and even Corbyn, by eschewing the discussion about the government’s communications strategy altogether, except for a single tweet on the subject. Instead, her team’s approach to the political challenge thrown up by the virus is to propose an alternative set of policies which they argue would create the economic conditions necessary for people to self-isolate. These include an increase in statutory sick pay and the extension of sick pay to all workers, including the self-employed. By offering examples of what could be done, such a strategy represents a tangible way of exposing and addressing the longer-term holes in the welfare state and in the government's programme of support for individuals and businesses.

As examples of alternative approaches to opposition, it’s perhaps not hard to see who’s getting it right. Corbyn’s approach jars with most people’s sense of fair play in politics at this unusual time. He will always have his staunch defenders, but most people ultimately want leaders who make them feel better by asking the right questions and projecting a sense of pulling together for the common good.

It’s all too easy to scratch away at the itch of public fears until it becomes a gaping wound, and it could well serve Labour for Boris Johnson’s approach to appear dubious. But what people want, more than having their fears echoed back to them, is genuine leadership, from government and from the opposition. For the latter, that means asking the right questions and proposing policy alternatives, without stoking fears. It means the tug-and-pull between opposition and government must serve its purest democratic aim: to genuinely improve government policy, rather than simply undermining it. 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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