How should Keir Starmer challenge the government as leader of the opposition? Labour clearly wants to make the economy the new battleground, but the Budget delivered by Rishi Sunak this week gave the impression of neither being excessively austere nor fiscally irresponsible enough to give the opposition party much ammunition. It has, in fact, been met with cautious approval by the public.
And with the vaccine roll-out surpassing expectations and the first stage of tentative unlocking – which Labour has supported – beginning from Monday (8 March), even the government’s pandemic response is no longer fertile electoral ground.
So Starmer has been on the lookout recently for other areas of attack. That might explain his intervention at PMQs last week criticising anti-lockdown Conservative MPs who have urged for rules to be relaxed faster.
By targeting Boris Johnson via “those on his own benches”, the Labour leader perpetuated the narrative that discontent with the government’s lockdown rules is a right-wing issue. But is he right?
Exclusive polling of Labour voters for the New Statesman by Redfield & Wilton* suggests not. When asked whether the Labour Party should be challenging the government’s coronavirus restrictions with a view towards protecting our individual freedoms, 52 per cent of those who voted Labour in the 2019 general election said yes, with 32 per cent saying no and 16 per cent who didn’t know.
That a majority of Labour voters feel this way debunks the notion that there is no concern on the left about lockdown and the way it has been implemented.
That’s not to say Starmer should throw his lot in with the Covid Recovery Group and make Labour the party of lockdown scepticism – such an idea is obviously absurd. But it does indicate that the lack of opposition to the government’s sweeping restrictions and propensity for imposing new rules overnight has been observed not just by disgruntled Tories, but by Labour voters too.
It is notable that legal experts from across the political spectrum – including former chief justice and one-time Conservative adviser Jonathan Sumption at one end and leading human rights barrister Adam Wagner at the other – have felt compelled to speak out about the rushed, haphazard and unscrutinised nature of Covid law-making.
This suggests that unease with the unilateral way the government has criminalised and regulated vast swathes of normal human behaviour – albeit with the aim of saving lives – does not fit neatly into a political box, but is instead opposition based on concern for the rule of law, due process and the protection of civil rights.
Starmer, himself a former human rights lawyer, will know that laws which strip away liberties, however well-intentioned they may be, can cause tremendous damage and should be closely scrutinised. Yet despite frequently being branded “forensic” in the early days of his leadership, he has retreated from interrogating the Covid law-making process.
It is possible his relative lack of opposition here stems from a desire to avoid looking “soft” on Covid, and as if he is “playing politics” over the details of legislation when lives are at stake. And there is some justification for that – when asked what they thought of the restrictions currently in place, 47 per cent of Labour voters thought they were “about right”, with 32 per cent answering “too relaxed” and 20 per cent thinking them “too restrictive”.
But that does not mean Labour voters have no concerns about the government’s heavy-handed intervention into people’s personal lives – from prohibiting visits to loved ones in care homes for much of the year to effectively banning sex for people who don’t live with their partners.
In fact, the poll suggests they are able to comprehend both the need for restrictions and the duty of the opposition leader to challenge the government more when major decisions are being made.
These are not mutually exclusive positions. They align with the social democratic tradition, an integral aspect of the Labour ethos, which allows for limits on an individual’s freedom so long as the costs and benefits of those limits are carefully considered and implemented as part of the democratic process.
Throughout the last year, that process has routinely been suspended. Starmer has had little to say on the matter, leaving the gap to be filled by the most extreme anti-lockdown voices on the Tory right. Labour voters, it seems, are unimpressed.
*Redfield & Wilton Strategies polled 1,499 people who voted Labour in 2019, on 23-24 February 2021.