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2 April 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:31pm

Labour will fail if it thinks Covid-19 makes change inevitable

Nine years of austerity was not enough to make voters swallow their concerns and vote for Jeremy Corbyn – and crisis is not a harbinger of electoral success.

By Nathan Yeowell

If we’re being honest, us politicos have no answers to the two most pressing questions of the day. How long will this crisis go on, and what will the lasting impact be? Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from gamely having a go. 

Analyses of different kinds abound. The crisis is either the end or the making of the Johnson government. It will lead us into a post-globalised world, or it will strengthen global responses and institutions. 

From what I’ve seen many on the left are choosing to be galvanised by the current situation. We are going to get the Labour programme that the voters so cruelly denied us last year. We might start to value the labour of shop workers, carers and delivery drivers at the same level as hedge fund managers, derivatives traders and other esoteric financial types. We might finally see an NHS with the funding it needs. 

These are things I want to see too, and I’m not here to chide anyone for dreaming big in these bleak days. But I do have a warning, and a challenge. 

The warning is simple. Too often, we’ve seen crises as inevitable harbingers of a better world. Too often we have been wrong. The 2008 financial crisis did not herald the reform of capitalism. Ten years of austerity was not enough to make people swallow their very many, well-founded concerns and vote for Jeremy Corbyn. If we treat the change that comes out of this awful situation as inevitable, it will not happen. 

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So, the challenge. What will we do to make the lessons of this crisis stick and make it a real change for the better? And, if you will permit me to be a little parochial, I’m specifically interested in what Labour will do. I think this is the most pressing issue for the new leader come 4 April. 

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Whomever they are – and I’ll write here in public for the first time that my first preference went to Keir Starmer – the new leader will need to quickly demonstrate what an intelligent and committed opposition can do, challenging and supporting the government as necessary. 

With Jeremy Corbyn missing in action, Labour’s response, such as it’s been, has been left to others, with shadow health secretary Johnathan Ashworth emerging with credit from his even-handed dealings with Health Secretary Matt Hancock.  

And it is true that politicians of all stripes must pull together now. But as times goes on Labour will be under great pressure not to ‘politicise’ the crisis and the new leader must resist this. It is a political crisis. Political decisions taken by previous governments have impacted upon the health service in ways that will cause some people to die who otherwise would not have. Political decisions will impact on our ability to overcome the crisis and grapple with the return to normality. Political leadership will be required to make a better world after. 

That said, tact and a genuine understanding of the public mood will be needed to determine when and where to intervene. We have failed to connect with people in recent years and saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time, even using the wrong tone, will be disastrous. 

To rise to the challenge, Labour needs to prove it is the means for making Britain a better place for everyone, not just a vehicle for protest. The push to turn the party into a supposed social movement since 2015 has come at the cost of both credibility and electability. It has also been cast into stark, pitiless relief by the organic, spontaneous creation of local community crisis support groups up and down the country, showing us what real social movements are all about. 

I hope the crisis gives us the impetus to construct a more relevant policy platform, and one more closely attuned to the lives we live today and are likely to be living tomorrow. Context, and a renewed commitment to providing solutions to the problems of the here and now must take priority over the ideological preoccupations of recent years.

Nathan Yeowell is director of Progress, Labour’s movement for progressives