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From the file

Fragile states | As the coronavirus crisis escalates, we’re all becoming accustomed to reading the line graphs tracking death rates around the world.

The future of the opposition

The future of the opposition

We have witnessed a stunning upheaval of mainstream politics. The Tories have become the party of big government and big spending. So where on earth does this leave Labour?

Do you remember the Labour Party? Last seen on the night of the general election, December 12, when the movement suffered its most shattering defeat since 1935, at the hands of Boris Johnson. Missing, presumed irrelevant, ever since.

On Saturday 4 April, Jeremy Corbyn’s successor as Labour leader will be announced by a round-robin email – an anti-climactic substitute for the special conference in Westminster that was planned before the pandemic lockdown.

The party’s 580,000 members have until 2 April to decide between Sir Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey. There will be a flurry of interest in the identity of the winner (and of their elected deputy), followed swiftly and cruelly by a resumption of national focus upon the battle with coronavirus.

Indeed, the first challenge facing the new leader will be to get a hearing of any sort. They will not only be up against a Prime Minister with an 80-seat majority, but an invisible pathogen that has transformed the public’s fixations, fears and priorities.

And yet that same pathogen may also be responsible for a new political landscape that is unexpectedly hospitable to Labour. Even before the Government ditched its softly-softly approach to Covid-19, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, had announced the biggest increase in public borrowing in 30 years – following this up on March 17 with a rescue package worth £350bn.

The compensation schemes he has introduced for workers ‘on furlough’ from their regular jobs, or the self-employed struggling to make ends meet, look remarkably close to pilot versions of Universal Basic Income: a form of massive state intervention that would have made Tories hoot with derision before Covid-19. But no longer.

Boris Johnson speaks during a campaign event to celebrate the result of the General Election.

Suddenly, the Conservatives – notionally the champion of austerity, the smaller state, and self-reliance – have become the party of big government, big spending, and generous state safety nets. It is an astonishing reconfiguration of mainstream politics.

In one sense, Johnson has shot Labour’s fox. What is there left for the party, under its new leader, to say? And the answer is – if it regains the public’s trust and keeps its face firmly fixed on the future – plenty.

This is the story of a movement that fell off the radar but might – just might – have been handed a most unexpected lifeline.

February 13, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood, London: the four remaining candidates – Starmer, Nandy, Long-Bailey, and Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry – perch on stools before an audience of 750, gathered by the Jewish Labour Movement.

The official 12-week contest has not yet started, but the contenders are already plying their wares wherever they can. And this, they all know, will be an evening that will do much to define their fortunes, and force them to confront, directly, the greatest shame at the heart of Labour’s historic defeat.

The anti-semitism scandal that consumed the party for more than a year and a half and triggered an investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission is intrinsically awful. It has made an avowedly anti-racist party seem structurally racist in its attitude to Jews.

A demonstration organised by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism outside the head office of the Labour Party in central London

But it has done more than that: it has revealed the ideological intransigence that ruined Corbyn’s Labour, a culture of bullying, and an introspective inability to see what is obvious to everyone else. Now, those who want to succeed him – to take on what Thornberry calls “the worst job in the world” – must show, unambiguously, that they understand what went wrong, that they are genuinely sorry and will ensure that it never happens again.

Starmer, already the frontrunner, says that the issue is, in fact, straightforward: “We’ve over-complicated this,” he says. “If you’re anti-Semitic, you should be out. That should be the focus. The only way through this is through leadership, strong leadership. Because the person at the top of the organisation has to send very, very strong signals about what happens next. This has to be a Day One issue, so far as I’m concerned. I’ve run a big organisation [the Crown Prosecution Service]. I know what happens if the person at the top of the organisation says: ‘I’ve got a line of sight on this and I want things to change’.”

This has been Starmer’s pitch from the start: he is the man of reason, the confident, well-groomed leader-in-waiting who eschews emotional fireworks for common sense promises – “No Drama Starmer”, as some of his allies call him.

According to one supporter, a veteran Blairite: “Keir wants to be Tony, but he will start his leadership more like a sexy Neil Kinnock.” In other words: the best Starmer can realistically hope for in this Parliament is to get the party ready for power, rather than to win it outright in 2024. Starmer does not share this analysis, of course. He wants to be Prime Minister. It is why he talks ever-so-slightly too loudly when he answers questions.

As a close friend of Corbyn, and the favoured candidate of the left-wing grass-roots organisation Momentum, Long-Bailey is the most vulnerable of the four the evening of the synagogue hustings. “We have to say sorry, and I’ll say sorry again tonight,” she tells the room.

There is a ripple of scepticism in the audience, and Starmer and Thornberry, who sat with her in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, cannot conceal their incredulity when she claims that she spoke up to him about the problem.

British Labour Co-operative politician Luciana Berger addresses the crowd during a demonstration in Parliament Square against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party

She presses on, regretting the departure from Labour’s ranks of former MPs Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman, both of whom are Jewish. “I’ve got to take responsibility for not doing enough… We need to start to build bridges and rebuild trust.”

Thornberry says that it “disgusts” her that there were Jewish people afraid of what a Labour government might mean for their safety. “When elected leader,” she goes on, “the elected leader will have political capital and what she needs to do is to use that political capital to ensure that we sort the Labour Party out.”

Well, yes. But what the audience wants to hear is a depth of emotional intelligence that convinces them that these sentiments are backed by true political will. And it is Nandy, MP for Wigan and already the contest’s break-out star, who delivers this.

“I’m ashamed of where this party has got to,” she says, “where we’ve lost all of our moral authority over this issue, and, more than that, we’ve caused real damage to people out there in the country. I’m angry about that, too. And I’m really, really sorry. But you deserve more than my anger and my sorrow. As many of my friends who’ve had to bear the brunt of fighting these battles on the front line over the last few years – Luciana, Ruth [Smeeth, former MP for Stoke-on-Trent North], Louise – who haven’t just had to fight racism, they’ve had to fight misogyny as well in our party.”

She has even wondered whether she should remain part of a movement apparently unable to deal with structural racism. “I’ve considered my position in the Labour Party over the last few years, to be honest.”

Nandy, as the audience knows, has been chair of the Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East for eight years. For her to say this, in this setting, is significant – and it cuts through, winning her the heartiest applause of the evening.

Asked whether they would call themselves Zionists, Long-Bailey, Thornberry, and Nandy all say that they would. Only Starmer equivocates – in lawyerly style – saying that he does not “self-describe” as a Zionist.

Not surprisingly, Nandy goes on to win the backing of JLM, an affiliated party organisation. The others, especially Long-Bailey, will be glad to have got through the evening without making a gaffe, or striking a false note.

Labour Leadership candidate Lisa Nandy speaks with party members after delivering a speech on local government at Worksop Town Hall

As I walk out into the chilly street, past the security guards (this is a synagogue, remember) and chatting clusters of activists, I cannot help recalling another, very different night: 1 May, 1997, when Tony Blair won his first landslide, the first of three general election victories that – in terms of aggregate parliamentary majorities – trumped even Margaret Thatcher’s record.

How far Labour has tumbled in the intervening quarter century. In 1997, Blair could get away with calling the party “the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole.”

How small it feels now: four politicians, on a stage, rightly seeking forgiveness from a community that they have so badly let down. Penitent they may be. They certainly should be. But the core quartet of a future government-in-waiting? Not even close.

January 20: Mile End Institute conference on Labour’s future: playing gumshoe in search of answers to the party’s problems sometimes feels like the proverbial philosopher’s dilemma – looking for a black cat in a dark room, that isn’t there.

Today’s inquiries at an all-day seminar – held in a basement in Tufton Street, a few minutes’ walk from Parliament – are a lesson in the sheer scale of the party’s predicament. We are 11 days away from the UK’s formal departure from the EU.

The bleak arithmetic facing Labour has been clear since the early hours of 13 December, as Johnson and his team celebrated their crushing victory and the collapse of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ in the North and Midlands. To win the 124 seats (net) required for a majority of one, the next leader will need to secure a uniform swing of 10.52 per cent – greater than 10.2 per cent achieved by Blair in 1997.

Wes Streeting, MP for Ilford North, is backing Jess Phillips, his backbench colleague whose straight-talking candidacy has attracted much interest from the media (she will drop out the following day, dismayed with her performance in the hustings to date, declaring that she cannot unite Labour). The question Streeting poses is whether the party even wants to try to shift this colossal electoral cement block.

Jess Phillips takes part in the first party leadership hustings on January 18, 2020, in Liverpool.

His disgust with those contenders pouring Labour activists “a warm bath” is palpable. “I’m afraid what the Labour Party really deserves is actually more like a cup of tea and a slap in the face,” he says. “Because for me the question isn’t whether Labour must change. The question is twofold. Whether it is prepared to change and secondly – if it isn’t – whether it deserves to even exist.”

The room, full of activists, policy wonks and pundits, absorbs what Streeting has said. “Look at the scale of defeat: if the Labour Party doesn’t change in the wake of this – when will we change? Everyone’s talking about the so-called crumbling of the Red Wall, and the northern heartlands, and seats that have never been Conservative – really, really important. But if I hear one more person refer to ‘Labour’s challenge’ as if it was just a case of winning back seats that were Labour for a century – rather than acknowledging the fact [that] once again we have one MP in Scotland, that we are the party with one MP in north Wales, that we are an irrelevance in the south of England, outside London and university towns and cities, and speaks about Labour’s challenge as if it is anything other than existential… then I’m afraid [that the party] will just disappear. And so long as we have leadership candidates who are just pleasing the crowd rather than speaking for the voters we have zero chance of coming back.”

Jeremy Corbyn with Rebecca Long-Bailey after the launch of the party’s general election manifesto.

Nor does Streeting have any time for the claim – routinely made by Long-Bailey and others on the Left – that it was the party’s commitment to a Brexit renegotiation and a second referendum that lost it the election. “We might have kept some of those seats in the North [with a different Brexit policy] – might – although I think issues like the [Corbyn’s association with] the IRA, national security and the rest of it still would have done for us there. We’d have almost certainly lost a hell of a load of Remain seats – and contributed to the revival of the Liberal Democrats.”

It is a bravura performance, but it does not command universal support in the room. According to Emina Ibrahim, a Haringey Councillor and Vice Chair of Momentum: “However radical [the] messages we were sending out there, when it came to the European Union we were the party who were defending the Establishment… That’s very, very challenging for our traditional and core vote – the people who want to see a change.”

Emma Burnell, a political consultant and socialist campaigner, argues that the party must, as a priority, deal with its factionalism – on Left and Right “I don’t think that we’re electing a new Blair, an election-winner,” she says. “I think we’re electing a new Kinnock. We need someone who’s going to do the internal heavy-lifting to change the party in the ways that it needs to be changed. But Kinnock had an easier job of that in some ways, because much as some people like to tell me it’s the case, Momentum is not Militant [the Trotskyite entryist group driven out of Labour by Kinnock]. It just isn’t.”

She is right: Momentum, founded in 2015 to provide Corbyn with a supportive left-wing campaign base, still has 40,000 members, is not going anywhere, and will be an un-ignorable part of the new leader’s inheritance. Its members are disproportionately active in constituency party meetings. It is not an entryist group, sabotaging the mainstream party. In some respects, after four years of factional combat, securing control of Labour’s key institutions, Momentum is the mainstream party.

The day is rounded off by Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow and a former candidate for the Deputy Leadership. Cradling her newborn daughter Hettie in a sling, she delivers a dose of medicine no less stringent than Streeting’s.

Stella Creasy in London, December 2019.

For much too long, she says, the party has been “powered by our smugness that we’re just better people because we drink Traidcraft coffee and [we’re] shocked at elections when the public don’t agree.”

She elaborates with a word specially invented for her rhetorical purpose: ‘‘To ‘coddywobble’: it means to travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination. Without recognising the importance of why we seek power, and what we would use it for, Labour will coddywobble – not change our country. Because right now, the biggest challenge for Labour isn’t unity – it’s direction.”

This, believe it or not, is an outlier opinion. So destructive have the Corbyn years been, so battered is the party by sectarian strife, that unity is fetishised at all of these gatherings. But Creasy sees no point in splitting the difference, or marching in step to an ill-defined destination.

The party, she insists, must rush headlong at the problems of the 21st Century, and provide intelligible, appealing answers to the questions that will be posed in the coming decades. She talks about empowerment, defeating the anti-vaccination movement, productivity, enabling the young to own a home, the battle against obesity, investing in innovation. She is compellingly specific.

But will anyone outside the basement listen?

To be leader of the Opposition is a role of the highest importance in our unwritten constitution. The incumbent is expected to hold the Prime Minister to account – at the Despatch Box every Wednesday, when Parliament is sitting – and to provide the electorate with a plausible alternative government-in-waiting. Ex officio, he or she is routinely briefed on security matters and invited to Number Ten to agree bipartisan positions on issues of national importance (a pandemic, for instance).

Yet there have been times on the long road of this leadership contest when you would never have guessed how high the stakes really are. Since 10 o’clock on the night of December 12, when the exit polls made clear that Labour had been defeated for the fourth time in a row, the contest has lost, rather than gained, intensity. It has not been driven to the margins. It has sought them out.

There are specific reasons why this is so. First, Starmer has led the pack from the start, by every conceivable metric. He tops every opinion poll of members and of the public, comfortably. He is nominated by 88 MPs, 54 more than the second-placed Long-Bailey. He is endorsed by 374 out of 648 constituency parties, well ahead of Long-Bailey on 164, and 15 out of 32 affiliated organisations (Long-Bailey is supported by seven).

Keir Starmer arriving at the Unison headquarters.

Just as the Corbyn campaign mobilised thousands of people to join the party and vote for him in 2015, so the 100,000 new members who sign up before the cut-off date of January 20 seem, anecdotally, to be mostly Starmer supporters.

The Labour selectorate – one person, one vote – gets to rank the three official contenders: in each round, the bottom-placed candidate drops out and his or her votes are redistributed to those still in the race, until one of them passes the 50 per cent mark. There is every possibility that Starmer will prevail this Saturday on the first count.

Though Long-Bailey denies she is the “continuity candidate”, she gives Corbyn “ten out ten” when asked to assess his leadership. No less pointedly, she positions herself as the arch-defender of the 2019 manifesto. In Dewsbury, at the Sky News debate on 27 February, she declares that she “wouldn’t drop anything from the manifesto. I think they were all the right policies. There were elements within [it] that were deliverable within five years: the Green Industrial Revolution, investing in education, for example. And there were other elements within the manifesto that were part of a longer-term programme: the four-day-week is a key example of that. That was an aspiration….[Corbyn’s policies] were the right answers to the right questions.”

The perfect foil for a reform-minded opponent, you might think. But not so. And this is the second great deficiency of the contest. What ought to be a crunchy debate about policy and Labour’s programme – at least its broad brush-strokes – turns out to be nothing of the sort. It is all a bit too polite, a little stultified by fear of causing offence.

Rebecca Long-Bailey talks to the media before launching her bid for the leadership of the Labour Party.

Indeed, what arguments there are seem to be accidental: when it emerges in the second week of February that Long-Bailey and Nandy have backed a charter for trans rights that condemns feminist groups, including Woman’s Place UK, as “trans-exclusionist hate groups”, the row consumes the contest pointlessly for a few days.

Frustrated by this sorry state of affairs, Blair intervenes at an event to mark Labour’s 120th anniversary, warning the candidates not to get entangled in abstruse arguments about identity politics, as a substitute for the hard graft of a genuine overhaul. “You’ve got to distinguish between [advocacy of progressive causes] and launching yourself politically into a kind of culture war with the Right,” he says. “If you go, ‘Transgender rights is our big thing’, and the Right goes, ‘Immigration control is our big thing’, you’re going to lose that war.”

Nandy, to her credit, urges a focus on the crisis of social care and wealth taxes to foot the bill. “We’ll be honest about how we’ll pay for it,” she says in Dewsbury – recalling a woman on the doorstep who told her: “It’s our money, love, and we haven’t got a lot of it.”

But this a rare excursion into the terrain of solid policy. For the most part, the contenders stay firmly within the limits of the Corbynite envelope.

Starmer, in fact, is the prime offender. At the Liverpool hustings on 18 January, he makes clear that he intends to upset as few people as possible – even if this involves triangulating himself into a position that is so bland as to be essentially meaningless.

“Don’t trash the last Labour government,” he says, but adds: “Don’t trash the last four years because Jeremy Corbyn made us an anti-austerity party, the party that wanted to invest in public services. The party of the Green New Deal – that was in our manifesto. We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

This is a signal to the members who voted twice for Corbyn – in 2015 and 2016 – and, in spite of what has happened to their party, still feel a powerful gravitational pull to almost everything that he represented. Starmer’s unambiguous message is: I won’t spoil it all for you.

Supporters of Labour leadership candidate Sir Keir Starmer.

Predictably, his key supporters say this is the only winning strategy available to a candidate seeking to become Labour leader with this party electorate. “Look,” one tells me, “you’ll see a very different Keir once he has a mandate from the grass roots. He has to unite the party and rebuild it before he can persuade it to change.”

But is this really so? Starmer does not even hint at a dramatic programme further down the line. By the time he became leader in 1994, Blair had a considerable intellectual hinterland, thanks to think-tanks such as the Institute for Public Policy Research and intellectuals such as Will Hutton, Anthony Giddens and the late John Macmurray.

Conspicuously, there is no equivalent Starmer Project. His single purpose is to persuade the party to “pull together”. He presents himself without embarrassment as a successful technocrat, a former Director of Public Prosecutions who knows how to manage a professional organisation.

“This isn’t the job of one person,” he says in Dewsbury. “This will have to be a team effort. The leadership of the Labour Party is before you now.” What he means is that Long-Bailey and Nandy are welcome to work for him – if they so wish – and that he will give them air to breathe politically.

Though this is meant to sound statesmanlike, its effect is precisely the opposite: to make Starmer seem shy of tough decisions.

As early as September 2018, John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, said that he hoped Corbyn’s successor would be a woman, and spoke effusively on Long-Bailey as “incredibly bright, meticulous, [with an] eye for detail, an increasingly good advocate”.

Which leads us to the third deficiency of this contest. It is a profound embarrassment for Labour that the party of progress has never had a female leader – whereas the Tories have had two, both of whom became Prime Minister. Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman have both been interim Labour leader – twice, in Harman’s case. But the party has yet to put a woman in the top job.

It was never certain that this would be the contest that changed that. But it seemed that there was at least a chance of breaking the pattern; that at least one female candidate – Nandy, Long-Bailey, Phillips or Thornberry – would be seriously in the running. Yet the bookies, opinion polls and weight of endorsements Starmer has received suggest otherwise.

Gender has been an issue from day one. In Liverpool, Thornberry refers to herself proudly as a “girly swot’ who, as Shadow Foreign Secretary, had shadowed Boris Johnson for two years. Her conclusion? “He has a woman problem”.

Yet, when the endorsements are totted up on 15 February, Thornberry is two shy of the 33 constituency parties required to move forward, and she fails to make the cut. This is an injustice. She deserves a shot at the title on the basis of her performance and experience, and she is privately deeply hurt by the party’s rejection of her candidacy.

Emily Thornberry centre stage during the Labour Party leadership hustings

Phillips has already dropped out, deeply disenchanted by her brief experience of running for leader. “It wasn’t for Jess,” an MP close to her tells me. “She tried but didn’t like what she saw one bit. It felt like the same old misogyny, one rule for the women, and another for Keir. It’s a disappointment, but she’ll get over it.”

In Liverpool, Long-Bailey makes her pitch quite clear, “I don’t want Boris Johnson crowing on the other side of the Despatch Box if we don’t get a female leader this time… We know [from House of Commons research library data] that 86 per cent of the cuts that have been brought through austerity have fallen on the shoulders of women. And I think it’s about time that we have a strong northern woman from Salford as our next Labour leader.”

In February, she goes further, declaring that “you [can’t just] put on a nice suit and be a bit suave and think that’s a route into Downing Street.” This is clearly an attack on Starmer, on what she perceives as the party patriarchy, and a reflection of her frustration that the contest has, apparently, become a coronation.

In Dewsbury, Nandy says that her own campaign has energised young women, many of them, like her, of mixed race. “We feel like this is our campaign and this our party,” they tell her.

It is worth noting, as Elizabeth Warren in the US has, that western democracies are not stepping up to the plate in electing a new cohort of female leaders. Four woman senators were serious contenders in the US Democratic primaries and the only two candidates still standing are white men in their seventies. According to the UN, only 10 heads of government out of a possible 193 are women.

Nandy tends to pluck what optimism she can from this bleak picture. From Finland to New Zealand, she says, a new generation of young female heads of government is graduating. Why not here? “Boris Johnson wouldn’t have a clue what to do with a bolshy woman leader,” she says. This has the ring of truth.

Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, at the Labour Party hustings.

In event after event, Nandy is the most persuasive and emotionally literate candidate, explicit in her recognition of the party’s “existential” crisis, mindful of the scale of the task, and, in her own words, “a bit subversive” – an anti-establishment candidate who speaks in paragraphs rather than slogans. Yet her performance on the stump is not rewarded in polls of those entitled to vote in the contest, where her support does not budge above 16 per cent.

Misogyny is hard to quantify, especially in a party that is – officially at least – so committed to feminism. Yet it is hard to avoid the dispiriting conclusion that the strength and depth of Starmer’s support owes something to his gender and old-fashioned Labour sexism. As one veteran Labour figure tells me: “There are plenty of members who consider themselves leftwing on, say, nationalisation and tax and so on, but who would prefer a centrist man to a woman they agreed with.”

Can it be proven that the scale of Starmer’s lead reflects the fact that he is a man? Of course not. But it has certainly done no harm.

As the Labour leadership contest has shrunk into the nanosphere, unforeseen global forces have conspired to present the party with an unsolicited but potentially huge opportunity.

Even before the Prime Minister announces the coronavirus lockdown, there is a change. Sunak’s Budget follows the populist playbook of Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon that favours cheap borrowing on a massive scale over fiscal conservatism.

The PM is committed to a public spending spree on infrastructure, ‘levelling up’ the regions with prosperous southern England, and generous investment in the NHS. Even before the pandemic grips the UK, the state under Johnson – measured by public expenditure as a percentage of GDP – is set to be bigger than at any time under Blair.

The crisis itself has transformed the rules of the game, requiring Tories who once argued that their task was to roll back the frontiers of the state to embrace it, celebrate it and represent it in daily press conferences in Downing Street. This emergency has massively reinforced the notion that government is responsible for every citizen’s wellbeing, that the state should spend bounteously and listen to experts, that dirigisme is a sound response to the perils of the world.

Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson at the daily news conference on the coronavirus outbreak.

In public, Labour has maintained a nervous bipartisan truce, conscious that an Opposition sniping at the government during times of emergency looks petty and unpatriotic. The candidates themselves have almost entirely withdrawn from the public eye. As one supporter of Starmer tells me: “The person who least wants to read an article about Keir right now is Keir.”

In private, Corbyn and his allies fume that Johnson’s new strategy shows that they did indeed “win the argument’ in the election. But they didn’t win the argument. Coronavirus did.

What this means for the political class as a whole – let alone the shrunken Labour Party – is far from certain. As Catherine Fieschi, author of the acclaimed Populocracy: The Tyranny of Authenticity and the Rise of Populism, tells me, there is no guarantee that the public-spirited ethos and communitarianism of the lockdown will endure in the aftermath of the crisis. The new terrain, full of tetchiness, economic misery and social grievance, will be a happy hunting ground for the populist Right. But there will also be opportunities for a progressive force that is both sane and audacious.

“What I do think is crucial, is the capacity for progressive politics to construct spaces, moments, institutions, conventions, designs that channel and capture different kinds of knowledge and contributions – the practical stuff that someone’s experience brings them (which is a kind of knowledge), and the more erudite or specialised professional knowledge of experts. I think what the crisis is showing is that it’s when you bring together community apps, good will, long-term local knowledge and specialised expertise that you get the best out of communities. Labour has to harness this.”

But how? Emily Benn, a former Labour councillor who was savaged online by trolls for criticising Corbynite anti-Semitism and remains an active centre-left campaigner, says that a path for progressive politics has been opened for those willing, able and brave enough to take it.

“This entire crisis has demonstrated the need for finding solutions to problems in a sensible, evidence-led way – as many of us have long been arguing. What use are populists, when what you need is a sensible government, listening to the experts, that can competently actually meet the challenges, not just needlessly score cheap points? If we can all, in our own ways, co-operate and collaborate in a grown-up way to beat this virus, then why can’t we cooperate to face and beat the other challenges that will affect us all?

“Whether our ageing society, or our tax and welfare system (shown to be unfit for purpose) – we cannot shy from these topics anymore and pretend we don’t need to fix them. And just like the honesty we have had to confront in facing Covid-19, we have to start being honest with each other on the other issues. There are no quick fixes, there are often no easy answers – and we should insist our politicians stop pretending that there are.”

From New York, David Miliband, former Foreign Secretary and leadership candidate – who, as Environment Secretary, oversaw the bird flu outbreak in 2007 – observes the present crisis in the UK and sees a great civic challenge for his party. “If Keir Starmer wins, he’s not going to be tested for a long time because [Labour will] not be the issue. Actually, it’s a gift to him and, I suppose, for his unity message, because no one is going to be attacking him.”

Keir Starmer listens as other leadership candidates speak during the Labour Party Leadership hustings

Much more important, says Miliband, is what strategic conclusions Labour draws from the crisis, to prevent the populist Right from doing what it did so successfully after the financial crash of 2008 – exploiting the pain of the ‘left-behind’, blaming elites and immigrants for everything, wrecking trust in government and expertise.

“The argument that needs to be made is that if [the same thing happens this time] it will deepen the fissures and the failings that have magnified this crisis.”

The challenge, he says, will be for Labour to develop a case for collaborative internationalism, innovation and localism that is more than a repurposed version of Corbyn’s Leftism. And this will require the new leader to be fearlessly honest: a demanding task, but a precondition of regaining the trust that the party needs to win office again.

“If there was enlightened global cooperation, we would be responding better,” Miliband says. “You can see the sins – denial is obviously the biggest sin. It’s the failure of power to speak the truth to people, not vice versa.”

None of this was apparent during this long, unmagical mystery tour of the leadership contest. But it is apparent now. It is the dramatic twist in the tale, expected by nobody – least of all the candidates.

These, of course, have been jittery days for the Government, as the PM and Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, have tested positive for the virus – dramatising its sheer reach and indifference to status, class or power.

The Government’s immune system has already taken a battering and will be further bombarded when we step blinking from our homes and the voters grasp the scale of the national adversity that lies ahead. Much depends on the scale of fatalities and of the social and economic wreckage amidst which we will all be walking. Johnson is haunted by the fate of his role model, Winston Churchill, who saved the nation from the Nazis, but was turfed out of office in July 1945 by Clement Attlee.

Naturally, Labour has to be realistic. Unless the outcome of this pandemic is truly dystopian – a prospect to be averted at all costs, by everyone – the Johnson regime will emerge from the crisis having weathered the greatest peacetime challenge faced by this country in living memory, atop an 80-seat parliamentary majority. Senior ministers will, at least initially, have the power to frame the argument, and to claim that their battle-scars entitle them to lead the debate on the country’s future.

Equally, Labour has the chance – by pressing its own reset button – to escape old conflicts between Blairite and Corbynite, and show that it has an authentically fresh agenda that may, in time, form the basis for a programme of government.

This involves a historical appreciation of why parties win, and keep winning. They do so when they ask the right questions, alight on the correct issues. In 1979, Thatcher understood that there were three main challenges: the state of the economy; the over-mighty unions; and the threat of Soviet communism in the coming decade. She addressed all three. In 1997, likewise, Blair saw that the country was exhausted by 18 years of Toryism and craved a new hybrid: a government that pledged to deliver both social justice and economic efficiency.

Tony Blair arriving in Downing Street after the Election Victory of 1997

The new Labour leader must do precisely the same – which is to present answers to the question that the voters will be posing in 2024. In this reckoning, the 2019 manifesto should not be treated with reverence but as the ideological relic that it undoubtedly is.

Nobody today is asking whether the water companies should be nationalised. They want to know where their children are going to live, and how they can ever get on the housing ladder. The taste for soak-the-rich penal taxation is minimal. Much more important is the desire for a new and fairer fiscal settlement that properly subsidises (for instance) the needs of the NHS and the disgracefully-poor social care system.

No more lectures on the glories of Venezuela and Cuba; Labour should be exploring ways of turning the communal spirit of the current crisis into a longer-term collective commitment to cutting carbon emissions. These are all natural tasks for a progressive party that is more than a protest movement, a cult of personality or a sect.

For ten years, Labour has been re-litigating the arguments of the past. Yet the party wins – 1945, 1964, 1997 – when it embraces the future. If there is a new left politics that is electorally viable, it will not be the old ideological variety, rehashing old arguments about nationalisation, punitive tax rates and class war. Rather, it will confront the great challenges of the 21st Century – climate emergency, longevity, social care, unaffordable property, the inequities of globalisation, automation and AI – and show that the party has a plan to address them in office.

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,” says Duke Senior in As You Like It. To an extent that has not yet gripped its collective psyche, Labour now has an opportunity to start afresh in a world that is morphing before our very eyes. The question is whether, from this Saturday, the new party leader dares to take the first of many leaps into the unknown.

Next in this file

Scotland after the trial of Alex Salmond

Scotland after the trial of Alex Salmond

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