Sweden is governed by the Swedish Social Democratic Party (in coalition with the Green Party). The Swedish Social Democrats are a sister party to the British Labour Party. They are both affiliated to the Party of European Socialists and the Progressive Alliance (as the Socialist International is now called.) Yet I am not aware of a single Labour MP who supports the policy of their Swedish comrades in opposing lockdown restrictions in response to the coronavirus. Boris Johnson has to cope with growing scepticism from his Parliamentary colleagues about his approach. But when it comes to Labour MPs, Sir Keir Starmer does not have the same difficulty maintaining support for restrictions.
However, when it comes to local government, the position is more complicated. There might be some logic in varying the severity of the rules imposed in one area rather than another in proportion to the degree of risk. While that principle is broadly acclaimed, when it comes to applying it in practice, there is great potential for unfair treatment. With a lot of data to measure, it will often be possible to make a case that one local authority has locked down even though another one remains free despite having more cases. Or that a lockdown might be justified for one or two wards but not a whole city. Then there will be the disputes about process. The Government hasn’t been transparent about figures. Or it hasn’t consulted in advance.
Another grievance is that there is a lack of compensation for businesses being hit by the extra impositions. Furthermore, that the “financial package” should include extra funding for the local authority. In 1948 Nye Bevan, the Health Secretary, declared that he had won over the support of doctors for the establishment of the NHS “by stuffing their mouths with gold.” Councils can miraculously find they are convinced of the justification for a local lockdown if they discover lots more money from The Treasury goes with it. The trouble is that the Chancellor is running out of the stuff.
Then there is the frustration that the centralised arrangements for test and trace have failed. Local authorities can argue that giving them responsibility would be more effective and mitigate the need for new restrictions.
Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, says:
“Without urgent change, the North of England will be thrown into one of the most difficult winters we have ever experienced, with the risk of significant harm to health and our economy. It’s that serious.
“We are heading into the winter months with a Test and Trace system which is still not working and the risk of redundancies rising sharply as the furlough scheme comes to an end. Without extra support for individuals, business and councils, it could be a winter of dangerous discontent.
“I remain ready to work with the Government to build public support for its approach to local lockdowns, but that requires meaningful consultation and proper support for the areas affected. That is not happening at the moment.
“We have now reached a point where there is a real risk of the Government losing the public in the North because of the perceived unfairness of its local lockdown policies. We can’t let that happen. There is still time to put in place better measures to protect communities across the North this winter but time is running out.”
Joe Anderson, the Labour Mayor of Liverpool, is even more critical, declaring that the restrictions are “not working and the increasing infection rate going up” and adding:
“It’s about common sense, it’s about getting the balance right and about what we can do, what we should do and how local lockdowns work, working with local leaders to get it right. There’s a lack of consistency, a lack of clarity, but most of all a lack of communication and collaboration.”
The leaders of Leeds, Manchester, and Newcastle city councils have joined Anderson in writing to the Health Secretary to oppose further restrictions. That letter argues for “local decision making to agree additional lockdowns before they happen”. But it gives a pretty big clue that winning such agreement would be unlikely:
“We want to be clear however that we do not support further economic lockdowns…This requires a more nuanced approach than moving straight to a full local lockdown under the ‘tier three’ arrangements. Our response should consider broader local impacts than absolute numbers of infections: impacts on jobs and business; effects on poverty and deprivation; and relative infection rates in different sections of the population (e.g. between students and care homes).”
Back in July we had opposition expressed by Sir Peter Soulsby, the Labour Mayor of Leicester, to the “political” decision to lock down the whole City and to “penalise its economy” rather than to “focus on the ten per cent where the virus is “.
It’s not just Labour politicians. Andy Preston, the independent Mayor of Middlesbrough, says:
“To me, it is obvious that anyone should be allowed to visit a relative or a friend in their garden, and have a cup of coffee while remaining well distanced. And, of course, we should be able to meet them for a chat in a well-run, socially distanced coffee shop. Yet these new rules – which essentially ban different households from meeting – will prohibit all those safe, human activities that are small but so essential for wellbeing.To add to the insanity, it isn’t even clear how the regulations will be enforced. Like so many growing towns, Middlesbrough spills out of its boundaries – and the neighbouring borough of Redcar and Cleveland is not included in the restrictions. It’ll be two rules for one town, and sometimes two rules within one street.”
So will Sir Keir back these local leaders or continue to back all restrictions the Government imposes? Last week he voted to support the full set of measures, but asked the Government to “reflect” on whether closing the pubs at 10pm was counterproductive. Rather a weak compromise to vote in favour of something but to declare it to be a mistake. At Prime Minister’s Questions this afternoon Sir Keir highlighted inconsistencies and asked about the ineffectiveness of local lockdowns. We were left unclear whether Sir Keir felt the answer was to lift the lockdowns or make them more severe.
But the dilemma is clear to see. Politicians like to talk about “following the science” regarding coronavirus – as if the evidence was clear, the impact of measures easy to accurately predict, and that scientists are all agreed. Of course, that is nonsense. But following the polling is more straightforward. There is strong support for restrictions – the objection being the Government hasn’t gone for enough. Even if Sir Keir just asks for specific relaxations, the public may get the message that he wants the Government’s measures to be softened – when there is strong demand for them to be harder.
I don’t expect Sir Keir will significantly shift on this issue – unless and until the polling does.