Any new Labour leader was bound to be a step up from Jeremy Corbyn, and even his worst enemy should concede that Keir Starmer is many leaps better. Circumstances also help him.
The next election is at least four years away. At the moment, there are no local elections, because of the Coronavirus. So his leadership can’t be tested at the polls.
A further effect of the virus is to put the Government in the dock. Which puts the former Director of Public Prosecutions in his element. And the near-empty Commons has the character of a courtroom.
But the chamber won’t always be empty, elections must come, and the Coronavirus won’t be with us permanently – at least at present levels, or so we must trust.
When that time arrives, Starmer will himself necessarily be in the dock, and may not find the going so easy. As the row about the National Education Union and the re-opening of schools indicates.
Let’s suppose for a moment that the Union isn’t driven by left-wing ideology; by competition for the support of the relatively small proportion of its members who vote (2,270 cast a ballot in a recent election out of a declared total of 450,000 members) – especially with an election for a single general secretary coming down the tracks – and by the links of some of its senior members with Labour.
Were this so, one would expect it to at least engage with the Government, and advise its members to talk to their schools’ management, about returning to school to do the jobs they’re paid for, beginning on June 1. It is refusing to do so. Instead, it has drawn up five tests. Gordon Brown’s original of that number, which applied to Britain joining the Euro, were designed never to be met. It may be the same with these.
David Blunkett says that the NEU is “working against the interests of children” in taking this stance. Even Barry Sheerman, a former Labour Chairman of the Education Select Committee, has had enough: he is “very unhappy” with the unions’ performance and “there are safe ways to re-open”. The National Association of Head Teachers has issued guidance to its members about planning for this circumstance. So what’s Labour’s position?
It isn’t to urge the NEU to drop its boycott on engagement. Rather, it’s to call on the Government to drop its provisional June 1 re-opening date – a consequence of Labour’s support for negotiations with the union on the basis of the tests that it has “helpfully set out”. The spokesman who has tweeted this position is none other than Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Corbynite candidate in the leadership election that Starmer won.
Frankly, it says something about the priority he gives to the subject that he’s despatched his recent rival, who might have won the contest herself were she any good, to take charge of it for Labour.
Meanwhile, as Blunkett argues, it is the most deprived children who are losing out most from the continued closure of schools.
Gavin Williamson yesterday turned the daily Government press conference into a pitch on this point – praising teachers for their work and setting out the safety provisions he wants to put in place.
The Education Secretary pointed out that pupils in early years and the pre-GCSE year – those that the Government wants back in schools earliest – are those who risk falling furthest behind if schools remain closed.
He went on to say that schools should reduce class sizes; impose a strict hand-washing and cleaning routine, call in tests at once if there’s suspicion of infection…and add that the June 1 date isn’t set in stone anyway.
Some schools will re-open at the start of next month if the Government decides to proceed then, whatever the NEU may say about it (and many teachers will be yearning to get back to work). Much will depend in that circumstance on whether parents decide to send children back to school or not. Since the risk of catching the virus can’t be elimated altogether, there are two broad ways forward for Britain – as there are for every other country.
The first is to accept that almost a quarter of our workforce, even now, is unable to work from home and has carried on at the workplace. Much of the division is taking place on a class basis: factory workers, home deliverers, shop keepers, warehouse workers, postmen, nurses, train drivers, soldiers – all these can’t usually work from home. Accountants, lawyers, managers and, yes, journalists are mostly in a different position.
The longer the lockdown goes on in its present form, the more Britain risks truly becoming two nations. The first consists of relatively comfortable middle class workers, often furloughed, living out the lockdown in better accomodation, often with gardens.
The second is of people in less spacious housing, often in flats with no gardens at all, who have no choice but to travel to work. These will tend to be the working class.
We understand why parts of the left like this set-up – see their #KeepTheLockdown twitter tag. After all, the lockdown is, from one point of view, socialism in action. Capitalism can’t function properly. The taxpayer pays people not to work. One has to queue at the shops. In practice, the workers who lose out. And it’s all ultimately unsustainable. Is this the future Starmer wants – or at least is prepared to concede to the unions, if they insist on it?