With so many coronavirus deaths, Labour should not be holding back | Alastair Campbell | Opinion

It has been both a curse and a blessing for Keir Starmer that he has become Labour leader amid a global pandemic.

A curse because in normal times his arrival would be huge news, an opportunity quickly to establish himself firmly in the national conversation; yet in a crisis the last thing the public wants is politics as usual, so this limits his chance to be heard.

A blessing, because the current situation plays to Starmer’s strengths – he is serious, forensic, consensus-seeking, and has a strong grasp of detail. These qualities will become especially important when we are through the worst, and “Starmer or Johnson?” becomes the choice of prime minister. They are qualities Boris Johnson proudly lacks, one of the reasons the UK has been so badly hit.

Gordon Brown has had helpful things to say, based on experience, about managing financial crisis. Tony Blair, too, has useful things to say about reordering government around the current challenges on issues such as mass testing, contact tracing, PPE, business, vaccine development, schools, use of technology, social distancing and compliance, travel, and communications. He has suggestions on structure too – an expert task force on each challenge.

Whether the government heeds Blair or not, this is not a bad way for the opposition to reorder its approach. There are many experts, academics, business figures, unions, charities and campaign groups that feel they are not being heard by government. There are scientists who feel the experts deployed at No 10 briefings are too establishment, too secretive, and not challenging enough of ministers. Mobilising them around the challenges Blair prioritised would bring greater rigour and effectiveness to the opposition operation.

In his leadership acceptance speech, Starmer set a sensible tone – supportive of government objectives, but questioning and scrutinising in a reasonable manner. Yet when so many are dying, so many targets are unmet, so many NHS and care workers are going to work unprotected, and so many mistakes have been made, Labour should frankly show no mercy on issues such as PPE and testing. I keep thinking what John Smith – Blair’s predecessor as Labour leader, and like Starmer a QC – would have made of the Turkish plane farce. There would be no holding back. In interviews with some of Starmer’s team, there has been too much “now is not the time for criticism, those questions can wait” for a crisis of this scale.

Ministers should be treated with fairness, because they have enormous responsibility and pressure. But they must be challenged. It is not challenging and questioning per se that helps them do their jobs better; it is that it forces them to amass arguments, data and information, so it is all there at their fingertips.

Starmer rightly pressed the government for the parameters of a lockdown exit strategy. Even better, Labour must develop its own ideas about the exit, to show not only that it asks the right questions, but has answers. The shadow cabinet must, with proper expert advice, be a credible alternative government.

Much of the focus will fall on Starmer. But every single shadow minister must be empowered to challenge, cajole, offer alternatives and challenge the government to answer one of the best questions in politics: “Why not?” In showing diligence and attention to detail, and by making intelligent suggestions and proposals, they will demonstrate their capability.

Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds must work to develop a profile as high as her predecessor, John McDonnell, because ultimately the future of the economy, and what kind of values underpin our society in a world of turmoil, is where the main post-crisis arguments are going to fall.

It is easy to overlook the fact that, Starmer’s role as director of public prosecutions apart, none of the people in the top shadow jobs have senior government experience. But nor did Blair or Brown; nor did John Prescott, or Robin Cook, who ran the Major government ragged before, during and after the Scott inquiry (on Iraq arms sales). What they and others had was real hunger, energy, drive; a determination to ferret out detail the government wanted hidden; an ability to make the media sit up and take notice because of what they were saying and how they were saying it. There can be no soft-pedalling. Oppositions have to win power; governments will do everything they can not to lose it.

From my years in opposition working with Blair I remember that, even at the time of the Dunblane school massacre, as sensitive a time as could be imagined, Labour had a different approach on the issue of firearms, and pressed it, sensitively. And in government, when Blair and Brown faced crises – foot-and-mouth, fuel protests, times of war – the Tories were never backward in coming forward to attack, so Labour should not fall for the current line from the right that their role is to support the government.

It has been noticeable how rarely, at government briefings and interviews, questions have been framed by things Labour has said or done; that must change. Labour needs to be thinktank, policy expert, advocate for real people in difficulty, and campaign organiser all in one. Backbenchers too are vital in this. There are so many causes and campaigns arising from this crisis.

Up till now, No 10 briefings, at which both government presentation and media questioning have generally been poor, have provided the main focus for questioning ministers. Now that parliament is back, albeit in a highly unusual form, Labour has the chance to show it can do a better job of holding the government to account than the media; and a better job than the government in showing what needs to be done, and how.

Seizing that opportunity will go a long way towards the public deciding whether the long, wasted years of unelectability are behind us, and a credible alternative government now exists.

Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair’s press secretary and director of communications from 1994-2003

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