Labour turns to pragmatism for new era’s challenging start | Politics

Labour’s new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, gave members of his fresh frontbench team some gentle advice when he began chairing shadow cabinet meetings by videoconference last month: you don’t have to speak for the sake of it.

While Jeremy Corbyn’s consensual chairing style involved hearing lengthy contributions from colleagues with contrasting views, Starmer reminds shadow ministers they shouldn’t feel obliged to chip in.

With the nation gripped by the Covid-19 crisis, he has taken an equally restrained approach to Labour’s contribution to the national debate – to varying reviews from those on his own side.

“Our pragmatic decision is, first of all to engage on the practical things the government could do that would make people’s lives easier,” says Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow work and pensions secretary.

“In my area for instance, that’s uprating legacy benefits and ending the benefit cap and the two-child limit in universal credit – rather than saying, ‘Let’s have a universal basic income [UBI]’, or ‘Let’s have a minimum income guarantee.’”

But while his supporters have applauded Starmer’s approach and argued that a more aggressive line will simply alienate the public at a time of high government popularity, Labour leftwingers have been frustrated at the party’s refusal to seize on the crisis as a moment to propose a radical overhaul of the economy and society.

Jon Trickett, now relegated to the backbenches from his position of shadow cabinet office minister, says: “The country’s crying out for a longer-term vision. We need to map out a great vision for the kind of new normal that can exist after this pandemic. Perhaps the leadership doesn’t feel now’s the right time to do that.”

The UK government has said that these five tests have to be met before they will consider easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions:

  • The NHS has sufficient capacity to provide critical care and specialist treatment right across the UK
  • A sustained and consistent fall in daily deaths from Coronavirus
  • Reliable data to show that the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels across the board
  • Operational challenges including testing and personal protective equipement (PPE) are in hand with supply able to meet future demand
  • Confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelms the NHS

Reynolds says those are arguments Labour can make later. For now, the priority is pressing for urgent assistance for struggling households and families. “I’m very sympathetic to UBI, but realistically you’ve got to use the channels we’ve got,” he says.

“The fact that we have come out with pragmatic suggestions of how to help people right now, does not take away from the fact that we want and are committed to a full alternative to universal credit: we want to work with people and build a big coalition around that.

That approach has been replicated across the shadow cabinet.

Annaliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, has praised the chancellor’s economic rescue schemes but pointed out the gaps in them. And Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, has lauded frontline police officers but demanded more action to protect domestic violence victims.

Labour believes this is what the public expects of the official opposition at a time of national crisis.

Starmer held the first two of a string of planned “Call Keir” virtual meetings, with voters from Bury and the Tees Valley this week.

These meetings, and polling seen by Labour strategists, are telling them the public don’t want to hear knee-jerk criticism of the government. “The approach we’re getting from the public is, ‘All of us need to be together, getting through this,’” said a party source.

They also say the public believe the right time to challenge the government’s handling of the outbreak head-on will be after the worst has passed – though Starmer has stepped up his attacks in the past week, telling Johnson the UK had been slow into lockdown, and now risks “falling behind the rest of the world”.

The shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth – one of the few frontbenchers to remain in the same job when Starmer took over – has been praised by Matt Hancock for his constructive approach; but his frustration with the government’s stance also appeared to bubble over this week.

Ashworth has been calling for the test-and-track approach now being pursued by Hancock for some time – and believes the health secretary should have started much earlier to recruit the necessary army of contact-tracers he has now acknowledged will be needed.

“This lockdown is not a strategy in itself to defeat the virus,” Ashworth told the Guardian. “This lockdown buys us time to put in place a strategy. And my big fear is that in the same way they failed to prepare the testing we needed, and they failed to prepare the PPE for frontline staff, it looks like they are failing to prepare the tracing capacity we need.”

Most of Starmer’s frontbench team have been in contact with their Conservative opposite numbers, and the shadow cabinet are receiving briefings from relevant civil servants.

Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow education secretary, says that while they don’t want to “bombard” the civil service, “it’s our job as an opposition to be constructively critical”.

And Reynolds says these private conversations are no substitute for asking a question publicly, in parliament – even virtually.

Contact tracing is one of the most basic planks of public health responses to a pandemic like the coronavirus. It means literally tracking down anyone that somebody with an infection may have had contact with in the days before they became ill. It was – and always will be – central to the fight against Ebola, for instance. In west Africa in 2014/15, there were large teams of people who would trace relatives and knock on the doors of neighbours and friends to find anyone who might have become infected by touching the sick person.

Most people who get Covid-19 will be infected by their friends, neighbours, family or work colleagues, so they will be first on the list. It is not likely anyone will get infected by someone they do not know, passing on the street.

It is still assumed there has to be reasonable exposure – originally experts said people would need to be together for 15 minutes, less than 2 metres apart. So a contact tracer will want to know who the person testing positive met and talked to over the two or three days before they developed symptoms and went into isolation.

South Korea has large teams of contact tracers and notably chased down all the contacts of a religious group, many of whose members fell ill. That outbreak was efficiently stamped out by contact tracing and quarantine.

Singapore and Hong Kong have also espoused testing and contact tracing and so has Germany. All those countries have had relatively low death rates so far. The World Health Organization says it should be the “backbone of the response” in every country.

Sarah Boseley Health editor

Boris Johnson briefed Starmer directly this week, as part of what the prime minister claimed was part his effort to “build the biggest possible consensus,” for how to manage the next phase of the crisis.

Both sides insist that falls far short of coopting Labour into decision-making, however, with Starmer’s team regarding chatter about a “national government” as a Westminster bubble fantasy.

When Johnson returned to the Downing Street press conference on Thursday, he appeared to reflect Labour’s repeated recent calls for an “exit strategy”, avoiding the phrase repeatedly used by Starmer but promising a “road map” and a “menu of options”.

Speaking afterwards, Starmer made clear he felt vindicated. “I think that shows that we were right to challenge on it, and I’m pleased that we’re going to see a plan, we’ll look at it when we see it, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

With Corbyn watching from high above him on the backbenches, Starmer used a telling phrase at Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions, to describe how he sees his own approach – and which helps explain his caution. “I try to be careful to stick to the data and the evidence, rather than just coming up with an opinion,” he told Dominic Raab.

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