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.
The approach we’re getting from the public is, ‘All of us need to be together, getting through this,’ Labour party source