First as Tragedy Then as Starmer
Opportunities for seismic progressive change often arrive when the consensus built by establishment politics falters, opening up a small -yet valuable- chance to expose the contradictions of society that are often masked. The fallout of COVID presents one of those opportunities.
As the future of a post-pandemic UK looms, even if somewhat hazily, the Tories are looking to cover their tracks regarding their handling of the pandemic. Matt Hancock recently appeared on the news to brazenly claim that there was never a PPE shortage – an absurd statement that doesn’t even begin to hold up to the reality or the experience of anyone living through this pandemic. The photos of health workers in bin bags speak to the truth more than Hancock ever could.
Furthermore, the cronyism of the Tories has been on full display with the health secretary’s gifting of a £30 million contract to his ex-neighbour and local publican to provide PPE, despite the man's complete lack of experience or credentials in the area. This is just one case that matches the description of many recorded by a National Audit Office report . Public procurement was based on business’ private relationship with Westminster, not their ability to provide PPE.
In light of this, the government’s shifting of blame onto students, care homes, and key workers for the rising R rate throughout the crisis appears all the more egregious. This is an emperor wears no clothes moment for the Right’s divide and rule tactics of blaming individuals rather than systemic failure; a chance to expose the reality of Tory rule: the state of things is not necessary, nor is it owed to the fault of individuals or specific groups without any structural power, such as migrants, people of colour or so-called “scroungers” (let alone key workers or care homes). In actual fact, the stagnation and degradation of contemporary politics is due to the mismanagement of a country that has been in crisis for decades.
Clearly, then, it is short-sighted to think that the pandemic doesn’t offer the opportunity for the Left to create a metaphor for failing neoliberal politics, especially now as the Tories prise open government coffers that have barely seen the light of day to boost public spending. The wealth accrued by billionaires at the expense of workers and their security, the cronyism, inequality, and incompetence of a political system mired by the ironic over-bureaucratisation inherent to neoliberalism has been exposed and exacerbated, not created.
Not only would an effective opposition prove that the causes of the UK’s decline are not really what they seem, it would suggest that politics could be different and tackle the cynicism, confusion and apathy held so strongly by those across communities. That cynicism is the new form of ideology that layers its more familiar form of ‘false consciousness’. The politics of the Left, which looks to expose the reality of free market capitalism, can offer salvation from this cynicism and has been vindicated by recent history’s exposure of how weak a society is when it is characterised by inequality and insecurity.
Nevertheless, this politics needs to be communicated. The agent best suited to delivering this message is the proverbial prodigal son of left-wing politics: The Labour Party. But Keir Starmer, who once offered glimpses of progressiveness with his lip service to Labour’s progressive tradition, has proven to be impotent. Just recently he was outflanked to the left by the Tories on a windfall tax on big businesses to help ease the country’s debt. It would be labour, not capital, who will shoulder the burden of debt under both Parties’ pledges, revealing that we have returned to the baron political terrain of neoliberal consensus politics. It is easy to predict, then, that the force that will maintain the already dwindling political engagement across the post-pandemic UK will be the hate sparked by the work of the Right and its bankrolled ‘man of the people’ demagogues over the past half decade or so.
We are beyond a so-called war of position, as Paul Mason optimistically predicted at the start of the Starmer leadership and are entering an uncomfortable historical déjà vu with the Labour Party of the 1980s/90s. That Party had an unhinged obsession with electoral success, but this Party doesn’t even look capable of mirroring that success, only the self-destruction of its aftermath. This is a ‘first as tragedy, then as farce’ moment, but it is worth considering that the farce can more often than not be worse than the tragedy.
Starmer’s mellow approach to Opposition politics might pay off electorally, but this would be owed to a style over substance politics that fails to address the material reality of a political system rigged with exploitation and contradictions. Even then, the long game has only served to have the Party outmanoeuvred to the left and allowed Johnson to bask in the victorious light of rolling out the vaccine, thus fulfilling his crass Churchillian fantasy - the very end product the Starmer leadership tried to avoid.