‘Forensic Opposition’: A New Kind of Politics?

If a Tory voter had just awoken from a seven-month long coma, they could be forgiven for thinking that Labour had just won the December election and the prophesies of doom they had read in the Daily Mail had come to pass.

The coffers have emptied with nearly nine million workers being paid directly by the state, the railways have been nationalised and there is even talk of offering free broadband for disadvantaged children. There is no denying that in the past few months politics has changed dramatically.

However, in the midst of the earthquake caused by Coronavirus, another tremor is being felt in the political world. The election of Sir Keir Starmer as Leader of the Labour Party was seen by many of his supporters to be a new dawn; a return to a serious and effective kind of politics and a step forward on the long road to success.

But with everything that has been going on, the change at the top of the Opposition might have gone unnoticed to the coma patient, still getting to grips with the chaos of our new world. That is unless they tune in to the weekly showdown between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, where a profusely different dynamic now unfolds.

Unable to tour the nation and make a name for himself, PMQs has been Keir Starmer’s prime opportunity to prove himself and week after week he has. Back in April, Starmer grilled the PM’s deputy, Dominic Raab, over the concerningly high number of NHS and Care staff who have died fighting the virus, putting the First Secretary “on notice” that the figure would be expected at their next meeting.

Braying backbenchers absent, the former Director of Public Prosecutions had transformed the Commons into a court room, with his eminence now displaying, the trial of the government had begun.

However, the real test of this new meticulous interrogation would be how it faired agaisnt the buoyantly popular Prime Minister himself. The pair first met on May 6, when Sir Keir demanded that the Prime Minister explain “how on earth” the UK’s Coronavirus death toll was so high compared to other nations.

Falling directly into Starmer’s trap, the Prime Minister dismissed the need to make international comparisons, a move which not only looked disdainful, but which led to humiliation when Sir Keir presented the court with the exact international comparisons the government had been making for weeks.

Appearing unprepared and aghast with the Opposition’s cross-examination, in the subsequent meetings of the pair, the Prime Minister became increasingly defensive and scathing of his opponent.

Questions over the lacklustre roll out of Coronavirus testing, the lack of the promised ‘world-beating’ track and trace programme and the patchy plan for the opening of schools have been answered by the Prime Minister with demands that the Opposition stop being so negative and to support key workers.

Such evasive rhetoric might suffice in normal circumstances, but even with more Tory MPs packed into the Commons to cheer lead Johnson, there has been almost unanimous praise for Starmer’s performance, with even The Times and The Telegraph commending the return of a serious Opposition.

However, there are concerns among the Labour left that Starmer is being too easy on the government, failing to offer a real alternative direction. Some of these criticisms are healthy and warranted.

Under Starmer, Labour has earned its increased applauds for not politicising the pandemic; supporting the government when the nation needed unity. But this approach begs the question of how long such an acquiescent approach is sustainable? At some point, the electorate needs to know what a Starmerite government will look like.

But for the time being, the polls attest that Labour is heading in the right direction. In the aftermath of the general election, the shattered party looked set for perhaps another decade of opposition. Yet now it is enjoying somewhat favourable media coverage, is set to keep a firm grip in Wales in next year’s Senedd elections and is even occasionally blessed with tacit endorsements from Piers Morgan!

Until the darkest days of the crisis are over, Keir Starmer can confidently continue with his “forensic opposition” to the government, knowing that right now the people expect their politicians to work together.

But if Keir Starmer, like his predecessor Attlee, is to rebuild Britain in the aftermath of a century defining crisis, Labour will eventually need to step out into the real world, stop asking carefully crafted and interrogative questions and start offering distinctively inspiring and achievable answers.

Jonathan Wright. Former Vice Chair of BULS

24 Jun 2020

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‘Forensic Opposition’: A New Kind of Politics?