2020 06 Editorial – Starmer Under Fire

Starmer Under Fire

The knives are out for Keir Starmer. With the government’s and Johnson’s popularity beginning to slip, and Starmer’s performances at Prime Minister’s Questions are eulogised, Tory MPs and the Daily Mail are doing their bit to portray Labour’s new leader as an incompetent, uncaring, hypocrite.

Nadine Dorries, Maria Caulfield, and Lucy Allan retweeted a video which showed that Starmer, in his former role as Director of Public Prosecutions, was reluctant to prosecute grooming gangs. The video, said to have originated from a far right group, had been doctored and the truth was the exact opposite. But why let that spoil an opportunity to smear Starmer and the party he leads? Dorries is a government health minister and received a slap on the wrist from 10 Downing Street, when a sacking or resignation would have been the right thing to do. As far as we are aware, none of the three has apologised.

The Tory supporting Daily Mail, which rarely missed an opportunity to publish distorted and fake news about Jeremy Corbyn, is now on the trail of Keir Starmer. An article in the Mail Online, 17 May, below the sarcastic headline “Man of the People?”, claimed that Starmer is the owner of land in Surrey, “which could be worth up to £10 million”.

Starmer bought the land, actually a field behind his mother’s house, in 1996 when acting as a human rights lawyer. Land values have increased astronomically since then, which is obviously something outside of Starmer’s control. But in the eyes of the Mail, he is leader of the LABOUR party and therefore ought not to condone the accumulation of unearned income through land ownership. Naturally, the Mail failed to mention that its Chairman and controlling shareholder Viscount Rothermere is the owner of thousands of acres of land in Dorset.

Contrary to the Mail’s accusation, Starmer has denied the land is for sale to house builders. The local authority confirmed that planning permission would, in any case, be denied. A non-story, but nevertheless one with which to tarnish the Labour leader. If Starmer’s popularity continues to grow, we can expect more ‘dirty’ stories about him.

But Tory MPs and the Daily Mail are not the only opponents Starmer will have to contend with. It seems that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, EHRC, are out to get Labour for the alleged endemic antisemitism in the party. In this issue of Labour Affairs we report that the EHRC may use Labour’s internal report as sufficient proof that the party is guilty of antisemitism. And, if true, there is little that Starmer can do about it. By saying he would accept in advance the recommendations of the EHRC inquiry into antisemitism, he made a rod for his own back.

Although it is prepared to investigate allegations of antisemitism in the Labour party, the EHRC is refusing to examine accusations of Islamophobia in the Tory party, on the bizarre grounds that the Tories are carrying out their own inquiry. Labour’s independent inquiry hasn’t prevented the EHRC from carrying out its own investigation into the alleged antisemitism. Why, therefore, is the EHRC focusing on Labour while ignoring the Tories? We suggest that this is a question for Starmer to ask.

John McDonnell has said that the antisemitism report could destroy the party, but this may be pure hyperbole, based on little more than a feeling. The alleged antisemitism itself was not one of the factors that caused Labour’s election defeats. But it cannot be denied that it has had a damaging effect on party unity. It was voters’ perception that the party was at war with itself, and thus deeply divided that harmed its prospects. It is an axiom that divided parties do not win elections.

Politics is currently going through an abnormal phase. The unreal atmosphere in the House of Commons is unsuited to Johnson’s style of doing politics. The empty, sterile chamber exposes his shortcomings: poorly briefed, he believes that he can bluff his way out of a difficult situation. But it works to the advantage of Starmer, used to a court room setting, able to challenge without interruption. Johnson on the other hand needs the backing of the boisterous crowd of Tory backbenchers, cheering his every word. When MPs return in greater numbers the advantage may swing back in Johnson’s favour.

The Covid-19 crisis will eventually recede allowing normal politics to return. A public inquiry into its handling will be held, with its findings, if damaging to the government, held over until after the next general election. That was how the Iraq war falsehoods were handled. However, a positive sign is that the World Health Organisation is committed to an inquiry into the whole course of the pandemic.

The urgent question then facing the UK government and the Labour opposition will be how to handle the long-term economic impact of the virus. So far, the measures put in place by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak have been broadly welcomed. Whenever gaps have appeared in his support for individual workers and business he has quickly filled them. In most, if not in all, cases. His furlough scheme, extended to the end of October, has increased the deficit way above what would normally be accepted by Sunak and his colleagues. Public spending was planned to go up considerably to fulfil promises made to voters in the ‘red wall’ seats and to plug gaps resulting from Brexit, but it has soared to inconceivable heights.

The deficit is forecast to rise to around £300 billion by the end of the year, which Sunak says he will pay for by borrowing. This would be a reversal of Chancellor Osborne’s punitive austerity programme, obsessed with reducing the debt and deficit. Sunak is doing what he believes is necessary given the damage Covid-19 is doing to the economy. It will be interesting to see how Labour approaches the problems the economy will inevitably face, post Covid-19 and the impact of Brexit. But Starmer may have a problem with some of his parliamentary colleagues. Leading Labour lights Margaret Hodge and David Lammy, with the Social Market Foundation, have advocated the scrapping of the triple lock on state pensions, as a first step in an austerity programme. State pensions here are half those in France, Germany, and Spain.

Starmer should make it clear that Labour opposes a return to austerity in whatever form, but will it propose a different way of running the economy, one that ditches traditional economics? In favour of a programme that accepts that public spending can be a positive force for good, and includes a genuine recognition of the enormous contribution that workers make to the health and well-being of the country.

It’s reported that Johnson has ruled out austerity to help to pay for the deficit, clearly rejecting the leaked Treasury document that implied otherwise. It revealed that post Covid-19, the Tories intend to raise taxes and raid state pensions. It will also impose a 2 year pay freeze on public sector workers. If this was effected it would be an act of political suicide for Johnson and the Tories. Almost a guarantee that the next election would be lost. It would also be a betrayal of the warm words of praise for all those workers who have kept the economy ticking over, and for the NHS staff and care workers, particularly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, to punish them with another pay freeze. Johnson belatedly recognised this when he reversed the proposal to make migrant NHS and care workers pay an extra fee for their treatment. It should be noted that the proposal would have included the two migrant nurses Johnson praised for saving his life.

Labour’s current focus is understandably on ensuring that the government is taking all necessary measures to deal with the impact of Covid-19. At the same time the crisis presents Labour with an opportunity to radicalise its economic agenda, by developing policies that will revolutionise the way the economy is run. The problem for Labour, however, is that under Johnson the Tories may have caught onto this, and will use the economic leverage of the state to boost the economy. This may irk the small state members of his cabinet, but they know that without him they are mere straws in the wind.

In Labour’s favour there have been encouraging noises about the need for a greener economy. Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband is said to be working on a green plan. This is a small step in the right direction. But more needs to be done. Overall, the party needs to convince voters that its policies will help to create a more equal, fairer, less divisive country.