Leading the Labour Party is not for the faint-hearted. But you don’t get much more difficult an initiation than facing down a deadly and unforgiving global pandemic and dealing with one of the biggest scandals in modern Labour Party history.
Keir Starmer has said he wants to lead a constructive opposition. Fine, after all we all desperately want and need those in power to succeed and end the tragedy impacting so many families. But it is increasingly clear that governments (at Holyrood as well as Westminster) have made serious mistakes, were ill-prepared and, after 10 years of cuts and austerity, ill-equipped to deal with this crisis.
Starmer has raised the grotesque failure to provide sufficient and adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to all NHS and care workers, but his early interventions also suggest a focus on an exit strategy. People want to exit, but only when it is safe.
Labour should produce its own public health plan that seeks assurances, before restrictions are lifted, as Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard has said, that the health of workers will be paramount, that we will have sufficient PPE and ventilators in place to prepare for the possibility of a second wave and a mass testing, isolation and quarantine plan ready to prevent one.
Keir Starmer must also make clear that when this crisis is over we don’t return to business as usual and when this crisis finishes there can be no ‘Austerity 2.0’ with workers and public services picking up the tab. It was encouraging to hear new Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds say that workers must be valued with improved pay and protections in the workplace. After all, a medal or a weekly clap does not put food on the table, pay the rent or provide security in retirement.
This crisis underlines how the Corbyn policy trajectory, to fairly rebalance our economy, was right. A Corbyn government would have led to increased investment in our NHS, social care, public services and industries, and it would have raised the pay of those workers now, correctly, seen as essential.
Who would now argue against the repeal of anti-trade union legislation, given how brilliantly our trade unions have in defence of workers who were literally fighting for their lives during this crisis? Even the much-derided proposal to take broadband into public ownership has been adopted by the Tories.
Had Labour won the 2017 election our country would have been better prepared to fight this virus, our NHS would be properly resourced – and Jeremy Corbyn would definitely not have missed Cobra meetings.
Labour members should always want a Labour government; the allegations that some acted to undermine our 2017 general campaign are beyond shameful. As was the secret funnelling of resources to ‘factional friends’ at the expense of winnable seats with candidates supportive of Corbyn.
Keir Starmer must focus on the content of the report, not its commissioning and whistleblowing. The vast majority of Labour members are disgusted by its content and expect no less.
In Scotland there is the added dimension of the constitutional question. Dealing with the aftermath of this crisis must be the priority, but we know that this question won’t go away in Scotland.
Thankfully, Starmer still supports our manifesto commitment to a constitutional convention, recognises the status quo is not working and appears committed to a federal United Kingdom. A constitutional convention must happen urgently and should build on the work of Pauline Bryan.
Starmer understands, as most do across the Labour spectrum, that winning back Scotland is central to winning a general election. He should therefore understand that voter numbers are clear; if we actually want to win Scotland back (not just fight for second place) we need to win back voters from the SNP. And we won’t do that by becoming a Better Together tribute act.
Labour can win again. To do so we must remind people of our past achievements and what we can do for them when in power, but we must also own our past mistakes, understand why voters left us (now in parts of England as well as Scotland), and hold the SNP and the Tories to account for their litany of failure.
Labour must stop taking a pick and mix approach to democracy. We must never again get into an implausible game of verbal gymnastics such as arguing for another Brexit referendum while in the next breath argue how, no matter what, we would block a second independence referendum.
We should be confident in our arguments against independence but take a respectful tone in doing so while presenting our own constitutional offer. And we should re-engage with, and become part of, the social fabric in the communities that Labour seeks to represent.
Politics can change quickly; and we are facing a political and economic paradigm shift. Labour can win people back with a post-Brexit and post-coronavirus vision of the fair and decent society that our country could be.
Both of our recent manifestos outlined a vision of Britain where every person is looked after according to their needs. Let us make sure future manifestos do the same.