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THE LABOUR leadership contest began in one world and is ending in another. The candidates have swapped crowded halls for Zoom conference calls. Supporters conduct their debates in virtual chat rooms rather than crowded pubs. The new leader will be announced in a round-robin email rather than, as had been planned, at a Westminster rally with full razzmatazz.
The email will be sent on April 4th, after The Economist goes to press, but, barring an earthquake, the new leader will be Sir Keir Starmer, the party’s Brexit spokesman. Sir Keir has led by a country mile in every stage of the contest from nominations by MPs to support from trade unions and local constituencies. Most opinion polls have pointed to a decisive victory. The winner of the (separately elected) deputy leadership is likely to be Angela Rayner, who is currently self-isolating with symptoms of the coronavirus.
Sir Keir, if indeed it is him, will enjoy two substantial advantages from the get-go. The first, and most important, is that he’s not Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Corbyn has been the party’s most disastrous leader ever—not just useless like George Lansbury and Michael Foot, who led the party to electoral disaster in 1935 and 1983 respectively, but positively malign. His failure to throw his party’s weight behind the Remain campaign contributed significantly to Britain’s decision to leave the EU, which most of the membership opposed. His refusal to meet Theresa May half-way during the dying days of her administration killed off any chance of a soft Brexit. His extreme politics and sanctimonious style drove traditional Labour voters into Boris Johnson’s arms.
The second is that the Labour Party is tired of failing. The less-awful-than-expected defeat of 2017 persuaded the faithful that what they needed was more effort rather than fresh thought. The catastrophic failure of 2019 dispelled that illusion and reconciled all but fanatics to the idea that politics is the art of the possible. Sir Keir’s sustained lead means that he has been able to avoid making pledges to various factions and will take over with a blank sheet of paper and a powerful mandate.
There’s a widespread view that the epidemic has provided Sir Keir with a third advantage: a political environment that is shifting sharply leftward. The government’s decision to pump money into the economy and nationalise key industries is not only demonstrating the vital importance of the state in coping with a disaster, the argument goes. It is moving the boundaries of what is politically acceptable. How can the Tories make fun of “magic money trees” when they have discovered a forest of them? How can they argue against “picking winners” when they are choosing companies to make ventilators? Mr Corbyn says that the government’s response to covid-19 proves that he was “absolutely right” to call for higher public spending. Some prominent Labour politicians, such as Ian Lavery and Rebecca Long-Bailey, have been overheard arguing that the crisis contains opportunities for the left. Such views are echoed outside the party: several Cabinet ministers have expressed concern that they won the election only to find themselves implementing Labour’s policies.
The sense that the wind is blowing leftwards is not confined to Britain. “The corona crisis is not without its advantages,” says Ulrike Herrmann, a German anti-capitalist. Thinkers such as Thomas Piketty, Naomi Klein and Grace Blakeley are hanging all their favourite policies on covid-19 like baubles on a Christmas tree: a radical redistribution of wealth here, a green new deal there and, posed on top, the angelic vision of a universal basic income.
Yet the notion that covid-19 is the herald of a socialist nirvana is not entirely convincing. True, massive external shocks such as the current pandemic can certainly shake-up political allegiances, particularly when they are as weak as they are at the moment. And in some ways, the left is having a good crisis: institutions to which it is wedded, such as the BBC and the National Health Service, are more admired than ever. Right-wing blowhards such as Donald Trump are more reviled, in Britain at least.
But the current expansion of the state does not represent a philosophical conversion to the case for revolution. It is a pragmatic response to a unique set of problems: a combination of Keynesian demand management to boost the economy, time-limited intervention to prevent industries from collapsing and a basic income for workers who are temporarily laid off. This debt-fuelled expansion will certainly lead to higher taxes in the long term but it will also put a constraint on the state’s future ambitions.
Talk about a new settlement comparable with that under Labour in 1945 is particularly far-fetched. Scientists are confident that they will find a cure for the virus eventually, perhaps within a year. When that blessed day comes, voters will desire nothing so much as a “return to normalcy”, just as they did in the 1920s after the first world war and the Spanish flu. They will see the covid era not as a time of ideological renewal but as a temporary crisis that involved a weird combination of admirable collectivism and irritating restrictions on personal freedom.
Do not adjust your belief set
The job of leading the opposition during a national crisis is arguably the worst in the world. Britons are rallying around the government: one poll shows the Conservatives leading Labour by 28 points and 72% of voters saying that they are satisfied with Mr Johnson’s performance as prime minister. Sir Keir’s best chance of success lies in playing to his strengths as a post-ideological pragmatist. In public he should ask practical questions about the government’s performance in producing ventilators and covid tests or getting economic help to the vulnerable, while avoiding the impression that he’s sniping. Behind the scenes he should prepare for normal times by clearing out Mr Corbyn’s most scrofulous followers. If he bets on a new era of big-government socialism, he will waste his political capital. ■
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "The return of the opposition"