The pandemic has changed us, but Labour can’t rise to the challenge

Keir Starmer wants us to believe that the country discovered a better, more Labour-inclined way of doing politics during the crisis, but is it true? John Rentoul looks at the evidence

Wednesday 20 October 2021 21:30
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<p>Starmer told conference Labour would ‘address the chronic problems revealed by Covid, with the kindness and the togetherness that got us through’ </p>

Starmer told conference Labour would ‘address the chronic problems revealed by Covid, with the kindness and the togetherness that got us through’

The pandemic has changed many things, and Keir Starmer certainly wants it to have changed the country. This is not surprising, because previously the country didn’t often vote Labour. So he wants to believe that the crisis has shaken people out of their Conservative-minded ways. He argued in his Labour conference speech that the crisis had revealed the best of British solidarity. He said a Labour government would “address the chronic problems revealed by Covid, with the kindness and the togetherness that got us through”. It is a plausible enough idea, but is it true that the crisis has changed the country in ways that make a Labour election victory more likely?

Let us look first at how the crisis has changed us. You cannot have a government borrow and spend an unexpected £400bn without it having a lasting effect. You can’t have an outbreak of disease on such a scale without it leaving the public health system of any country struggling for many years. And you can’t change so many people’s behaviour, reducing social mixing – by working from home, being furloughed and staying away from school – for so long without leaving some kind of mark.

Not all of the changes will be lasting. I am sceptical about people working from home more in the long run. There may be a one-off effect in bumping up a trend that was already happening, as people and companies discovered that there were all sorts of things that could be done effectively outside an office, but I think that most people who were working in offices before will go back to working in them most of the time. The hidden hand of the market put people in offices over the decades because that is the most productive way of working, and it will put us back in offices once the pandemic is over. Even so, there are many changes that will take a long time to unwind, and which will never go back all the way to where they were.

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