This was the week we saw how Keir Starmer might win the next election

Little noticed during the coronavirus crisis, Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, is setting out an ambitious economic policy for a Labour government 

John Rentoul
Sunday 10 May 2020 12:05
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'How on earth did it come to this?': Keir Starmer challenges Boris Johnson at first PMQs together

It seems much too early to be thinking about the policies of a Labour government. But three things happened this week that made me think about them all the same.

One was Keir Starmer’s first encounter with Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, from which it became clear how Labour could win the next election.

The second was an interview with Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, on the Today programme on Thursday, in which she had a surprising amount to say about the economic programme of a Labour government.

And the third was The Daily Telegraph’s front-page lead on Friday, based on an article by Starmer calling on the nation to respect its VE Day generation by making sure they are safe in care homes.

What was important about PMQs was that all that nonsense about Starmer being a lawyer was forgotten. People like me had been going on about how his “forensic” questions would have Johnson shaking in his boots. How touchingly naive. It turns out that Starmer is a politician, and that will give the prime minister much more trouble.

Starmer opened with: “How on earth did it come to this?” A theatrical, open-ended, unanswerable question. He then asked all the obvious questions that normal people have been asking, most of which would have been ruled inadmissible in court as irrelevant, leading or rhetorical. And he used the prime minister’s answers – the epidemic in care homes is “something I bitterly regret” – to reinforce his message, that the government has been slow.

“Slow” is a devastatingly effective charge. The opposition supports the government’s measures in a spirit of bipartisan reasonableness, but suggests that the government was slow to act. When the time for bipartisanship is over, this will allow Starmer to condemn Johnson’s handling of the crisis fiercely and opportunistically.

What is more, Starmer’s capture of the citadel not just of Toryism but of Borisdom, the front page of the Telegraph, shows he has a media operation around him that the Conservatives are right to fear. No wonder a cabinet minister told The Times today: “He is in the Harold Wilson, Tony Blair mould of Labour leaders.” I wonder what those two names have in common.

Which is what made Dodds’s interview so interesting. It revealed that, underneath the coronavirus crisis, Labour’s economic policy is taking shape. She was asked whether Richard Branson’s Virgin airline should get a bailout, and she said that any public support for businesses should be tied to jobs. She called for a “social contract”, saying to companies: “We will potentially provide you with public money if that is required, but the quid pro quo is that that’s focused on protecting jobs, so it shouldn’t be used to extract value from the company in share buy-backs or big dividend payments early on; it should be promoting jobs, and we shouldn’t be seeing those funds squirrelled into tax havens.”

She went further when asked about the French government’s bailout of Air France, which is on condition that the airline may not compete with the railways on domestic travel. “Governments should be considering those kinds of questions,” she said. Which is significant, because she has in the past proposed ending all internal UK flights. “We need to see far more radical change if we’re to stop the climate change that is already leading to some of the severest floods and droughts in history,” she said when she was a Labour candidate in 2010. “The time has come to contemplate painful but necessary action like banning domestic flights.”

This is a reminder not just of how quickly she has risen to her present post – she was elected to parliament only three years ago – but of how dramatic some of the policy shifts might be in post-Covid-19 politics. We can take it, to start with, that a third runway at Heathrow is never going to happen.

Dodds has started to sketch out a new corporatism that is more ambitious in some ways than anything Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell proposed, envisioning huge state intervention in the private sector in return for social and environmental conditions. It will be interesting to see how this intersects with Labour’s European policy. Starmer has so far suggested that the UK should have a close trading relationship with the EU, including a customs union, and yet any state intervention that goes beyond the coronavirus emergency could conflict with EU law on state aid.

But Dodds was also more pragmatic than Corbyn and McDonnell, in setting herself clearly against the utopianism of a universal basic income, saying: “It is most critical that government focuses support on those who really desperately need it now.”

This already feels like an economic programme that could appeal to large numbers of voters: big on jobs and the environment, tough on tax havens, and targeting income support on those who need it most.

Public opinion has rallied to Boris Johnson in this crisis, but I wonder if Tory MPs can feel the ground moving beneath their feet.

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