It will be a long time before we truly understand all the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic. The economic consequences – felt most keenly through people’s jobs and livelihoods – are likely to echo for years to come. The consequences for young people, let down by the government on school returns and exams, will be particularly stark for those who already faced significant challenges. The impacts on both physical and mental health may never truly known. Our recovery will be long and difficult.
Sometimes it can feel overwhelming. As someone who has suffered from what we now know as ‘Long Covid’, the past months have often been frustrating and miserable. Without an end in sight, it feels like a slog, fighting an invisible enemy. It’s also been a reminder of how quickly the world can change. It’s not even a year since Labour lost the general election: a campaign in which coronavirus wasn’t mentioned once. It feels like another lifetime in another world.
Among all this, we should take inspiration and confidence from the shape of the Labour Party. My concern after last year’s terrible defeat was that we would learn all the wrong lessons. When you lose – and lose badly – the temptation is to junk everything or turn inward and fight each other.
But, as the person who ran Labour’s 2017 general election campaign, I always felt this would be a mistake. We needed to find a way to recapture that energy and focus. There were three key tasks facing the party: fixing what went wrong, rediscovering our mojo and turning our attention to the future. On those challenges, we are heading the right way.
I backed Keir Starmer in the leadership contest because he understood these aims. He wanted to capture all that is good and positive about our movement and build a credible platform from which we can turn our values and ideas into reality in government. He also wanted to focus relentlessly on the future – not relitigate the fights of old or focus on personalities, but fix on the challenges facing the world in 2024 and into the 2030s.
His leadership campaign came before the pandemic changed everything. The world is a very different place now. But the changes that are likely to result from it only make our task – to be a credible opposition, to take on the new challenges, to lead once again – more urgent. As Keir said in his speech to Connected: “Covid has made us appreciate what we value.” It has revealed who our key workers really are, and highlighted how under-appreciated they are. It has reminded us of the importance of family, friends, neighbours and community. It has reminded us of how strong we are we come together.
When Keir gave his speech, I saw a leader whose resolve and passion has been redoubled by this crisis. I also saw someone who has been proved right. The pledges he made during the leadership campaign look even more prescient now than they did then. The focus on wellbeing and health is going to be more important than ever. Creating truly public services designed for those that use them, not for profit, will be vital to rebuilding. The commitment to a Labour Party standing up for working people couldn’t be a starker contrast to Rishi Sunak using this crisis to take us back to the Thatcherite sink or swim mentality. And, now the country has seen what happens when you rely on companies like Serco to deliver crucial systems like test and trace, a commitment to ending outsourcing once and for all.
Speaking to the Local Government Association earlier this year, it was fantastic to hear Keir talk with real commitment to a proper devolution of power into the hands of people across the country. While Dominic Cummings dictates to the country from his NASA control centre on Whitehall, Keir Starmer wants to win power to put it in the hands of the people. While Boris Johnson seeks to stoke up culture wars and divide people, Keir’s focus is on bringing communities and people together, eradicating structural racism, unleashing people’s potential and making this the best country to grow up and grow old in.
To do all this, we first have to win. And less than a year after the election, the work that has been done to restore trust, credibility and to get a hearing has been remarkable. We are still at the foothills. The climb will be long, and gruelling. But the feeling around the party is as optimistic as I can remember. Our sense of purpose is returning. People are pulling together. This has been a difficult year. There are tough times to come. But together we can build something truly special – and for every Labour person, that should be exciting.