An intensive care doctor at the UCL hospital in central London, commenting on the rising infection rate, recently told Times Radio: “We can’t blame the government, we can’t blame the tier system. This is people behaving badly. I’m just very angry about this.” When the quote was tweeted by the radio presenter, it drew a fierce reaction from many on the left.
Responses soon reminded the doctor of Dominic Cummings’ ‘eye-sight test’ to Barnard’s Castle with his wife and child, and the effect on trust in public health messaging, or the government’s focus on getting people back to the offices and into restaurants over the summer, only to implement a second and now third national lockdown just months later. There was an anger at the notion that the government could somehow escape blame for the ever-rising death toll and the disastrous economic consequences by pointing the finger at individuals.
Ultimately, the choice is not binary. The government should be held to account for remarkable failings in its decisions on lockdowns, public messaging, basic competence on test and trace (remember that?) and now the vaccine roll-out. In the latest episode in the ongoing omnishambles, Johnson declared on Sunday that schools would be open and assured parents they were safe. As night follows day, just over 24 hours later, the schools were shut, and the inevitable national lockdown was announced – with the daily death tolls now above those of the peak in April last year. On any reading, this is a flagrantly incompetent government.
Issues of individual responsibility and public policy are intertwined – something that the Tories always fail to fully appreciate. For example, too many people are being forced to choose between abiding by the rules and staying home when presenting with symptoms or being plunged into poverty and destitution because the Tory government fails to introduce sufficient sick pay measures. As Frances O’Grady has argued, the lack of decent sick pay is undermining our public health effort. The Chancellor, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen.
At the same time, we must accept that this virus is spread by people, not Whitehall departments. We have all seen people not wearing their masks in supermarkets or being wholly careless towards social distancing measures, and indeed some who brazenly ignore all the rules. Whilst it is tempting to cast blame on the Johnson administration for all the difficulties we face, Labour must also accept the role of personal responsibility, or lack thereof, as part of their narrative from opposition.
Polls suggest the public agree. A majority clearly believe Johnson’s government has been incompetent in their handling of the pandemic. However, over the summer, pollsters asked “if there was to be a second wave of coronavirus in the UK, who would you hold most responsible?”. 52% replied that they would blame other members of the public who were not following the rules, and only 31% blamed the government (while 18% blamed neither, or did not know). Those who believe that Johnson’s response to Covid-19 has been calamitous must not assume the public therefore put all the blame at his door.
It is why Keir Starmer has been so careful to oppose the government fiercely at certain junctures, whilst also offering support when appropriate. To many, it can sometimes feel frustrating to see Starmer fail to go for the jugular against the government at all times. There have been many calls for ‘stronger’ opposition. But they must remember that the public do not assume that government can protect them fully. It is why there remains a stubborn Tory vote share in the polls. There is an appreciation of the daunting challenges Covid-19 represents to us all and a recognition that this is a national struggle, not just a problem exclusively for government to solve.
The role of personal responsibility also speaks to a wider reality for progressives across different policy areas and contexts as Labour builds a post-pandemic agenda. Arguments emphasising the role of the state and societal action must be tempered by an understanding and appreciation that ultimately other agents are just as important in bringing about change. Labour must ask questions of others, as much as it promises to deliver benefits to the many.
Successful progressives have always understood the vital role of this social contract. The echo of J. F. Kennedy’s famous exclamation ”ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” must always ring loudly for progressives. Bill Clinton spoke of a ‘New Covenant’ in the build-up to his election victory in 1992, and it was a theme that framed his presidency and the policy programme for eight years in office – “a solemn agreement between the people and their government, based not simply on what each of us can take, but what all of us must give to our nation”.
Successful Labour Prime Ministers have followed suit. Tony Blair, always looking admiringly at Clinton from across the Atlantic, stated that as Prime Minister “rights and responsibilities have always been at the heart of my politics”. Clem Attlee’s time as a social worker in Stepney Green led to his book in 1920, The Social Worker, which emphasised the role of the empowerment of the working classes – the development of policy for work to be done with the working class rather than for them. Harold Wilson used the prism of a “new social contract” to overcome the political challenges of his time: it was his description of cutting a deal with the TUC to ensure a programme of voluntary wage restraint. A deal, contract or covenant – with rights and responsibilities on both sides – implies a sense of fairness that is appreciated by the voters.
The emphasis on personal responsibility need not temper the radicalism of the moment. There is growing support and appreciation of the need for greater state action in rebuilding the economy after the pandemic. The space for arguing for a larger state is there. But such an agenda should show an appreciation of the need for other agents to play their role. Indeed, it is a prerequisite to building support for an agenda of reform.
The pandemic has changed British politics significantly. But basic principles still apply. Government cannot solve all ills – and pretending otherwise will consign Labour to irrelevance.