Trust in the PM is shattered: this is the perfect time for Labour to define itself

Andrew Harrop
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Trust in the Prime Minister is shattered at another critical moment for the UK’s health and prosperity. The example he has set has reduced people’s willingness to abide by coronavirus restrictions and minimise transmission risks this winter. His carelessness is costing lives.

But hopes of an early end to Boris Johnson’s tenure are probably wishful thinking. He will only be defenestrated if his colleagues have clear and consistent evidence that he will lose them the next election. It will require Labour to lead in the polls for months by the healthy margins seen in December.

If that happens, these weeks will turn out to be a political turning-point to rank alongside the economic crises of 1992 and 2007. But it is more likely that the polls will narrow in the weeks ahead, as the stench created by the Prime Minister’s recent scandals fades into the background.

Nonetheless, things will never be the same for Boris Johnson. He cannot repeat the vaccine bounce of early 2021. Brexit and the early phases of the pandemic, which drew swing voters to his camp, are receding memories. Labour’s new top team offers a credible alternative and Johnson has little to show for his time in office. It all points to close, attritional politics, with the opportunity for Labour to steadily build a lead that lasts.

We will probably be stuck like this until 2024. The more competitive Labour looks, the less likely the Conservatives are to call an election early, not least because boundary changes favouring the Tories only take effect at the end of 2023. Labour needs to use the time purposefully. Its task is not just to demonstrate that the Conservatives are unfit to govern, but to present a clear programme of its own.

The party can do without hundreds of small-scale policies that the public will struggle to remember. Instead, it needs to show to people what it stands for, and why it wants power. That was the purpose of Keir Starmer’s speech on Tuesday, where he started to outline Labour’s contract with the British people.

Labour now needs a handful of pledges that have the heft to change the character of the country. So far, two policies meet the bill: the party’s commitment to huge climate change investment and its plans for major new employment rights for those struggling in the workplace. Neither of these has had the attention they deserve. They need to be reintroduced to the public with more vigour.

Then the party must go further. It needs big promises that bring to life the political principles Keir Starmer believes in – security, opportunity, contribution and community. They must be measures that touch people’s lives and will be hard for the Conservatives to imitate.

But Labour must also present policies targeted at people and companies at the very top. It needs to create a dividing line with the Conservatives by linking Tory cronyism and double standards to the spectacle of the very wealthy playing by different rules. In contrast, Labour should promise tax and financial reforms to stop the super-rich avoiding the taxes everyone else has to pay.

This is the politics of integrity and the level playing field. Boris Johnson is a wounded figurehead for the sleazy nexus between money and power. It is the perfect moment for Labour to define itself and promise action against excessive concentrations of unearned wealth, privilege and power.

A version of this piece first appeared in Fabian Review.

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