Can Britain Survive Boris Johnson?

Can Britain Survive Boris Johnson?

After Corbyn, after Covid, the Labour Party struggles to break through.


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Every Thursday at 8 pm, I open my front door, step out, and bang a saucepan. My neighbors, most of whom I have not seen since the previous Thursday, are there too. Clapping, clanging, banging garbage can lids. We come out to cheer the National Health Service.

The lockdowns have spawned many rituals across the globe to show public support for health workers during the coronavirus crisis. The clapping started in Wuhan. It took off in Italy. The Spaniards and French began doing it every night.

But the British ritual has a slightly different meaning. The NHS, created in 1948, is the only entirely nationalized health care system in Europe. It makes us more proud to be British than the royal family. It’s virtually the only element of the postwar consensus that has survived Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, even if there’s considerable dissatisfaction with the way it is run.

The Conservative prime minister, Boris Johnson, had the chutzpah to come out and clap; even Prince Charles and Camilla have joined in. They have no choice. It’s like supporting the troops in America, but instead of applauding the foot soldiers of military might, we celebrate the frontline workers in publicly funded health care. Each Thursday evening, however hopelessly hopeful, deluded, and contested, our 8 o’clock ritual feels like a moment of social democratic hegemony.

During the general election campaign just a few months earlier, the Labour Party tried to make the underfunding of public services in general and the NHS in particular the central issue. That strategy failed horribly. Brexit predominated, and the Tories now enjoy their biggest majority since 1987.

Labour’s left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had to go. The race to succeed him was a lackluster affair even before the coronavirus sucked the oxygen out of the news cycle. The three final candidates all promised to listen harder. That made sense: During the previous four years, Labour showed little appetite for taking voters or votes seriously. The nation had chosen to leave the European Union in a referendum. A significant section of the party insisted that people didn’t know what they were doing and should vote again. After years of tortuous triangulation and entanglement, this became party policy.

The party membership had also voted overwhelmingly for Corbyn. Too few in the Labour establishment listened to that, either. From the moment it was clear he would win, the party establishment tried to delegitimize his leadership. This not only showed contempt for the membership—which twice delivered Corbyn resounding victories—but also undermined the party’s election efforts. So more listening would have been a good idea. In the end, though, the race for a new leader did not turn on Brexit or Corbyn at all.

Whether or not to leave the European Union had become an intractable conundrum for a party with a coalition that spanned the metropolitan areas that voted Remain and the former centers of heavy industry that voted Leave.

Meanwhile, Labour’s leadership was decided by a party that had grown both in membership numbers and in assertion under Corbyn, even as its ranks had been diminished in Parliament. Support for the man was always less cultish than detractors claimed; support for the leftward orientation his victory signified was always far less ideological than devotees would have liked.

Corbynism was never a coherent ideology. But it did leave a legacy: a broad political trajectory toward more fiscal redistribution, party democracy, greater investment in public services—not least the NHS—and an end to austerity. And that trajectory remains popular. In the end, the leadership election didn’t turn on anything at all. It just kept on going, even as everything else around us flipped upside down, with the candidate who started out as the favorite winning comfortably.

On April 4, Keir Starmer was elected the Labour Party’s leader, easily defeating two women: Rebecca Long-Bailey, who was assumed to be Corbyn’s favored successor, and Lisa Nandy, who wasn’t. As the shadow Brexit secretary, Starmer had been the face of Labour’s call for a second Brexit referendum, a policy that proved deeply unpopular with Leave voters in the Midlands and northern England, where the party hemorrhaged seats.

After Labour’s loss in December 2019, it was argued that the party was too London-centered and out of touch with its northern base. Yet Starmer represented the London constituency adjacent to Corbyn’s, while both of his competitors were based in northern England. Moreover, Labour remains the only national party not to have had a female leader. Given that women were running from every wing of the party, this seemed like a golden opportunity.

Starmer’s credentials hew to the center, even as his loyalties and ambition, in this moment, keep him loosely tethered to the left. All three contenders had at one time been in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Long-Bailey had been loyal throughout, while Starmer and Nandy were both part of a coordinated series of resignations in 2016—the “chicken coup”—that failed to depose Corbyn. Unlike Nandy, Starmer rejoined the fold and gained prominence as Brexit unfolded and unraveled.

Starmer has resolved not to “oversteer” away from Corbyn’s policies of taxing high-income earners and increasing public spending and nationalization, and he has eschewed gratuitous criticism of Corbyn in favor of party unity.

Under ordinary circumstances, given the hole Labour is now in, Starmer would be expected to lead the party back to viability rather than government. But these are no ordinary circumstances.

British politics is exceptionally volatile. Party allegiances are weak, and while the Tory victory was broad, it was shallow. Between 2010 and 2017, almost half the voters switched parties. They might switch again. With just a 5 percent swing, 56 seats could go to Labour—or 55 could go to the Tories, consigning Labour to the same fate as other European social democratic parties, from France to Greece, which are now effectively defunct.

Two days after Starmer became Labour’s leader, Johnson was hospitalized with Covid-19, his illness dominating the news. Starmer made his debut to a national shrug. The general election felt like a long time ago, even though the questions that shaped it have not gone away. Brexit remains impervious to any simple solutions.

And party unity cannot just be proclaimed from on high. Under Corbyn, Labour’s failure to address widespread accusations of anti-Semitism has led to an investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a government body. It has yet to report its findings.

Meanwhile, a recently leaked internal Labour report revealed that party bureaucrats hostile to Corbyn had for years purposely frustrated efforts to expel anti-Semites, knowing it would reflect badly on his leadership. The report also reveals party workers targeting minority MPs for ridicule—and expressing deep dismay when Labour gained seats and vote share under Corbyn in 2017. Some, not least those activists who canvassed hard for a Labour victory in the dead of winter, wait eagerly to see if Starmer’s warm words about unity are matched by efforts to discipline those who have undermined it.

But most of the country has moved on. For now, the coronavirus is the only opposition. Logistically, the government has botched its response to the pandemic horribly, leaving Britain with the highest death toll in Europe, even as it plans to ease the lockdown despite warnings that this could unleash a second wave. For seven days, the prime minister lay frail in London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital—the enfeebled embodiment of his government’s policy toward the virus. A month earlier, he boasted of going to see Covid patients and shaking their hands. He’d also suggested the government had discussed letting the country “take it on the chin…and allow the disease…to move through the population.”

Before his hospitalization, Johnson missed important meetings on the growing crisis. His ministers ignored warnings; austerity imperiled preparations; the promised tests and protective gear came too little and too late. At his daily briefing in March, the NHS England medical director said, “If we can keep deaths below 20,000 we will have done very well in this epidemic.”

At press time, we are approaching 35,000 deaths, and public confidence in the government’s handling of the virus has plummeted. Not long after Johnson emerged from the hospital, his fiancée gave birth to their child. For now, public support for Johnson remains fairly stable. But there are only so many births he can celebrate, and meanwhile the deaths keep coming.

Johnson’s public standing is due, in no small part, to recognition that the government’s economic response to the pandemic has so far been impressive. At the end of March it resolved to pay 80 percent of the wages of furloughed workers, up to £2,500 per month, to prevent them from being laid off by their employers.

Around the same time, the government ordered all local authorities in England to find accommodations for the homeless during the pandemic. With the help of over £3.2 billion in funding, most have been moved into hotels. To rescue the rail companies from imminent collapse, the entire network has effectively been brought back under government control. Meanwhile, disadvantaged children will be supplied with a free tablet or laptop and 4G mobile or broadband service so they won’t fall behind with their education while homeschooling. But Johnson is standing on fragile ground. In a televised address to the nation this month, his confused messaging—encouraging construction and manufacturing workers and others to avoid using public transport while returning to workplaces that might still be unsafe—invited public derision and conflict with the unions.

Let us not dwell, for the moment, on the fact that when Labour promised to nationalize the railways, offer free broadband, and tackle homelessness, the Tories said it couldn’t be done and the commentariat mocked Corbyn’s fiscal illiteracy. The money has been found during what promises to be an extended economic recession.

Where does that leave a center-left opposition now? As social democratic parties across Europe are either eclipsed by those further left or struggling to transform themselves, the question “What is Labour for in this moment?” is very much alive.

Starmer has assembled an eclectic team, including Long-Bailey, Nandy, and former leader (and Nation intern) Ed Miliband. Considerably to the right of what had come before, it is nonetheless sufficiently progressive to satisfy enough of the faithful.

Starmer also moved quickly to apologize to Britain’s Jewish community over the issue of anti-Semitism. His appearances at the dispatch box have been solid. He will enjoy a quiet honeymoon because he’s not Corbyn and few are paying much attention.

But the job Starmer interviewed for—unthreatening center-left leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, here to steady the ship and quell the mutiny—no longer exists. A democratic socialist agenda is now a far more plausible response to this crisis and the depression that will follow than a neoliberal one. Covid has laid bare the inequalities and inequities that have grown under Tory rule and made an unanswerable case for massive state intervention and fiscal redistribution. There will be no clamor for the homeless to be put back out on the streets or for recently connected poor kids to be shoved off the grid.

The Tories enjoyed an electoral victory in December but not an ideological one. Shortly after announcing the lockdown, Johnson declared, “There really is such a thing as society.” It marked as clear a break with Thatcher’s rhetoric (she once said there wasn’t) as his rescue package was with her economics. The shape that our politics will take after this crisis is up for grabs. The questions of which workers are key to the economy and which are not, of who and what we value and why, of what we can afford and what we should not tolerate, are no longer merely left talking points but burning questions that Labour is well positioned to address.

There is unlikely to be an election for another five years. But there will definitely be clapping and a banging of pots next Thursday.

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