Post-coronavirus recession will test Starmer’s allegiances

The adults are back in the room was the phrase being used by the Westminster commentariat following the return of Prime Minister’s questions in the last week of April. Britain’s new opposition leader, Keir Starmer, has since been lauded by those on the Right and Centre-Left alike for his amiable demeanour and oratorical flair. Most frequently, however, he is branded with a label that reads electable. Regardless of the condescension that aims to paint his predecessor (as well as the popular movement that came with him) as unworthy of the hallowed halls of Westminster, there appears an obvious blind-spot on the part of the media as to what Starmer represents.

It is hardly a secret that for large swathes of the population, the elite have come to be perceived as purveyors of inequality. The suggestion being that after the events of the 2008 banking crisis, the establishment were at least complicit in allowing certain communities to wallow in destitution while financial hubs such as London thrived. In the decade following that recession, Britain’s billionaires saw their net worth double, while the income of many of the rest stagnated or even decreased. Thus, the notion that austerity is ultimately a political decision with consequences from which some are exempt begins to hold traction.

But not all establishment figures are billionaires, so why have our technocrats been moulded into political scarecrows? In his book Nervous StatesWilliam Davies speaks of the way knowledge and wealth have become more intertwined. He says: ‘Under industrial capitalism, there were those who got rich and there were those claimed to know best. Today, the privilege of knowledge and wealth reinforce each other: highly educated consultants, lawyers and investment analysts are also the main beneficiaries of capitalism.’ For much of the nation, Keir Starmer is seen as a continuation of such ideas, and lacks the impetus for real change.

The Brexit vote can in part be considered a revolt against technocratic rule. The mantra advocated by the remain campaign can largely be reduced to – ‘things can get worse’. For those who had seen their wages fall in real terms, while their communities were stripped bare by austerity, the Brexit vote was a way of re-entering the conversation. Similar discordance can be seen in the tendency to explain economic well-being through the use of aggregate statistics. For many years GDP (gross domestic product) statistics have implied that the UK is a prosperous nation, without ascribing nuance to the regions that have fallen behind.

The use of statistics as a way of assessing the health of a nation doesn’t hold water when the nation itself is split along economic lines. Average wealth statistics have long been used by those who seek to signpost the supposed success of unabashed free-marketeering. When a BBC newsreader tells a resident of Tilbury in Essex (among the top 1% of Brexit voting regions) that they are getting richer, they are forced to take stock of their reality and conclude they are being lied to. Thus, a narrative that people have been able to weave for themselves, that explains their situation more accurately, is one of nationalism. In the moments following his 2019 election win, with some justification Boris Johnson thanked his new supporters for ‘lending’ him their vote.

On the horizon sits another recession, forecast to be of even greater stature than the 2008 banking crisis – and it is how Labour seeks to pull the UK out of it that will illuminate their desire, if any, to win back their traditional voters. Replicating the approach to economic recuperation seen post-2008 will only pry open the cultural chasm further, leaving a space to be filled by charlatans and demagogues who seek to abet people’s resentment. In the aftermath of the virus, there will likely be those who try to convince us that the antidote for economic ill health is to free the economy of red tape and to bail out the multinationals. In this case, Starmer’s response should be uncompromising. Whether it is or it isn’t, his true character will at last become apparent.