Ignoring the result of the Labour leadership election is a mistake for public affairs professionals

It is difficult for opposition parties to get attention – from the media, from the public, from business – at the best of times; now, at the worst of times, Labour’s new leader could look less relevant than ever.

PA professionals should not make the mistake of failing to engage with the Labour leadership election, warns Tom Hamilton
PA professionals should not make the mistake of failing to engage with the Labour leadership election, warns Tom Hamilton

At the end of a leadership election that had already felt a bit long before most of us had even heard of coronavirus, it is tempting to assume that nobody needs to think about the Labour Party at all.

This would be a mistake: engaging with a well-run opposition is worthwhile for both sides.

Oppositions – lacking the resources of the Civil Service and the clout of simply being The Government – usually rely on outside sources, including business; not just for policy advice, but for intelligence-gathering. What is going on, what can they credibly call for, where are the pressure points?

The new leader will hope to put together a more professional shadow cabinet and staff operation than Labour has had for some years, and rebuilding those networks will be increasingly important.

In any case, the political landscape may well shift faster than seemed likely when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour was crushed at the polls in December.

If coronavirus has put a temporary – or perhaps permanent – stop to implementing Boris Johnson’s manifesto, it has presented Labour with an opportunity.

Corbyn’s own view, expressed last week, that Johnson’s sudden shift to borrowing hundreds of billions of pounds is evidence that he was right all along, is characteristically banal.

Supporting businesses and workers when you have decided, for public health reasons, to forbid them to do any work is not in any meaningful sense comparable to anything in the 2019 Labour manifesto.

But politics is now, whether anyone likes it or not, going to be about recovery and rebuilding – and about how the country needs to change.

In the short term, Labour is right to offer constructive opposition, supporting the broad thrust of the Government’s approach, criticising failures when it spots them and raising questions about important details.

But once the immediate crisis is over, much of the debate about the future will be conducted on natural Labour territory, and engaging with the party will be vital.

How do we rebuild after a crisis? Are our healthcare systems and other public services properly resourced? What are the obligations of employers to their workers and contractors? How does the way we work need to change? What should individuals and businesses expect from government, and what do they owe it in return?

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of Labour’s answers, the Conservatives will find it hard to complain they are unaffordable.

As for the Conservatives, the choice between renewed austerity to deal with massive coronavirus-induced borrowing, or a rejection of the entire philosophical basis of the party's past decade in government, may be one with no electorally easy sell on either side.

Keir Starmer may find himself in a stronger position – and Labour more relevant – than looked possible just a few months ago.

Tom Hamilton is associate director at WPI Strategy

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