Evening Standard comment: Sir Keir Starmer can offer the opposition Britain needs


Alongside more testing, more ventilators and more protective equipment, there’s another weapon Britain needs in the fight against Covid-19: an effective Opposition.

Hopefully we are about to get one — but the only chance of that happening is if Sir Keir Starmer is elected leader of the Labour Party this Saturday. Many would say: who cares who leads the Labour Party at a time like this? They would be wrong. Democracy only functions properly if the country is offered a credible alternative, and when it comes to fighting this disease, strong democracies are better equipped than one-party states and dictatorships.

Surprisingly, that’s not a widely held view.

There are those who argue that authoritarian regimes, able to deploy the full force of modern surveillance technology and police powers, are better placed to contain the virus than messy democracies. They can enforce lockdowns and direct the full resources of the country to a national plan.

That’s always the argument for the “strong man”, in times of peace and war, and it’s as wrong now as it always has been.

Evidence shows that free peoples have freely consented to draconian measures to protect their societies, while pressing their governments to do more. Dictatorships have struggled to bring the transparency essential for accepting that there is a crisis and then honestly tackling it.

There are others who say that even in a democracy, it’s not right at times like this to subject those in charge to scrutiny — after all, haven’t ministers got enough on their plate? That too is a mistake.

We have placed a huge amount of trust, and extraordinary power, in our Government. When the British Government didn’t move as quickly as others to quarantine and appeared to be pursuing a strategy of “herd immunity” that was different to other countries, they were quite rightly asked demanding questions — and appeared to change course.

Now, when the Prime Minister says his administration is ramping up testing to 25,000 people a day, or that the ventilators are about to arrive, or that the police need new laws to enforce the quarantine, we agree and we applaud. But then we expect them to deliver — and hold them to account if the testing doesn’t materialise, or only 30 ventilating machines turn up, or if the police abuse their powers to ban the sale of chocolate Easter eggs.

This scrutiny makes us more effective. The free media can provide it — and that is what the Evening Standard, online and in hundreds of thousands of copies every day, is aiming to do at the same time as being supportive of Boris Johnson as he tackles this unprecedented challenge.

Credible alternative

However, the media can only question — we can’t provide voters with a credible alternative government. Only the Opposition can do that, and only that provides the ultimate incentive for governments to govern well.

Britain has not had a credible alternative government for five years now, because Jeremy Corbyn was never up to the task of leading our country — something the public saw more clearly than the Labour movement. That may be about to change.

Sir Keir Starmer has not got everything right in this protracted contest to replace Mr Corbyn. He did not need to appease the harder Left with his unaffordable and undesirable commitments to renationalise large parts of British industry. His promise to reintroduce free movement of people is a millstone he will have to shed.

He needs to recognise, as the Evening Standard has, that Britain has moved on. But these, in the end, are details.

The central fact is this: Sir Keir looks, talks and acts like a potential premier. He has formidable experience as a former director of public prosecutions. His forensic questioning in Parliament opens the door to proper scrutiny of government.

As Labour leader, he will have a very long road to travel before he can offer this country a party that is fit for office, and a leader fit for No 10. But at least, unlike other contenders, he has some chance of completing that journey.

That’s why Starmer is our choice to become the Leader of the Opposition — because Britain desperately needs one.