The pandemic proves everything everybody always thought…

In the early months of the Covid Pandemic claims of all kinds were made for the political significance of the (hopefully) once in a lifetime events. The pandemic and its consequences were essentially held to justify whatever a particular politician might have always thought.

Variously, Covid was a point in time where:

  • As in 1945, people would want to see major social change toward greater equality
  • Outsourcing in the NHS couldn’t possibly continue after this
  • Society would re-evaluate and decide collective approaches were better
  • Post-industrial, climate friendly policies would be embraced
  • Work-life balance would be re-evaluated and consumer materialism rejected

The common thread was that ‘people would want something different’. Very few of those writing such polemics said why any of this was inevitable - it just was! There didn’t appear to be any evidence of why this might be the case nor any real effort to determine what the views or ambitions of the population may be - it was “just obvious”. While it may well This kind of political wishful thinking has long since damaged Labour and the left in general. I have a vague memory of a tie produced by the Fabian Society the pattern of which was formed by the words, “the inevitability of socialism”. Covid is just the latest event - scandals, wars, economic collapse - that was to have an ‘inevitable’ consequence leading toward the historical inevitability of ‘social transformation’ in a progressive direction.

It is hard to know what is more depressing - the intellectual laziness of these conclusions, the fact that the same old determinist logic can be at play after more than a century of evidence to the contrary, or just how out of touch with the aspirations of everyday folk left-leaning politicos seem to be.

Far from Covid being the catalyst of social change it is worth considering what is important to ‘most people’ - and ‘most people’ do not engage in that much political thought away from election times. ‘Most people’ know politics is important, but ‘most people’ claim little knowledge or interest - this is widely supported by polling evidence. ‘Most people’ will cite the welfare of themselves and their families as their top priority most of the time - that is again, well supported by polling evidence. Also, ‘most people’ in affluent societies (and whatever else may have taken place the UK still qualifies here) where ‘most people’ are not in poverty, quite like the lives that they have and like or have a measure of pride in the place in which they live - again, well documented both in terms of economic and social research and polling evidence.

Hardly surprising then that even though the voters may be open to ‘building a better world’ their priority as citizens is to get back to their lives - to their jobs (though not necessarily at an office), to their holidays, to having lunch with their families, to going out with their friends - whether it be to pubs, shops, restaurants, theatres or football grounds - and to other aspects of their ‘normality’. Neither should it be surprising that the longer and more traumatic the pandemic became the more ‘most people’ yearn for a future like the past.

None of this means that the pandemic might not lead toward political and social change, nor that its management by the Johnson government should not be the subject of serious scrutiny, but simply that those changes will not be automaticity determined by events. Polling evidence through the past year of anything but normal politics showed very clearly an initial spike in support for the government (replicated all over the world) seeking to deliver a national effort to combat the pandemic, followed by a significant fall when it became clear that those efforts, their communication and the behavior of those in key positions was wanting and a recovery when things appear to be going in the right direction. Opposition parties do not ‘make the weather’. So far out from an election and with only one issue in the mind of the public their efforts hardly impact on the thinking of the electorate.

Finally, another fact that seems to have escaped the minds of some politicos is a simple reality. We have a Government with a large majority for the first time since Labour left office in 2010. No need now for the Government to scrape by - though it is sometimes still in the mindset of the three preceding ministries who needed an eye to their coalition partners, their backbenchers, the immediate drifts of public opinion and how opposition might coalesce. None of that matters. The Government can ignore everyone and everything: so it is by no means ‘inevitable’ that the totally justified public inquiry* into the handling of the pandemic will happen any time soon - if at all, nor is any other ‘obvious’ need - in the NHS, schools, the public services or the economy - on the agenda if the Johnson administration doesn’t want it. This is a cold reality Labour politicians face and which, to some extent, has been masked by more than a year of pandemic politics. After a decade of instability, five years of uncertainty and eighteen months of restrictions, the most important indication is that ‘most people’ crave stability and a break from bad news. This, rather than delivering a desire for radical change, is the climate with which Labour’s strategists will need to wrestle.


* for a summary of the case for an inquiry read ‘Failures of State’ by Sunday Times journalists George Arbuthnot and Jonathan Calvert.