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Editorial Labour has broken with the government on Covid. Time to break with it on the economy

KEIR STARMER'S decision finally to break with the government and demand a new lockdown is a welcome recognition that we need a totally different approach to contain Covid-19.

The Labour leader wants a "two- to three-week circuit break," something the government's advisers were calling for weeks ago. And his emphatic assertions that No 10 has lost control, has no credible plan to slow infections and can no longer claim to be following the science are statements of fact that will resonate across the country.

If Labour pursues this new turn with vigour, it might just help shape a national response to the Covid-19 second wave that might blunt the rise in infections.

Starmer is still selective in his lockdown demands, not pushing for school closures even though secondary-school-age pupils are now the age group with the highest infection rates.

The flawed thinking behind Labour's passive policy of "constructive opposition" is a curious amalgam of a cautious centrism which assumes that a search for the middle ground is the key to political advance combined with a sense that, in a national emergency, Labour should appear broadly supportive of the government.

But from the very beginning an important element in the government – reflecting the deeply reactionary and anti-human mindset of a big tranche of our ruling class and its intellectual and media outriders – was quite willing to sacrifice the health and even the lives of an indeterminate number of people if this was the price for safeguarding profits.

That this was bound to result in a public-health policy failure at every level has been obscured for far too long by Labour's acquiescence to the government's fully flexible policy stance.

The first result of Labour's new position is that Downing Street is on the back foot, having to explain its reasons for disregarding the advice of its experts.

In some ways Labour's earlier approach – in favour of schools opening for example – appeared most closely aligned with those in business, banking and bureaucratic circles who worried that lockdown would inflict, to them, unacceptable damage to the economy. Recollect that this was the substantive reason for the defenestration of former shadow education secretary Rebecca Long Bailey, whose strong support for the education unions in their opposition to an early opening of schools was the polar opposite of this approach.

Boris Johnson is sufficiently fleet of foot to clothe himself in such new evidence as becomes available, to double down on his original if disingenuous stance – that he follows the expert advice – and accept the "circuit breaker" proposition. This would have the advantage in narrow parliamentary terms of creating a new consensus, protecting him from Labour criticism.

Yesterday's parliamentary exchanges left the matter unresolved. Johnson stuck with his three-tiers approach. But he included the vital caveat: "I rule out nothing of course in combating the virus."

So Labour needs to base its challenge on a deeper rejection of the Tories' market-first policy if it is to answer the charge – already made by Conservatives briefing the press – that supporting a circuit-breaker while regional leaders oppose certain local restrictions is hypocrisy. The fear inspired by shuttering businesses is directly linked to the government's willingness to let businesses – indeed entire sectors and local economies – go to the wall, triggering mass lay-offs and a jobless generation. 

These consequences are unnecessary, and reflect the political choices of our leaders on the limits of state economic intervention. Labour has a golden opportunity to push for a new consensus here too.

Yet none of this will make sense unless it can bring out out the class differences in the effect of the pandemic and the class interests inherent in the government's approach. 

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