The Guardian reports discussions among “senior Conservatives” about a national unity government or some other form of cross-party political collaboration during the Covid-19 crisis.
It suggests there is widespread sympathy for this idea at the top of the Labour Party. Socialists should argue and rally the labour movement against it. Taking responsibility for the Tories’ policies is the opposite of what we need.
According to the Guardian, the Tories arguing for a coalition or similar arrangement are quite open that they want this in order to benefit themselves.
“One argument circulating among some Tories is that Johnson may need to to share responsibility for decision-making with Labour and other opposition parties in order to survive the crisis… One Tory MP said there was a political argument that Johnson may be keen to ‘drag Labour in’ so the public do not associate the crisis solely with the Conservatives, if the situation worsens.
“They fear that Johnson could end up losing public support – despite surveys currently showing he is strongly backed – if it looks like he alone is responsible for a crisis that ends up involving tens of thousands of deaths.”
Government or semi-government collaboration with the Tories might benefit individual Labour politicians. It cannot benefit the cause of winning a minimally radical Labour government.
Like all such schemes, the aim is to detach the top leaders or representatives of the labour movement from whatever minimal accountability they have to the movement. The Labour Party already has precious little in the way of democratic accountability. A coalition would mean short-circuiting it even more thoroughly. That, in turn, means Labour moving to the right.
Cooperating practically against the epidemic should not mean giving political confidence or support, just as working with your management day to day in your workplace doesn't mean trusting or positively supporting them.
There are numerous levels on which it is necessary for Labour to oppose the Tories – from the stinginess of the social support they are providing, to their undercutting of social distancing in the interests of employers; from their undoubted desire to quickly return to the pre-crisis status quo after the epidemic, to their insane flirting with sticking to a fast Brexit.
Judging by the Guardian, the response to the national government talk from Keir Starmer, who looks likely to be named on 2 April as the winner of Labour's leadership ballot, is actually not as bad as Rebecca Long-Bailey’s:
“Opposition politicians gave a mixed reaction to the idea of a national unity government. Starmer, the Labour leadership favourite, is focusing on trying to push No 10 to do the right thing on guaranteeing income and strict physical distancing, also called social distancing, rather than countenancing a national unity government.
“However, Rebecca Long-Bailey, a rival leadership candidate is understood not to be ruling out the idea of more cross-party cooperation or even a government of national unity because of the crisis situation that the government finds itself in.”
But Starmer has been largely silent during the epidemic, rather than "pushing". Lisa Nandy is quoted directly by the Guardian. Her objection to a national government is simply that it would be time-consuming and disruptive to establish a new government with a new cabinet and new ministers in the middle of a fast-moving crisis.
Instead she advocates a “decision-making body that essentially takes this over until it’s dealt with”, involving “opposition figures, unions, business groups and others”. She cites Gordon Brown as a Labour Party figure she wants to see in those meetings.
This sort of undemocratic corporatism, bypassing even normal cabinet and parliamentary accountability, would in some ways be even worse than a national government.
Many union leaders, including left ones like Len McCluskey, have also made pro-government noises.
The national government talk takes the debate even further in the wrong direction.
Like World War 2?
The media reports on Tory MPs’ call for a national unity government include references to the World War 2 coalition government led by Winston Churchill, where Labour leader Clement Attlee was deputy prime minister.
And some histories claim that participating in the coalition was what enabled Labour to win in 1945.
Yet, as often happens in wars, after an initial rallying to established power, there was a widespread left-reformist radicalisation during World War 2.
Labour withdrew from the coalition (May) and won the election (July) while the war was still on in the Far East. Attlee had wanted the coalition to continue longer, but strength of opinion in the party convinced him this was not an option. Rightly.