Is Political Unity Ever the Answer to Crises?

Abra Heritage | Opinion and Debate Editor

Democracy can not thrive nor survive without the existence of a strong, persistent opposition. Without political and social debate, change is rarely called upon by individuals in political factions. Thus, it is an opposition’s job to demand, to compete, to challenge. But with the ever-present health, social, and economic threats that accompany the pandemic, should democracy be compromised for greater, unified strength?

Keir Starmer has called upon a ‘unity of purpose’ (12th April), and in doing so has undermined his very position as Leader of the Opposition. To many Brits, however, this has been received willingly. A YouGov poll (8th April) revealed that almost two thirds of Brits support a national unity Government, with only 7% ‘strongly opposed’ to the idea.

Starmer’s rejection of traditional political opposition lies in reasoning that ‘now is not the time’ (12th April). This is certainly not a novel idea in British politics. The First National Government of 1931 marked the beginning of a line of national governments formed during the Great Depression. This new and ‘unified’ government was made up from members of the Conservative Party, Liberals and National Labour, as well as a number of individuals who belonged to no political party. Its aim was to get rid of cross-party divisions in favour of overriding political unification in the face of crisis.

But with Britain suffering from the second highest rate of death per capita (WHO, 29th June), can Starmer justify political unity with a party responsible for one of the most incompetent strategies for handling the Covid-19 crisis? Certainly, he has held his ground as Leader of the Opposition in the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions. Frequent allusions to Boris Johnson’s lack of ability have been made by Starmer, challenging notions of true and whole ‘unity’ between the two: ‘a robust national plan, consensus among all key stakeholders, and strong leadership from the top: all three are missing’ (June 10th, Starmer on Johnson’s school reopening plans). Starmer’s relentless ambush on Johnson’s handling of the pandemic in The Prime Minister’s Questions reveals his inability to unify with a party that he finds ineffective and destructive: ‘How on earth did it come to this?’ (6th May, Starmer on Britain becoming second highest in the world for rate of death per capita).

While Starmer fundamentally disagrees with ‘opposition for opposition’s sake’ (4th April, first Leader of the Opposition speech), his political unity does not allow for much compromise of his own political and social values. A national unity Government seems off the cards for now, and with increased disruption and political resentment in Britain, political polarization will likely only grow. Starmer’s mixture of attempted public unity with persistent criticisms of government failures has helped him to overtake Johnson as the public preferred choice for Prime Minister, with Starmer winning 37% of voters, compared to Johnson’s 35% (27th June , Opinium Poll).

Starmer has struck a compromise between political unity and continued criticism of Tory policy and practice, but many Labour Party members are calling for greater dedication to the role of opposition. Might a post-lockdown political scene offer an increased chance for Starmer to fully criticise the Government’s Covid-19 strategy? While members seem anxious for greater criticism of Johnson and his cabinet, will these be as effective in the aftermath of the pandemic, when thousands of lives have already been needlessly lost to unacceptable Government measures? A sense of attempted unity can save public and media image, but it will not be so successful at saving lives. A strong opposition is now the answer to months of broken promises and failed strategy at the hands of Johnson and his cabinet.

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