In times of crisis, governments are looked to for strong leadership and protection from harm. Extreme situations demand extreme measures – something we are now becoming accustomed to. But what happens when the crisis ends? What happens when societies look to build new lives?
History has shown us that voters opt for radical change to escape times of deprivation. That is why I believe that the responses to coronavirus in the UK and US, and subsequent economic depression, will propel the left to victory in the general elections of both countries.
Firstly, let’s deal with the immediate reaction to the spread of the virus by both administrations. The irony of such an enquiry is that their responses were anything but immediate. The UK government took 14 days after Italy to implement a nationwide lockdown despite the explosion of 420 new cases, in the first ten days of March alone.
In the US, President Trump demonstrated his abjectly ignorant response to the virus by comparing it to seasonal flu, which was the repeated by Fox News. Since January, he declared that warm weather in April would cause the virus to ‘go away… like a miracle’. The US has seen 23,000 deaths across the country.
While the UK reacted far too slowly to the spread of the virus, its government nevertheless took decisive action based on the policy recommendations of its medical advisors. The Trump administration has been relentlessly attacked for its failure to take the issue seriously.
Even from January, public officials and experts were warning that the lack of federal leadership would lead to catastrophe. The most troubling response from the president during this crisis has been his ferocious attacks on the media for criticising his strategy to contain the virus.
For Trump, his remarkable success in persuading voters that he is America’s defender and protector will surely evaporate in the aftermath of this crisis. Pointing and yelling at invaders and traitors – be it illegal immigrants, the Washington elite, or the bogeymen media – won him the presidency.
Until a month ago, I would have predicted he would win it again. However, you can’t call something fake news if you can see it with your own eyes.
Unlike the ‘migrant caravan’ which whipped up a political frenzy but was invisible to most Americans, coronavirus is having real, tangible, life-or-death consequences for millions of Americans and their families. They will desperately look for leadership to see a floundering president, fighting for his political survival by lashing out at journalists to divert attention.
But this isn’t simply a day-to-day political issue that the president can pass off as media hysteria – it is a public health disaster for which American voters are likely to blame the man in charge.
Back in the UK, a somewhat more competent response is helping to slow the number of new cases being reported. Yet, the government is widely being criticised for failing to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for the NHS, after 19 of its staff died from COVID-19.
While this devastating shortfall in government policy, coupled with their refusal to raise the wages of nurses in recent years, are bound to erode electoral support, it will not be the cause of their downfall. Rather, the impending economic collapse which economists are forecasting will present new Labour leader, Kier Starmer, with a Clement Attlee moment in British history.
The last crisis of this magnitude was arguably World War Two. After which, the devastated economy was rescued by a massive investment programme and public health initiative. Once the coronavirus pandemic has faded and a depression has hit, voters will be rebuilding their entire lives. It won’t be a case of rescuing the economy but rebuilding it.
This is not something that welfare cuts or austerity measures will be able to achieve, as with the aftermath of the 2008 crash. It will demand huge amounts of government investment. Right now, only the Labour Party offers such a radical policy programme.
While I have doubted Kier Starmer’s ability to win back working-class voters who abandoned Labour in the last election, the electoral backdrop has since changed. The division over Brexit took a back seat as coronavirus became the main concern. Working-class towns hit by business closures and unemployment will look for strong leadership over political representation. Plus, with a competent and highly qualified front-bench team – devoid of the radical, unelectable image of its predecessor – the Labour Party is poised to govern again.
In both the UK and the US, orthodox political predictions are being shattered by the coronavirus pandemic. Its tragic ramifications for the people they govern will make it harder for leaders to profess their competence during this crisis.
Come election time, the scars in our societies will be too deep for voters to forget how the men running for office before them played their parts. And a huge economic collapse will breed widespread desire for change. As the leaders of today suffer the backlash, the left will undoubtedly stand to benefit.