It is not often these days that one gets a chance to praise the Labour party. Even with Jeremy Corbyn soon on his way out, the party has learned nothing from its election drubbing and seems determined instead to make the same mistakes. But it has, somewhat remarkably perhaps, covered itself in glory this week. And it would be wrong to pass up the opportunity to praise Corbyn for the way his party has so far responded to the coronavirus outbreak.
Perhaps you have not noticed how they have reacted to the crisis? In which case, that in itself speaks volumes. Because you will no doubt have seen the way Piers Morgan has responded with a series of 'do something' rants on social media. Or seen how Rory Stewart has set himself up to be amateur polymath of the year, garnering huge rolling coverage for his frankly comic London mayoral campaign.
Arguably, Morgan has turned himself into the real Leader of the Opposition in some people's eyes through his hyperbolic utterances to his audience of seven million Twitter followers. It would have been perfectly possible for Jeremy Corbyn or his shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth to do the same: to take a bet on being able to convince voters that Boris Johnson and the Tories, through a complacent attitude and under-powered response, should take the blame for the inevitable large death toll from coronavirus that is coming down the tracks.
But to their credit, they have chosen not to do so. Instead Ashworth has been content to lay down some sensible markers and probe ministers in relatively low-key but important ways about those measures the Government has taken – and the measures they have not.
As he said yesterday, Labour has been 'broadly supportive' of the Government and backs moving from the contain phase to the delay phase in the overall action plan. But it is now pushing for the ramping-up of an 'explain phase'. This would involve the setting out of the modelling and underlying assumptions which led ministers to follow advice not to take drastic measures such as closing down schools and other forms of 'social distancing'.
Ashworth rightly points out that former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has been questioning why further steps have not yet been taken. But speaking for Labour he is focusing on a message of 'follow the science but publish more of the science so it can be stress-tested and peer reviewed because we have to maintain public confidence'.
In fact the Government, predominantly via its chief medical officer professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, has actually been remarkably good at the 'explain phase' already. But Ashworth has to call for something. He can hardly be expected to remain mute bar impersonating a clapping seal during the biggest health crisis of the century.
So calling for more disclosure is a perfectly reasonable path to go down. Indeed, Government advisers will probably be content to oblige. Sir Patrick has already indicated that as much openness as possible is and will remain part of the Government’s approach.
Most importantly, Ashworth is clearly not intending to risk stoking panic and dread among the population for the sake of crowbarring himself into the story. There is a word for that: statesmanlike.
Jeremy Corbyn himself has largely been content to let Ashworth be the public face of this crisis for Labour, instead of attempting to turn it into ammunition for revenge in regard to December’s general election result.
It is to be hoped that the impending regime of Keir Starmer eschews opportunism in similar fashion. By the end of this crisis there will be comparative data available that will allow an in-depth look at how Britain fared compared to similar-sized countries in Europe.
If we have suffered notably more deaths then Labour will have a strong point that years of reduction in acute hospital beds and the emergence of vast numbers of unfilled vacancies in the NHS did indeed show a complacent approach to the nation’s health.
If we have suffered notably fewer deaths then, of course, Boris Johnson will be able to bask in relative triumph. But some degree of credit will also be due to Ashworth in particular and Labour in general for understanding that sometimes everyone in a position of authority or influence needs to behave like a grown-up.