Safety first. Graphic: Pixabay/Gerd Altmann Safety first. Graphic: Pixabay/Gerd Altmann

Lindsey German on Covid and the distortions of the Tory spin machine  

Boris Johnson has told us that the response to coronavirus in Britain has been a ‘great success.’ With one of the worst death rates in the world, that takes some front – but he’s never lacked that. He’s also told us that we can go back to work when our employers think it’s right (contradicting the view of government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance), that he hopes it will all be over by Xmas, and that he will avoid a second national lockdown. Matt Hancock, meanwhile, has claimed that lockdown started on March 16th (coincidentally the date Vallance also claimed scientists had demanded it) whereas in fact it took another week for the British government to announce this decision.

There are few depths to which this government will not stoop. What success there has been has come from dedicated NHS staff and other frontline workers, and a widespread sense among wider members of the public that the lockdown had to be taken seriously. This is anathema to small numbers of mainly right wingers, especially those who see the damage it does to the working of the ‘free market’ and who regard the wearing of masks in shops as the first step in martial law.

An obviously surprised director of Opinium polling was quoted in this week’s Observer saying

‘The consistent trend of polling on public safety measures during the coronavirus crisis has been that the public are much more safety-first than we think and that complaints that public health measures trample on ancient sacred liberties are an extremely niche concern.’

This accompanied a poll showing 71% in favour of making it mandatory for masks to be worn in shops and only 13% against.

Most of us will be less surprised – not just about the masks, which remember we have been discouraged from wearing for months, but about the general attitudes of working people toward the coronavirus. Despite the various failings of the government, scientific advisers and official bodies, the vast majority have observed the lockdown carefully, often despite hardship and at sometimes great personal cost. The disgust at Dominic Cummings’ breach of regulations palpably demonstrated how seriously most people took it.

This continues to be the case.  The various attempts by Johnson and his crew to get people out of their houses, spending money and sitting in pubs and restaurants have been far less successful than predicted. It’s not hard to see the various reasons why. There are still all sorts of questions about safety, about travelling by plane or public transport, about eating and drinking in small enclosed spaces. Why take the risk when you don’t have to?

So central London is quieter than I have ever seen it. There are no tourists, few office workers, and few casual shoppers. Those who go to pubs and restaurants at night congregate in a few areas.

The clamour this is now causing from government and business is quite obscene. Even though many employers are considering more permanent working from home and even a three or four-day week (that Corbyn idea which could never happen and which would wreck the economy), workers must be shepherded back onto unsafe transport, into offices where they don’t need to be, just because they will then spend money on their commute, Pret a Manger salads and beers in the pub after work.

While some workers also want to get back into a collective working environment, they are right to be cautious and right also to believe that we don’t need to go back to the old normal. The division between what government wants, and the pursuit of profit, and what most working people want reflects the different priorities depending on whether you are part of the exploiting class or one of the exploited.

It also reflects the impact that the crisis has on working class people, and the collective and cooperative response which crises tend to produce. Adhering to lockdown has been done largely on a voluntary basis, with local networks, neighbours and friends helping those unable to shop or look after themselves. There has been little policing of it in the formal sense – partly because the police force is not equipped either logistically or politically to do so, partly because it has relied on wide consensus for its effectiveness.

In a number of workplaces, unions have been able to enforce safer working or better employment conditions for workers they represent. The crisis has probably produced permanent changes to attitudes on work.

All this is anathema to Tory and business values, which rests on levels of hierarchy, on the idea that everyone has to be managed, and whose motive is always what is best for profit. So we are seeing more pressure to go back to the old normal. At present it is mostly worded in comforting and consensual terms, but not always. Expect that to change and expect growing conflicts with those who resist the government agenda. We are already seeing tougher talk about working conditions to tube workers, civil servants, teachers, who will all come under pressure in the coming weeks.

Government is imposing strict bailout conditions on Transport for London and universities which want to get loans. They will try to do this anywhere that they can, demanding unacceptable changes while allowing major private companies to take government furlough pay and loans while sacking staff or cutting wages. 

And while levels of policing of the lockdown have overall been low, this isn’t true for black people – more likely to be stopped and searched and fined as a result of the lockdown restrictions. The deployment of riot police in full gear to break up music parties in parks and on estates in London is almost certainly a taste of what is to come as things get tougher.

I have argued throughout this crisis that it presents us with real alternatives – creating a more equal and collective society or enforcing a return to the bad old days which helped to create it in the first place. Johnson is determined to do the latter, regardless of the cost to working people. The path to the alternative runs through defence of jobs and conditions, refusal to endanger our lives through returning to normal, and the demand that the corporations and the rich must pay for this crisis.

The kinds of policy articulated by Jeremy Corbyn provided precisely a way of doing some of this. I have no doubt that had he remained leader he would have been much more critical of Johnson and much more effective in spelling out an alternative vision. Keir Starmer is incapable of doing so. It is little surprise that Labour is lagging in the polls. Despite saying he would preserve Corbyn’s policies, they are a dead letter. He won’t commit to a wealth tax or seriously taxing the rich, he has not proposed nationalisation as a solution to job losses, and he seems to walk in lockstep with the government, forensic insight here, timid suggestion there, but usually allowing the Tories to set the agenda.

His shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, is determined to pursue an Atlanticist policy which puts her alongside the Tories. We’re in a serious position here: growing tensions with Russia and China are going to become even worse as the pandemic develops, and the world economic crisis will make the possibility of military conflict more likely (Britain’s instability in a post Brexit world will add to this). There is much to criticise in both Russia and China – civil liberties, repression, treatment of the Uighurs – and we should not shrink from doing so.

None of these is the reason for the sort of catastrophic ‘humanitarian intervention’ that we have seen elsewhere this century. The last thing we need is a Hillary Clinton tribute act from Nandy. Nor do we need more sanctions which are a form of economic warfare. Labour should be shouting this from the rooftops, rather than ramping up the conflict between the world’s major – and nuclear armed – powers. 

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.