Sir Keir Starmer in 2020. Photo: Wikimedia/Rwendland Sir Keir Starmer in 2020. Photo: Wikimedia/Rwendland

Lindsey German on faux opposition, media sickness and Britain’s oldest colony

Isn’t it about time Labour really stood up for those who do the work in society but who find themselves living in poverty? Because it really isn’t doing so at the moment. A leaked study by Public Health England shows the very severe effects of coronavirus in the north west of England. According to the Observer, ‘Based on detailed analysis of case numbers in different local areas, the study builds links between the highest concentrations of Covid-19 and issues of deprivation, poor and crowded accommodation and ethnicity.’

None of this should surprise us: epidemics have always taken root among poor and overcrowded housing conditions. Yet while the housing market is inflated yet again by government policy – this time the reduction in stamp duty – renters face evictions later this month, despite Covid 19.

The furlough scheme ends next month with many workers facing redundancy notices from later in September.

Civil servants’ unions are threatening strike action if their members are forced to return to work in unsafe conditions. Even the Bank of England has said that a physical return to work for everyone in areas such as the City of London, with its crowded streets, transport and offices, is impossible, and that large numbers of office workers must continue to work from home. Yet the drive to get ‘back to normal’ is being enforced by the government and its depressingly loyal opposition.

Labour seems to focus all its criticism of Boris Johnson and his ministers on their lack of competence. While there is certainly plenty of scope for criticism here, it always seems to suggest that if only Keir Starmer were prime minister, the drive to get people back to work would have happened more rapidly and more ruthlessly. This is exactly what working people don’t need to hear from a party which supposedly represents their interests.

It’s increasingly clear however that under Starmer’s leadership Labour’s main priority is to protect British capitalism from the worst effects of the crisis, and that the interests of workers are going to come a very poor second. This means that Labour has been very strongly in favour of the reopening of schools regardless, that it backs more people going back to work and that it wants to minimise the numbers of those working from home.

All this to protect an economic model which wasn’t working before Covid-19. There was already a crisis in the high street, partly because of the shift to online shopping but also because more than a decade of holding down wages in real terms means that most working people have little spare cash after they have paid housing and transport costs. The reliance on absurd levels of office building in the city centres has sucked life out of local areas and placed reliance on very high levels of commuting (British commuting is the highest in Europe) and has turned those city centres into unaffordable locations of luxury, and often empty, flats and corporate retail and hospitality industries.

Labour’s commitment to green jobs and a green new deal means that it should be challenging this whole model. It is unworkable in its own terms and also destructive of individuals lives and of the planet. There is some recognition of this among wide swathes of society. The lockdown and its consequences have changed many people’s way of working and opened up the possibility of work and society being organised differently. The prospect of more home working, less commuting and a regeneration of local neighbourhoods should be something it is encouraging, should be possible. But it will be resisted by many sections of capital, who will feel that it weakens managerial control and dents profit margins of a number of industries. Some fear also a breakdown of work discipline, as people find themselves able to work more flexibly and to demand shorter working hours.

The strategy of Labour is not, however, to demand radical alternatives, let alone a serious redistribution of wealth, but to promote efficiency and order in the face of the chaos of Johnson’s government. This wins the plaudits of Guardian journalists and those who hated Corbyn but don’t like the Tories. It does nothing to address huge issues of unemployment, continued low pay and insecurity – there is now talk of the minimum wage increase being abandoned as the ‘country can’t afford it’ – or the housing crisis. These are the questions that matter -and Starmer has no answers to them.

Stop press: there’s nothing free about the media

A sign of Labour’s trajectory is its instant condemnation of the Extinction Rebellion action which stopped a number of daily newspapers from Murdoch distribution hubs. In this it has joined the frankly unbelievable cacophony of abuse of XR in defence of a ‘free press’ – one tweet even suggesting this was the beginning of a coup by the protestors. I don’t like all of XR’s tactics, but I don’t see what is wrong with this one, just as I would support print workers going on strike and stopping papers if they were fighting against management attacks.

There is no free press in this country. It is controlled by a tiny number of billionaires who, far from being neutral and objective figures, constantly intervene in politics in order to achieve their ends. Tony Blair flew round the world even before he took office to assure Rupert Murdoch that his labour government would do nothing to upset the Murdoch empire – and it never did. In return, the Murdoch papers were the keenest advocates of the Iraq war in all its disastrous phases.

The right-wing papers in particular (and there are few others) set an agenda which majors in anti-immigration, race baiting, attacks on ‘political correctness’, scapegoating the poor, and a visceral hatred of the left. These views are faithfully reported by the broadcast media in ubiquitous ‘paper reviews’, thus spreading the poison and allowing these billionaires to set the political agenda.

The case of Jeremy Corbyn is instructive here. Every major newspaper attacked him relentlessly – the liberal Guardian was one of the worst. His every move was distorted and twisted, the anti-Semitism story kept in the news for months on end, his personal life dissected and abused, his political anti-war and in international activities turned into treacherous pro terrorist behaviour. This all got much worse after his relative success in 2017. Even now, the Sunday Times is serialising a hostile book – with the aim of further damaging his reputation.

This is what happens to any major figure on the left – it happened similarly although not so extensively to both Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill. So let’s not feel too sorry for those whose daily diatribes are occasionally halted – and thanks to the people who did it.

A bit of Irish history

 Yet again a row over the IRA – this time because Johnson accused Starmer of working for an ‘IRA condoning’ leader. Starmer’s anger was of course reasonable given Johnson’s pathological lies. But I wish we could have some honest politics over the question of Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement (which Blair and Labour generally hails as his greatest achievement) followed the IRA ceasefire and propelled Sinn Fein into government in Northern Ireland. This is still the case 20 years on.

Loyalist paramilitaries were responsible for many sectarian killings and bombings, but the DUP is never attacked for its closeness to them. It was of course the means of propping up Theresa May’s government.

The IRA struggle was in response to gross state and individual sectarianism against the Catholic population. Many of its members and other Catholics were killed, some in cold blood by the security forces, as with Bloody Sunday in Derry and the Gibraltar killings.

These are the facts of what is now a historic struggle but one which has not replaced the border and created a united Ireland, so the issues have not gone away. Labour – with a few honourable exceptions like Jeremy Corbyn – has not been good on Ireland.  But pretending this is all about ‘IRA terrorism’ doesn’t do justice to a politics which stems from Ireland’s sectarian partition 100 years ago and the consequences of that.

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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’.