NHS test and trace billboard in East London, June 2020: Photo: Wikimedia/S.Hinakawa NHS test and trace billboard in East London, June 2020: Photo: Wikimedia/S.Hinakawa

Lindsey German on the Tories’ ever-escalating Covid crisis, anti-austerity and Labour’s warped security values

A ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown is coming probably over the next week or two. According to a poll, 68% of people favour it, majority scientific opinion favours it, even Keir Starmer has come out in favour of it. That has broken the consensus which Starmer held to for so long, and which he has only abandoned because he can see the way opinion – and the virus – is going.

The last week has been something of a turning point, particularly with the revelation that Sage government advisers called for a national lockdown a month ago. The northern mayors have also put up a fight against government policies which want a lockdown without sufficient economic support for some of the poorest areas in the country. Boris Johnson is finding himself caught between these growing calls for more decisive action and the demands of many of his own Tory MPs to go in the opposite direction, and from his chancellor Rishi Sunak to ‘protect the economy’ as though letting a pandemic rip is going to help that.

So the Tories are doing as they have done throughout this crisis – too little too late. Lockdown in March came weeks too late, it ended too quickly, the summer was wasted in preparing for a second wave. Instead, pubs and restaurants were full in the summer, courtesy of government subsidy for meals. Schools and universities were opened across the country, with predictable results. The spike has risen throughout September and October and is once again at very dangerous levels, just as winter approaches.

To deal with the virus we have had a series of half-baked measures, the latest being the three tiers of restrictions. These have been based overwhelmingly on politics not on science – if you look at Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, they have all imposed more coherent and stringent measures than the Westminster government. Johnson is pandering to his own backbenchers who take the typically selfish view that if their rural areas are less affected, they should be allowed to carry on without any constraint. The sight of Tory MPs like Iain Duncan Smith arguing that outer London constituencies like his should not be locked down, even though it is part of a major city with rising infections in nearby boroughs, is sickening.

The whole idea of local lockdowns in Britain is in any case divisive and inefficient at dealing with the virus. It should be national from now, not when the Tories feel they can no longer resist, and where infections will be harder to deal with. It should also be linked to proper test and trace which at present is a complete, privatised fiasco.

We are fighting here not to ‘live with Covid’ – which essentially means the old and vulnerable staying indoors and everyone taking their chances – but for zero Covid. It can be eliminated but that means dealing with it as a priority, and not accepting the false dilemma of protecting the economy or protecting health. That means shutting down where possible, closing schools, universities online, and working from home.

Labour has to decide whether it is going to lead or to follow. It’s no good waiting for opinion polls to back you up – political parties should surely be helping form opinion, not waiting until it is politically opportune to do so. Starmer has been so desperate to portray himself as ‘not-Corbyn’ that he has stuck close to the government in the most craven way. It has done nothing to help his ratings, but more importantly it has done nothing to help the millions suffering now. That has to change. And the unions have to be much tougher and more vocal about resisting the government demands. Otherwise we are facing a winter of rising cases of Covid-19, the uncertainties around Brexit and the prospects of large-scale unemployment. The left has to pose resistance and an alternative.

The dole: this is not a rehearsal

The news that possibly more than a million young people will be unemployed in a few weeks’ time should concentrate Johnson’s mind. Of course it won’t. The Tories will treat this as a natural by-product of the Covid crisis, expect people to live on the pitifully inadequate benefits on offer or depend on family and friends to bail them out, and try to dragoon them into low value minimum wage jobs. Instead the closure or curtailment of many industries in which young people work should be the opportunity to think about the sorts of work we want – shorter working weeks, more flexible and working from home, more value given to essential jobs.

In essential jobs I include the arts – music, theatre, poetry, dance – which are essential to the general health and development of any civilised country. Despite the right-wing view that training and degrees in such subjects are a waste of time because ‘you won’t get a job’ all that reveals is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nothing spoke to that view last week more that the widely derided government ad calling for a ballet dancer, Fatima, to retrain in cyber. Now hastily withdrawn, it told everyone that arts aren’t worth it, that you can’t work at something you enjoy and put huge amounts of effort into, and that the arts are the preserve of the rich.

In recent years theatre and other arts performances have been sponsored by private companies – a great form of advertising by multinationals, at relatively little cost to them. Instead we should see arts as like education, infrastructure, libraries and other public services that we value, that should be paid for in large part from public spending. And not just the big national venues but small local arts centres. If we want to revive the high street what about an arts centre in every town?

When people say the money isn’t there, refer them to the IMF, not a friend of the left, which has now argued that rich countries don’t need to impose austerity because they can borrow easily and cheaply. In other words spend their way out of the crisis. Has the government – or Keir Starmer – got the memo?

Spycops given 00 status

The Labour decision to abstain on the ‘Spycops’ bill going through parliament doesn’t surprise me but it is disgraceful, nonetheless. It shows the difference between Jeremy Corbyn civil rights campaigner and Keir Starmer former DPP. Credit to the 35 Labour MPs who voted against it and to Dan Carden who resigned from the shadow front bench to do so, but I don’t know what is the excuse of MPs like Sam Tarry or Cat Smith, who have worked with Corbyn and with organisations like Stop the War and who really should know much better.

The bill allows for undercover agents to be able to commit torture and killing. We already know enough to recognise that there is a long history of deceit, denial, collusion, entrapment involved with these undercover cops. We know that some have formed sexual and other close relationships with people on the basis of lies. None of this makes me feel safe or secure, but concerned about levels of secret policing and surveillance, which this government is keen to increase.

The reason for the abstention is that Starmer does not want to look soft on security – supposedly in the ‘red wall’ towns that went Tory in December’s election. But most people will worry far more about the security of having a decent job and income and the security of having a permanent home, than they will about whether undercover agents can carry on with impunity.

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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’.