Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak in Downing Street, March 2020. Photo: Flickr/Andrew Parsons Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak in Downing Street, March 2020. Photo: Flickr/Andrew Parsons

Lindsey German on Tories, Covid and the Jeremy Corbyn open season

He really can’t say he wasn’t told. Back in late September, government Sage advisers told Boris Johnson to bring in a short national ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown which would stem the rise the coronavirus cases and prevent a major second wave. That was ignored. Even after the news became public, the Tories continued on a path which paid more attention to business interests and the selfish concerns of Tory MPs than to the needs of public health.

Local lockdowns have failed, the tier system has failed, so now in a sudden panic Johnson has called a month’s lockdown for England. Yet even here the Tories are doing things by half measures. Schools will stay open, despite the medical evidence that infections have grown sharply among secondary students, and despite calls from the unions to close them. So will universities, again despite high rates of infection in a number of places.

This is just compounding previous errors. All evidence suggests the rise in cases began with the government’s “eat out to help” out scheme in August, increased again with the schools reopening in early September, and then was further boosted by the university students going into residences and on campus across the country. There is no good reason to keep schools and universities open now, except to keep as many people as possible at work and to ensure that the businesses that universities have become continue to receive fees and rents.

The only solution which will work is a zero Covid strategy, which closes schools, universities and all non-essential shops, which prioritises essential workers, and which develops a proper test and trace system rather than the privatised fiasco run by the Tories’ mates which we have at present.

Such a strategy would however require action of which this government is incapable. It is faction ridden and incompetent. Johnson’s speech on Saturday was aimed at appeasing his ghastly Tory backbenchers rather than anything else. It also repeatedly prioritises profit over health and safety. While it has handed over billions to private companies for a variety of services which should be provided by the NHS (and would be provided much more efficiently if so), it has refused to fund free school meals during the holidays. Meanwhile the over half billion pounds spent on subsidising usually the better off in Eat out to Help Out faced no such restriction.

Repeatedly we have seen parsimony when it comes to essential workers and the poor – none of the ‘heroes’ of March and April have been rewarded with decent pay rises – contrasted with largesse and lack of scrutiny for the government’s friends in business.

This is a failed government presiding over a series of failures in different areas of life – a health service seriously weakened by cutbacks and privatisation, an education system where teachers are reaching breaking point as the virus impacts on an already run down and underfunded schools, a hollowing out of local government, a growth in inequality and poverty exacerbated by criminally low unemployment and sick pay.

Johnson has been given a free pass on much of this by the failure of the opposition to oppose the government’s response to the crisis. Keir Starmer has belatedly woken up to the fact that there is growing anger about this response but has in every case been behind public opinion.  The Labour mayor of Manchester made a much better job of opposing Johnson’s policies, including only paying two thirds of wages for those furloughed in the north. He got little support from the shadow cabinet. Starmer’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, is defending keeping schools open.

This has allowed Johnson to spend weeks prevaricating and delaying. Even on Friday, the day before lockdown was announced, his deputy Dominic Raab was still defending the three-tier system and denying the case for a national response. The need for a zero Covid response is clear but it will mean fighting not just the government but its loyal opposition as well.

Compromise won’t cut it: the only way to stop a witch-hunt is to fight

Jeremy Corbyn made a completely true statement in response to the EHRC report on antisemitism in the Labour party – that reports of it had been exaggerated by his political enemies. The rapid response from the leadership that replaced him, and which has been so poor on so many questions, was to suspend him from membership and remove the Labour whip.

This is simply staggering on so many levels. Corbyn was less than a year ago the leader of the party which fought in the general election. Despite the hype about the worst result in a century, Labour actually received more votes in 2019 than it did in the 2010 and 2015 general elections. Starmer only got elected as leader because he promised continuity with many of Corbyn’s policies and party unity, so persuading much of the Corbynite left to vote for him.

To treat Jeremy Corbyn like this is both vindictive and foolish. It is also the continuation of a vicious witch-hunt which – like those of the 17th century – counts denial of the charge as evidence of guilt. Corbyn was not even given the courtesy of seeing the report in advance – whereas those named by Chilcot had a month to prepare their defences. Some of those same people are now calling this Labour’s greatest shame, forgetting illegal wars, arms sales, abstention on the welfare bill, and on laws denying civil liberties.

Jeremy Corbyn has been targeted repeatedly not because he is antisemitic – he certainly is not – but because his politics of international solidarity and anti-imperialism are so threatening to the ruling class of this country, and also strike at the heart of the consensus established by both main parties on these matters. It is his support for the Palestinians, opposition to imperialist wars, and long record of challenging the support for repressive regimes like apartheid South Africa or Saudi Arabia.

His support for the Palestinians has brought him into conflict with the Israeli state and with its supporters, including our own government. But their accusation that it is antisemitic to criticise the state of Israel is false and must be shown as such. Antisemitism exists throughout society and must be opposed everywhere, including in the Labour Party. But we can fight antisemitism while showing solidarity with the Palestinians, who are suffering increased displacement and aggression through blockade, illegal settlement and annexation.

When faced with a witch-hunt there is only one correct response – to stand up to it. Behind this witch-hunt is an attempt to silence criticism of Israel and more broadly to silence the anti-imperialist left. Apologising, self-censorship, criticising others for bringing the witch-hunt on themselves, are all common responses to these sorts of attacks – but they are counterproductive. There are always those demanding more apologies, more heads to roll, more guilt by association.

The left inside Labour needs to understand this. Many of the self-opinionated and self-promoting spokespeople for the Corbyn movement (usually men) have criticised him for responding to the report or have sanctimoniously instructed us all to read and digest it before saying anything. But that would have left the witch-hunters even more space to spin the report and would have been seen as an implicit admission of guilt.

In any case this report is not about objective consideration of antisemitism in politics, nor about whether it contains some good points. Its function is twofold: firstly to ensure that Labour’s complaints policy is conducted by forces outside the party – an incredible concession for any organisation to make, and one which will come back to bite Starmer and his allies. Its second purpose is to create a narrative that Labour was antisemitic under Corbyn and now is not because of Starmer. While the report doesn’t actually say this, it was the gist of most headlines, while the mainstream media almost universally supported the suspension of Corbyn.

The viciousness of the attacks against Corbyn are all about politics not process – about ensuring that the left never gains control of the Labour Party again. Those socialist MPs who support Corbyn should demand he is reinstated and if not should sit as independent socialist MPs. They could then fight clearly for socialist politics and put pressure on Starmer in the way that the ERG did on Theresa May.

I’m not in the Labour Party, and I would argue that we can build something better outside it, but whether you stay or go – we have to fight for socialist politics, and we have to fight against the witch-hunt. Too many of the left are ducking and diving instead – so the serious left has to stand up. 

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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’.