Keir Starmer at Prime Minister's Question Time, 10 June. Photo: ITV News via Youtube Keir Starmer at Prime Minister's Question Time, 10 June. Photo: ITV News via Youtube

When the Tories are caught between their donors and the polls, we deserve better than the present docile opposition, argues Chris Nineham

There is a row going on at the heart of the establishment. Backed by Rishi Sunak, Ian Duncan Smith and other senior Tories, big retailers, brewers and other business interests are demanding that the lockdown is swiftly brought to an end. The British Beer and Pub Association in particular is leading the charge for an end to the 2 metre rule because they are worried that it will cut into their members’ profits. 

Brewers and retailers are among the big Tory Party donors; they have a lot of weight in Downing Street. But Johnson and his immediate entourage are panicked. They know their track and trace plans are still way behind schedule. They know if they move too fast they may get blamed for an upsurge or second wave in the pandemic. As a BBC journalist reported on Thursday ‘insiders say the cabinet knows they messed up once and the public won’t forgive them if they foul up again’.

So the government is terrified it won’t survive a second wave of the virus but is under growing pressure from business and its own members to take measures that are likely to lead to just that.   

To make matters worse, having presided over by far the worst response to Covid 19 in Europe, and one of the most disastrous in the world, all the signs are Britain’s hollowed out economy is going to tank more dramatically than any of its competitors. 

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development is predicting that the UK will suffer greater economic damage from coronavirus than any country in the developed world. They are suggesting there may be an 11.5% fall in GDP in Britain during 2020, greater than in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the US.

There is particular concern that joblessness is going to spike when the government’s furlough scheme comes to an end, with especially high unemployment expected for hospitality workers. 

Teachers, parents and some councils inflicted a massive blow against plans to lift the lockdown earlier week when the government had to scupper plans to open all primary schools before the summer. They have shown that popular pressure can force this very vulnerable government to change course. 

In this situation Keir Starmer’s positioning of the Labour Party is wrongheaded. Rather than welcoming the decision to stop millions more children go back to school, he joined the chorus criticising the government’s retreat. For him too it appears that lifting the lockdown and getting back to business is priority number one.  

Of course maintaining social distancing and isolation measures exacerbates a number of existing social problems. But the rush to open up is potentially fatal. What is needed is not a capitulation to business interests but campaigns to put people’s safety first and for more intervention to alleviate problems. 

It is widely agreed that for all its horror, the pandemic has opened up a chance for fundamental change. Well this is the moment to take it. In the short term the furlough scheme, evictions ban and mortgage holidays should be extended again and a much more serious tracking and tracing regime should be implemented. 

But polls show the vast majority believe everyone should be guaranteed work long term. And is it too much to ask that funding to end homelessness should be made permanent, and key industries should be guaranteed with government intervention?

Of course not. A principled opposition would be calling for just these kind of transformative measures, not pushing for a return to a normal that everyone knows is going to be a nightmare.  

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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