Boris Johnsen in Devon, August 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles Boris Johnsen in Devon, August 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles

The present series of U-turns shows the government is both incompetent and vulnerable to pressure from below as never before, asserts David McAllister

1) School closures

The Johnson government’s hesitation to close schools to the majority of pupils became one of the first and clearest indicators that they would resist anything which disrupts the neoliberal status quo – even during a spiralling pandemic, with clear warnings from countries like Italy of what was to come. 

School staffrooms were filled with genuine bemusement, as no-one could see the logic in banning mass gatherings, cancelling concerts, and closing pubs and clubs… but insisting that schools continue as normal.  I even recall one Year 5 child remarking “but school is a mass gathering!” 

The fact that they ended up having to go ahead with closures (albeit in the most chaotic way possible, with very short notice for schools and families) was a clear sign that the government’s highly neglectful approach could be overturned by a combination of mounting crisis and popular outrage.  Scientists would later report that introducing lockdown measures even one week earlier could have saved up to 30,000 lives. 

Nevertheless, ‘business as usual’ was eventually stopped in its tracks by ordinary people calling out the government’s dithering in the face of a clear and present danger.

2) NHS migrant surcharge

The government’s cruel and badly-timed policy agenda continued with the refusal, in the middle of a global pandemic, to eliminate the NHS surcharge for migrants, even with huge numbers of them working for the NHS or in other care services.  The surcharge was initially introduced by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in a cynical ploy to scapegoat migrants for ‘health tourism’, forcing them to pay for gaps in funding created by years of cuts and privatisation.

This surcharge was clearly seen as monstrous, and Johnson’s insistence that he’d “thought a great deal about this” rang completely hollow, as had his government’s attempts to appropriate the ‘clap for carers’ initiative. 

It was a combination of popular anger, the prospect of a commons defeat from Labour MPs, and even opposition from some Tory MPs, which forced him into another retreat.

3) Wider school re-opening

Although not a full U-turn, this was a long way from being a successful policy.  The National Education Union (NEU) played a huge role in applying maximum pressure to the government over its reckless decision to set a mandatory date of 1 June for wider re-opening.  It was simply nowhere near safe enough, the case number was still far too high, and there was no evidence that any of this would significantly change before the return date.  The NEU’s five tests for wider re-opening were not even close to being fully met.

The running of schools throughout this crisis has been a key battle between workers and the government.  The decision to first send back Early Years and Year 1 exposed the government’s real motivation.  This was not about education, this was about pushing parents back to their workplaces, which in many cases were also unsafe.

Determined campaigning from teachers and parents saw a massive increase in the NEU’s membership and number of reps, as well as the largest online union meeting in history.  These formed a decisive obstacle to the government’s wider agenda.  In the end, the return to school was chaotic and mixed, due to various schools and local authorities postponing, and defiance from parents who knew it wasn’t safe enough.

4) School meal vouchers

“It’s usually the case that over the summer holidays, free school meals are not available, schools are not there” went the cruelly dismissive logic of Tory Minister Grant Shapps.  Within a few hours, the government announced that they would be extending the school meals voucher programme into the summer holidays.

This humiliating U-turn, again, came as a result of a demand by the NEU and campaign work over child poverty, given a huge boost by footballer Marcus Rashford.  Boris Johnson backtracked by accepting that “children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the Summer” – something which didn’t appear to occur to him until pressure from below forced him to act.

5) All primary age groups to return to school before summer 

The crisis over a ‘return to normality’ in schools continued for the rest of the term, as many schools and parents continued to be understandably tentative.  The government had caused chaos for schools, who were struggling to meet the demands of splitting classes and staggering breaks and lunchtimes – and still without adequate testing measures.

From there, it was only really a matter of time before the government was forced to abandon its goal of getting all children back in school before the summer. 

6) A-Level results

This has been one of the most dramatic indictors yet of a government and system which exists to protect class privilege at the expense of everyone else.  In the absence of exams, the government chose to rely on a cruel grading algorithm.  Rather than awarding teacher-predicted grades, it based students’ grades on the stats for each school and region.  This resulted in the downgrading of around 40% of A-Level students, disproportionately from poorer backgrounds.

The outrage of students and teachers, who clearly saw this as a mechanism for deepening education inequality, overturned this very quickly with street protests up and down the country.  This crucial victory also raises larger questions for the fight against general education inequality, and the arrogant overruling of teachers who are, after all, the best judges of a student’s progress.

7) The eviction ban

Following warnings that thousands will lose their homes, together with pressure from campaign groups such as ACORN, the government was forced to extend the eviction ban by four weeks. 

This is a battle which needs to continue.  With an estimated 230,000 renters having fallen nto arrears since the crisis began, a mere four-week extension is nowhere near enough.  Tenants’ rights will be another key battle in this pandemic, and that will mean forcing guarantees of protection from a government which does not have the interests of ordinary people on its agenda.

What next?

All of these U-turns have two key things in common politically. The first is that that they are not purely cases of incompetence.  These disastrous policies are all directly a result of a government which prioritises private profit over public need.  This has been the case for many years.  But in a crisis situation, it begins to look more and more untenable.  Johnson’s determination to maintain the ‘business as usual’ of neoliberalism is repeatedly clashing with the need to protect the working class and the most vulnerable from the virus and the economic effects of the pandemic.

The second one concerns where real opposition to this government is coming from.  It is notable, yet unsurprising, that Starmer is not mentioned in any of the above examples.  He has repeatedly shown that his ‘constructive opposition’ amounts to barely any opposition at all.  The working class and the left, whether as Labour members or not, need to look to the unions and the social movements if we are to resist the wreckage of jobs and living conditions, and overturn the government’s cruel mission to force ordinary people pay the price of this crisis. 

But with a U-turn government in charge, this is not only vital but achievable.

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