Matt Hancock in June 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles Matt Hancock in June 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles

Lindsey German on the return of Conservative sleaze and Keir Starmer’s unfit-for-purpose Labour Party

That the government is incompetent to a quite remarkable degree is beyond debate, but one has to assume that incompetence can only be a part of the problem. After all the government has advisers, civil servants and vast sums of money at its disposal to deal with the problems we face. So while ministers like Matt Hancock or Suella Braverman certainly lack talent and ability, they are not the main causes of this government’s failings. Those lie elsewhere.

There is firstly a stench of corruption which lies at the heart of government. From awarding contract after contract – few going through the tendering process – to its friends and cronies, to the wholehearted defence of advisers and ministers like Cummings and Williamson from public outrage, there is a cynical and self-serving desire to help and enrich its own exactly while penalising and impoverishing the rest of us.

So a government which keeps sick pay levels so low that many people who may have coronavirus are going to work, which has set Universal Credit so low that it is impossible to live any kind of decent life on it, and which is presiding over record levels of child poverty, thinks nothing of spending half a billion pounds on boosting the restaurant industry (many of them large and lucrative chains) with discounted meals which will have disproportionately benefited the better off. 

Then there is the ideological commitment to putting business first in the supposedly free market which means dragooning people back to work so that they can support retail and hospitality industries, carry out expensive journeys that they don’t need to make, all to keep going a model which depends on expensive rents and property prices, and which demands public services are based on the same principles.

This is the context of both major rows this week – the failure of testing and tracing of Covid-19 cases, and the reneging on the EU withdrawal agreement over Northern Ireland, which has brought outrage from not least three former prime ministers.

The testing scandal is hard to credit in one of the richest countries in the world. People are being offered tests sometimes hundreds of miles away, and many are now being told there are no tests at all. This is taking place against a background of rising cases and hospital admissions for Covid-19, and the certainty of a second wave as the winter approaches. Britain’s second and third largest cities, Birmingham and Manchester, are in partial lockdown. There are now Covid-19 cases in sixty-five Manchester schools. As the universities return in the next few weeks we are likely to see a further spike in cases.

There is a lot of talk of a ‘moonshot’ delivering millions of instant tests by next year, but who can believe this when in the here and now we are dependent on Serco and the serial failure Dido Harding who are allocated millions of pounds for a completely failed system? At every stage of the pandemic the British government has failed to deliver the most basic requirements to deal with it, from PPE to testing and tracing, to enforcing proper protection of workers.

We know that the infections are going up, just at a time when more people are going back into education or work. Yet the landlords’ protection party is ending the ban on evictions for most areas from this month. It stands by while companies try to enforce worse conditions on workers under cover of the crisis. And it is facing a wave of job losses when many people will find themselves in dire circumstances.

It’s not these issues which have exercised John Major, Tony Blair and Theresa May, however, but the reneging on part of the EU Withdrawal Agreement relating to Northern Ireland. Outrage in Brussels, Dublin and Westminster as this is a breach of international law. You could be forgiven for laughing at those who say this will damage Britain’s standing in the world. The Iraq war, the confiscation of Venezuela’s gold, and the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers coming to our shores all spring to mind.

Boris Johnson is playing hardball on this despite knowing that the agreement made early this year would result in a border down the Irish sea. He now rejects that as helping to break up the United Kingdom. Barnier on the other hand wants to enforce EU limits on state subsidies to industry which, as many of us have pointed out over recent years, would prevent possibilities of state intervention and ownership.

Johnson’s corrupt government is now heading towards a no deal Brexit. It will be interesting to see how many Tory MPs vote against him on this – not enough to defeat him I guess. But one consequence of this development must be the opposite of what Johnson desires – the acceleration of the break-up of the United Kingdom, which would be no bad thing, especially if it resulted in a united Ireland.  

It’s becoming hard to see how Johnson can survive all this long term. He is in a weak position but shored up by a big parliamentary majority, and a media which has done little to hold his government to account. However, as these crises develop that can change quickly.

Backing the wrong horse

One of Johnson’s greatest assets is the weakness of the opposition. I have been, as readers of this Briefing will know, sceptical about Keir Starmer from the beginning. Nothing I have seen has remotely led to me changing my mind. Too many of the left have been uncritical of him, or even enthusiastic (although this must take some effort). I notice that there is a somewhat concerted attempt by some on the left to rally people behind Starmer, most recently a former Corbyn adviser Andrew Fisher.

He said recently, ‘The left has got to build an alliance with that centre-left of the party that voted for Starmer – and a lot of Corbyn supporters who voted for Starmer – to defend that kind of programme. That’s the sort of constructive role we’ve got to play.’ The alternative argues Fisher is to return to a ‘sealed tomb’.

This has echoes of previous responses to defeats of the left within Labour, especially after the defeats of Bennism and the fight against rate capping, both in the 1980s, when there emerged a ‘soft left’ as opposed to the ‘hard left’. The arguments were similar in that they suggested compromise in exchange for influence. The compromises continued while the influence waned. Militant, which led the resistance to rate capping and the poll tax, was driven out of the party. And if the organised left in Labour was in a sealed tomb until Corbynism took it by surprise, that was in part a situation of its own making, as it remained on the margins of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements of the early part of this century.

I will be discussing these questions on Tuesday with Mike Wayne and Holly Rigby, as we try to make sense of the major social and political upheavals around us. One point I will be making is that whether socialists are in or outside of the Labour Party, the most important question facing us is how we can advance the struggles of working people and widen the audience for our ideas. Frankly that isn’t going to be done by snuggling up to Starmer. It will be done by supporting those movements and campaigns that are erupting – from renters to BLM to NHS protests – and by building a new politics around them. You don’t need to be a genius to work out which side Starmer will be on.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

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’.