Burning buildings Burning buildings. Graphic: Pixabay/ArtTower

Lindsey German on a Tory party that cannot cope and a pitiful pseudo-opposition

Sometimes I feel like we’re living through a disaster movie, specifically the bit near the beginning where someone says ‘that volcano won’t erupt’ or ‘that high rise building won’t ever catch fire’. And of course it does, and those supposedly in the know have got it wrong, despite repeated warnings. Still, it’s odd to find ourselves living through a disaster movie version of Groundhog Day. But having gone through Covid-19: the disaster earlier this year, we are now facing an almost exact repeat.

There was no excuse for lateness and lack of preparation last time, given the experiences in China and Italy. But one might have expected the Tories to have learnt from experience. Not a bit of it. Instead, schools and many workers were forced to return, people were encouraged to eat out and go to pubs, while at the same time any increases in cases were blamed on people acting irresponsibly.

Many of us warned that returning the universities would rapidly lead to a rise in Covid-19 cases. And that’s exactly what happened. Instead of calling a halt to students travelling to their campuses, and switching all teaching online, the universities – desperate to collect tuition fees and lucrative hall fees as well – backed up by the government, confidently assured everyone they were Covid secure.

Now thousands of students are being held hostage to government incompetence and disregard – already locked up in their halls, unable to go out, often without proper access to food or laundry, and isolated in what is often their first year away from home. In some cases they have security guards blocking their way if they attempt to venture out, and in Scotland they have been told that returning home would be illegal.

Meanwhile staff in universities are being pressured to go onto campuses where incidences of infection are rising in order to fulfil the demand for in person teaching, something which was quite rightly abandoned back in March when the first lockdown occurred. Lecturers and other staff are clearly unhappy about this is many cases, especially since there is no reason why the majority of courses cannot be taught online to protect health. There are already disputes brewing in a number of universities over safety and their numbers are likely to grow.

Students too have justified grievances. Many must now be suspecting that they have been brought onto campus in order to justify their tuition fees and in order for them to spend money on rent and in bars and restaurants. They are being told to take down their homemade posters in their windows which are their only contact with outside. Their enforced isolation is not what they came to university for, and they should be demanding fees and rent rebates. Those not yet in isolation are being blamed for holding parties and other gatherings, but it is hardly surprising that many young people break lockdown rules given the government’s own very contradictory attitudes to the health crisis.

Take this fact: there are now over 21 million people in this country who are under some kind of extra lockdown rules, including inhabitants of some of the largest cities, most of south Wales, Scotland and swathes of the north and midlands. There is talk of a London lockdown. Given the rapid rise in cases and what we know both from other countries and from the earlier lockdown, there are going to be further restrictions very soon. So why not do it now?

It would seem that even the hapless Boris Johnson was tempted by a further lockdown but was overridden by the chancellor Rishi Sunak, who threatened to resign. Sunak is articulating the views of not just many in big business but also of many Tory backbenchers who want to stress ‘keeping the economy going’ rather than public health and safety.

Hence the ludicrous and dangerous decision to allow pubs to stay open to 10 – as if the virus only operates in the last hour of pub opening. Hence the drive to get students back.

At the same time, Johnson has been forced to reverse his earlier demand that people go back to work in offices. Now the message is to work from home where possible. But there are far too many exceptions to this – not least university staff.

Perhaps more importantly, the jobs scheme devised by Sunak to replace furlough which ends next month is clearly about as bad as it could be. It should not have been uncritically endorsed by Frances O’Grady of the TUC outside Downing Street Most analysts think that while it might help with some higher skilled job retention it will do little to protect less secure or poorly paid jobs in many sectors. In addition many are now seeing notice of redundancy issued, meaning they will have no jobs at all by November. The TUC and major unions should be putting their efforts into fighting over jobs, not hoping that they can get a few crumbs from government and CBI.

So all the big issues surrounding the crisis – public health, growing infections, job losses and insecurity – are still there. And government has answers to none of them. This is at least partly the reason for the growing Tory backbench revolt against Johnson. This week will see two – one over Brexit and whether there is a deal, and one over MPs having a say on lockdown measures.

The government is corrupt and rotten and has failed over the crisis. It is also arrogating more and more undemocratic measures to itself and is going to ramp up fines and repression as a means of deflecting criticism from its own record. However we should not feel any comfort from such decisions being in the hands of some of the backbench Tories who support the kind of right-wing policies expressed on recent anti lockdown demos. Either way, we cannot rely on this bunch of corrupt politicians to act in our best interests.

And until these people accept that partial lockdowns, keeping pubs open and encouraging students to go on campus are actually increasing the risks and prolonging the threat of disease, we aren’t going to deal with the problem. As ever, students, workers, health workers and all those affected by the disease will have to take matters into their own hands to organise for their safety.

The writing is on the wall

Keir Starmer’s speech to the virtual Labour conference was a sorry affair. Introduced by Ruth Smeeth the former MP and CIA asset who led the attack on black activist Marc Wadsworth over charges anti-Semitism, no mention of Starmer’s predecessor who gave him a senior backbench position, repeated talk of patriotism and the family, the background a Union Jack rather than the usual red. It signalled the worst sorts of blue Labour politics. It also signalled that those who had supported Corbyn were no longer welcome in Labour, unless they were prepared to also accept the increasingly right-wing agenda outlined by Starmer.

A script taken from focus groups in the ‘red wall’ and written up by die hard Blairites, who seem to be calling the shots in Starmer’s leadership. Meanwhile, the people in former Labour seats who put their trust in the Tories will find little comfort for their families in the jobs package, which is likely to leave these areas even worse off – already average wages are lower in these seats than in most Labour seats. Nor will they find that talk of patriotism will do anything to improve their situation.

The message for those on the left of Labour could not be clearer. While many will still want to stay in and hope that things improve, they can’t say they haven’t seen the writing on the wall.

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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’.