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Conservative Home logo. Photo: Conservative Home UK

Conservative Home logo. Photo: Conservative Home UK

It seems the right is so worried about the left having better solutions they are inadvertantly writing articles in favour of socialism, finds David McAllister

This was bound to happen at some point. The left is now 'exploiting the Coronavirus for political gain' according to a piece in conservativehome.com by Charlotte Gill. It gets off to a rather laughable start, responding to John McDonnell’s argument that the government hasn’t gone far enough by claiming that 'a far greater issue for the whole country is left-wing activists.' It takes an impressive amount of fanaticism to claim that the left poses a bigger threat to the country than a global pandemic.

If the writer’s agenda was to demonise the left, then it does a pretty shoddy job. In part, she actually does the left’s job for us by directly quoting demands from Momentum for sick pay for all workers, or the renationalisation of all hospitals from a GMB activist. These people are supposed to be being quoted unfavourably, but I’m not sure it has worked. I wonder if the author even thought, while writing the article 'hey, that’s actually pretty reasonable'. To be honest, if I was on the right I’d actually be pretty hacked off with her right now.

Nevertheless, the article attempts to use a well-worn stock response from the right whenever public pressure puts it on the backfoot, or whenever left-wing ideas become more popular. That is to blame the whole thing on outside agitators who don’t represent ordinary people. Remember the hundreds of thousands of ‘Trotskyists’ who supposedly flocked into the party to elect Corbyn as Labour leader?

Firstly, you don’t exactly need to be well-versed in Marx’s writings to see how badly the government has handled the Covid-19 outbreak in Britain. Criticism of the government’s ‘herd immunity’ approach has been widespread, as has its jump to social control of individual behaviour without any serious moves to regulate employers forcing people to do non-essential jobs, or to introduce a programme of mass testing. These criticisms have come from ordinary people up and down the country, not to mention the World Health Organisation and even the Financial Times, which has countenanced the possibility that Johnson’s government may not survive this crisis. 

Boris Johnson at least paid lip service to the importance of accountability, giving assurances in Jeremy Corbyn’s last ever PMQs that they will continue to be held to account by the opposition. Though it’s likely that scapegoating of the left could come increasingly from the government if they come under more pressure. But if the government is facing criticism, it is because it is both deserved and urgent. It should not be suspended because there is a massive crisis. These are times for more democracy, not less.

Secondly, the government has introduced some measures, such as protection of workers’ pay, which are being described as ‘socialist’ in nature anyway. Policies which are similar to those which Corbyn and his supporters spent four and a half years fighting for. It would be a mistake however to describe these, or any future measures, as socialist. State intervention in the economy to varying degrees, depending on the circumstances, is an essential measure of any capitalist society. But the nature of that intervention can be influenced by pressure from organised workers and activists, so that they have a meaningful impact on our lives, beyond just saving the system from itself. Another example is during the 2008 crash, when we demanded democratic control of the banks rather than just bailing them out. As the Financial Times says 'Narratives will be built around this crisis and few will be about overfunded services or an overactive state.'

Who knew that a system based on market anarchy and casualised labour would be ill-equipped to co-ordinate a national response to a crisis of this scale?

Thirdly, what about the actual activist left? Have we exploited this crisis? Since last week, I have attended two excellent virtual meetings hosted by Counterfire and Stop the War Coalition, where there was some great discussion about the nature of this crisis, what it tells us about the system we live under, and what we can do to transform it. People’s Assembly will be hosting another such meeting called ‘Making Sense of the Crisis’. In addition, there have been a number of excellent articles from Counterfire and elsewhere shaping the discussion and our response. But this is not markedly different to what we do in any case. This is generally how the left builds and operates, even at the best of times. What about the huge anti-war marches in 2003? Were we ‘exploiting’ the Iraq War for ‘political gain’? What about the anti-austerity marches of the last decade? Were we ‘exploiting’ the decimation of vulnerable people’s lives for ‘political gain’?

If ‘exploiting’ a situation for ‘political gain’ means manipulating a situation in order to fool people and push ahead with deeply ideological policies, then during my lifetime that has overwhelmingly come from ruling classes and the governments which serve their interests. After 19 years of the disastrous War on Terror, it is now widely acknowledged that Bush and Blair exploited the atrocities of 9/11 to pursue long-standing policy objectives in the Middle East. After 10 years of austerity, it became increasingly clear to many that a crisis, caused by the banks, was being deflected onto ordinary working people.

But if ‘exploiting’ a situation for ‘political gain’ means organising ordinary people in response to a crisis which is being badly handled, and articulating the case for a better society which produces for human need rather than for profit, then I am sure that plenty of us would be more than happy to plead guilty to that.

So finally, yes, the left does pose a threat. Not to the whole country or its citizens, but to the government and the 40-year-old neoliberal system it exists to protect. This crisis has thrown a glaring light on to so many of the in-built injustices of modern capitalism. A system for which profit is king and humans merely commodities, to be treated like collateral damage should any crisis come along and disturb it. This explains Johnson’s dithering and delay, and now his attempt to police people without protecting them. But he is also very vulnerable right now to popular pressure, and the opportunity is there for us to organise and make sure that crucial demands are met to protect the most vulnerable from this crisis.

If we do this, then who knows - we might just be able to ‘exploit’ our way to a better world.

Tagged under: Boris Johnson Covid19
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