Lindsey German assesses the balance of forces
It seems amazing to even ask this question. Every description we get of the effects of coronavirus on the National Health Service suggests a situation worse than was predicted. Figures have jumped dramatically in the last week to more than 1000 deaths overall. The figures for cases are meaningless, since it is extremely difficult to get tested, even if you are a member of NHS staff. Reports of these staff working in horrendous conditions, without proper protective clothing and drastically short of intensive care beds and properly trained staff.
At every stage government action has been too little too late. From January it failed to plan for this, failed to order protective clothing, or ventilators, or to prepare for testing and isolating which is now acknowledged as the best means of containing the virus. Criticisms from doctors, nurses, ambulance workers, have been coming thick and fast. One of the most excoriating has come from the editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton, who has laid into the government for its lack of preparedness and its refusal to test, saying that the medical journal had argued for this over two months ago.
It is obvious to many of us that the response to the crisis is not just a reflection of the past few months but has been overlaid on to an NHS which has been starved of resources, drastically understaffed, has seen its beds and funding cut, and part privatised by stealth. So the need to respond to an emergency has revealed just how little slack there is in the system, with even quite serious operations cancelled, and midwives directed away from their normal roles.
This virus has hit a world already suffering austerity and record levels of inequality. These have resulted from political decisions.
Which is why it seems quite counter-intuitive that a Tory prime minister, who has supported all these austerity measures and who has been totally dismissive of policies that could lessen inequality, has seen his poll rating increase. The Tories and Johnson are riding high in the polls, with some giving them the best figures for decades. How can this be?
Perhaps the most obvious reason is because with a national emergency on this scale, the response of many people is to hope and believe that the government can be trusted to do the right thing. It is a perfectly reasonable response, because no one wants to think that their situation is being made worse by the government. Indeed if we look at the poll ratings of prime ministers and presidents across the worst affected countries, all of them have seen an increase, even the ludicrous Donald Trump who wants to see churches full on Easter Sunday. In this sense, it is like the beginning of a war, when there is real fear and uncertainty about what will happen.
A very likely reason why the government has become more popular is by abandoning its earlier policies. The fact that Johnson has been forced to stop talking about herd immunity, and about our loved ones dying, and has imposed a widespread lockdown against his wishes, and has adopted a bottom-up protest of clapping the NHS has also helped his ratings, given that these have coincided with what many people wanted to happen.
Another reason – and this is reflected in the polls – is the lack of Labour opposition to government policies. I think that Labour could and should have been more critical of the government and especially its refusal to test on a much wider basis (most people who have the symptoms are not being tested). Jonathan Ashworth has been terrible at holding the Tories to account. Then there is the never-ending and now invisible leadership contest. Keir Starmer, the favourite to win, has been all but silent on it. So Labour is not putting forward any clear alternative view. The TUC has praised the government. Unison is the biggest health union, but we hear little from its leadership which is critical of the government.
Much of the labour movement argument is framed as ‘now is not the time but afterwards we will hold the government to account’. That’s a disastrous strategy which will make it harder to hold them to account later. It is probably inevitable that some people won’t want to hear any criticism of what is happening. But that makes the responsibility of the left and the unions even greater. Those who work in the NHS and other essential services are the best placed to know exactly what the problems are. And their representatives can’t just wait until this is all over.
The polls reinforce some of the talk on the left that the coronavirus crisis will help reinforce the right politically. It would be foolish to rule out this possibility, as the right will use the crisis to reinforce scapegoating of migrants and foreign nationals. Already Ian Duncan Smith has echoed Trump in his blaming of China for spreading the virus. We have already seen the lack of support for Italy from the rest of the EU in dealing with the crisis, and the closure of borders and authoritarian measures across the world.
But the virus has also led to huge levels of collective solidarity, organising and community involvement. This is true of the people working in health, education, food distribution, emergency services. It is also true of neighbours, friends, work colleagues and volunteers who are helping to ensure that the sick and the vulnerable are cared for. In Britain, the clap for the NHS last week brought millions to their front doors, streets and balconies to applaud the health workers. The Tories did their best to co-opt this, with Johnson and Sunak – in the height of hypocrisy - clapping in Downing Street, and with the media evoking the ‘Blitz spirit’.
However, if the Tories have any sense they will fear this outpouring of emotion and support, which was a really moving and collective effort. Thatcher’s chancellor Nigel Lawson once said that ‘The National Health Service is the closest thing the English have to a religion’, adding that the Tories were seen as unbelievers. So this is dangerous territory for a bunch of bankers, hedge fund managers and privatisers. Support for them now can change very quickly, both in terms of immediately dealing with the crisis and how we live in the future.
The sense of solidarity and caring for people is palpable to all of us at present, as is the very strong sentiment both that things will not be the same after the virus, and nor should they be. There will be demands not just for more public spending but for different ways of organising work and society. Here the left has a great deal to contribute and must start arguing that it can only be achieved with a major redistribution of wealth.
Tories being Tories, even the considerable sums of state spending they are committing to dealing with the crisis are extremely variable in their outcomes. Business will be protected and shored up. Companies are already refusing to pay rent – and will refuse to pay taxes and pension contributions – which they will largely be allowed to do. Already there are many companies forcing non-essential workers to continue often in blatant breach of the rules on social distancing. Often these are workers in the most low paid and insecure work.
Those same workers will receive at best three months of income – well below their actual (often minimum) wage. They will still have all their bills and rent to pay and will just build up personal debt for which they will get no assistance. Evictions can take place after three months. This is surely a time when the unions and the TUC should launch a recruitment drive, offering new members free membership for a period to begin to get organised.
Despite the talk of us all being in it together – or even of socialism – this is the state intervening to protect itself and big business. While Johnson may benefit from the sense of us fighting a collective crisis, many class issues are already visible, and will become more so as the virus has more effect.
So now is the time to make demands, including proper funding of the NHS which means billions more every year to ensure it does not lurch from crisis to future crises. If we don’t do that, we will allow the people who have done so much damage in the past to get away with it in the future.
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’.
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