Counterfire publishes this piece by Emmerson Webster, Chairman of Panther UK, as a welcome contribution to the debate about the Labour Party and the left today
This pandemic has struck at the most unfortunate moment for the British Labour party and trade union movement. Knee deep in the shifting sands of a three-way leadership contest, with flags flying in all directions and no candidate taking any chances and stating a clear direction.
The Corbyn leadership, hamstrung by a shortening shelf life, chose correctly to concentrate on the rights of workers. The focus has been on trying to ease the burden on the least able in our society – supporting them to cope with the fallout from containing the virus. Many working people in Britain today, exactly like those in the developing world, live a hand to mouth existence. They are one wage payment ahead of disaster with no savings and a limited personal safety net. This is the true definition of wage slavery and is a sad indictment for the 6th largest economy the world. This is also the reality for a large section of the party’s base, making pressing the government to safeguard workers, as well as businesses, a vital task in this moment.
With all of this going on the hapless Conservative government heaves a sigh of relief.
On 31st Dec 2019, China was forced to report to the WHO a new deadly and highly contagious virus capable of triggering a pandemic. UK government public health scientists were placed on high alert to the unfolding dangers. Soon after, the full details of the virus, its epidemiology, genetic code, infection characteristics and well-rehearsed containment procedures were communicated to all governments and the world watched. Semi-autonomous Hong Kong, city-state Singapore and South Korea in the region responded immediately to China’s lead with the result: far lower transmission and consequently fewer deaths despite being closer and more connected to the then epicentre of the outbreak.
The attention paid by the international community to the affairs of the UK shifted from drama and amusement at its parliament over Brexit to alarm and shock horror at the announcement of Boris Johnson on 12th March that “many families will lose loved ones before their time”.
The UK government and paid scientists turned their backs on experiences of Asia and WHO and constructed an approach contrary to every other government and scientific community grappling with the issue. The government were not ordering the closures of schools, cancellation of large public events and provided no extension to testing to meet the soaring need.
Even a sceptical Donald Trump went even further than our government; doing the right thing for the wrong reason, by controlling international travel. Boris Johnson announced that the UK would pursue a herd immunity strategy.
The announcement led to head shaking disbelief and anger for two main reasons. Firstly, on a purely PR level, the language used was a nightmare. Though a valid scientific term, herd immunity is cold and scientific. As the people of the UK deciphered that “they” were the herd, they felt dehumanised and discarded. The second reaction was one of horror from experienced scientists and epidemiologists across the globe. Herd immunity is a key part of the scientist’s lexicon and related specifically to how an infectious disease moves (or doesn’t) through a population. The key objections raised by experts was the price of achieving herd immunity without a vaccine and limited knowledge of the virus. It was a price that the government had brushed off too easily, with Dominic Cummings neatly summarising the government's approach (which he of course denies), “if that means some pensioners die, too bad”. The Conservative Party were also caught out by their inability to answer key questions about the capacity of the NHS and how exactly the health service would be supported to cope with the impending tidal wave of virus suffering patients.
The Conservative Party was relaxed with the projection that up to 250,000 people could perish whilst building the ‘herd immunity’. After all, sacrificing a couple of hundred thousand old and vulnerable people to keep the economy ticking was a price worth paying. The ridiculousness of the approach lay not only in the cast iron certainty that it would cause more deaths and overwhelm an already overstretched health service, but it would precipitate even greater damage to the economy in the long run, through prolonging the crisis.
The Conservative Party meanwhile cared most about trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The small state neoliberal model is increasingly incapable of responding to any more than a minor disruption. To be able to deal effectively with the crisis, the Conservative government has been forced to ditch the religion of austerity, which has driven its approach over the last ten years in power. It was inches from requisitioning companies, labour and tools to produce equipment, such as ventilators. Only the unintended consequence of forcing non-essential businesses to close saved it from doing so as key sectors of the UK manufacturing base changed tack to focus on the virus.
As infection rates escalated, France threatened to close its border to British people, and key institutions, such as the Premier League, began taking decisions into their own hands. The effect of which was to force the government into a humiliating climb down.
Throughout this period there wasn’t a word from Labour and the trade union movement, behaving as if are they are seated at the top table in a national unity government. When, in fact, with a huge parliamentary majority, they were being treated like a mangy dog tied to the garden fence. At this point is was crucial for the Labour Party to point out the distinction between listening to scientific evidence and government incompetence, driven by blind loyalty to business and the economy.
The Tories, having seen the tsunami building in Asia and Italy, and knowing the true state of NHS after 10 years of neglect, threw their hand in the air – “nothing we can do here, let’s move on, many will die, so what”.
In the 11 days that followed this announcement there was hope that if the Labour party was otherwise engaged with its leadership niceties, the trade union leadership, whose members would be in the frontline bearing the brunt of the repercussions of this misguided policy, would wheel into action to stop this madness – not a whisper. For many years now the leadership of our trade unions has been opaque. Declining membership has weakened these once omnipotent instruments of workers aspirations.
Regardless, it does not explain why they have not defended their workers in the NHS. The people who are bearing much of the brunt of the government’s original misjudged strategy and who are struggling with a constant flow of critically ill patients, without access to testing or, in many cases, appropriate protective equipment.
The Labour Party has a unique means by which they can approach this crisis, one which the Tories could not hope to match. The Labour Party is capable of elevating the words of frontline staff through a potentially powerful trade union movement. With its unique structure, the party can have advance notice of upcoming and ongoing issues on the ground. This can and has already caught the government out. The Tories lack an organic connection to the working class. They only seek this connection at election season and, as such, have no way to process the concerns of the working class. Through elevating the concerns of front-line workers onto the agenda, combining these sentiments with scientists and experts, many of whom take seriously their responsibility to the health of the general public, and combining this into an opposition force – all the party would have to do is get out of its own way.
There is a conundrum at the heart of Labour party. The right wing, with Keir Starmer riding in on his newly groomed steed, is eager to throw away the last eight years and continue where Blair left off. Unfortunately for him, events have left him behind. Liberals and Tory governments, acting with neoliberal zeal, have imposed crippling cuts in the state budget and allowed the market to literally loot the state in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. To everyone in Britain including its Tory architects the narrative of austerity has run its course. This is obvious to all except Progress Labour, who close their eyes to the decline of social democracy all over Europe, as workers mete out punishment to those embracing the neliberal agenda – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland offer vivid examples.
Starmer and his acolytes will turn their backs on the workers' agenda by rejecting Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto commitments of house building and renationalisation of public services. They are doing so at precisely the same time as these policies are being embraced by the Tories, in an attempt to keep the northern workers that put Boris in power. They are doing so at time when the weakness of our public services has been exposed like never before.
How will an establishment figure like Keir Starmer attract back the 62 seats northern seats that defected to the Tories? By promising to return Britain to the EU as soon as possible when we have not yet left? By not challenging, over the past few weeks, the ruthless disregard for the safety of the public of a Government more interested in profit than people?
Central to the paralysis of the Left is the issue of Europe. In common with the right wing of the party, left members are overwhelmingly pro-European and for an even wider range of issues. Where the left has an advantage over the right is that it is not deluded by the scale of the challenge to win back the north. What is of concern, however, is that the left is not challenging existing neo liberal EU priorities, which place business interests over the interests of citizens.
This was further laid bare last week in the hasty abandonment of Freedom of Movement (FOM) by the EU when Covid-19 struck. What was all the posturing about the Irish backstop if the rules, supposedly cast in stone, can be so readily dismissed when their own social stability is at risk. A similar action by the EU to suspend, rather than terminate FOM, when David Cameron went cap in hand, would have made avoided a leave judgement from the people of the UK.
Every socialist dreams of a united socialist Europe. Another Europe is possible from the one which we have now, and which is much the same as the old. FOM under the current conditions is not a socialist demand it is requirement of the bosses and has been rejected by the 62 constituencies of the North.
The left needs to come to terms with the fact that the European Union does not work for large sections of natural labour supporters who rejected the party at the last election.
We must never support reactionary ideas or turn our backs on huge battalions of our ranks. Crucially, we cannot leave them behind in the lap of reactionaries around Steve Bannon, the alt-right and Viktor Orban who has built a naked dictatorship under their noses and with their money. Orban and his government could not be in power without EU financial support. It must be a seminal acceptance of the Left that neoliberal globalization is not working for significant sections of the old industrial working class. They have been jettisoned for short sighted lower production costs abroad and the shrinking state provision at home through austerity. It is only from this vantage point that a coherent position on Europe can be developed.
The immediate opportunities for the left in the British Labour party are obvious. Though battered and bruised by the election defeat 2019, a significant force still exists within the party and in the PLP. A glance at the CLP endorsements for RLB provides a powerful reminder of its residual strength. Within the urban centres, the Black and Asian communities together with the youth who have decamped from the surrounding towns have reinforced the local working classes and progressive middle class to become an impressive citadel against the Tories.
These are Black and Asian communities who have watched a lopsided debate on racism play out within the party from the side-lines for the last 3 years. Is there a hierarchy of racism in the party? Why isn’t the continuing experience of Black and minority ethnic communities given the same attention as the issue of anti-Semitism?
The current unprecedented times, when the parlous state of our public services and the precarious lives of the majority of UK workers, has been highlighted in beaming fluorescent lights, the left must unite and challenge Starmer and his Blair impersonating acolytes to, quite literally, fight for our lives. High on our list of demands must be:
- Properly funded public services
- Reclaims the cities for the people not the property developers
- Build more social housing control over private landlords
- Fight for social justice against racism in employment, education, law immigration
- Implement environmental and pollution control policies
- Unionise gig workers
Keir Starmer ascends to power in very similar circumstances to which Neil Kinnock did in October of 1983, following a bruising defeat of a Left let by Michael Foot. In a follow up article, we will examine the parallels between our 2019 campaign and the failure to learn from the 80s experience. Keir Starmer must be reminded of this period.
Ushered in with the same reforming zeal to move the party towards electability, the party under Kinnock to its shame sat on its hands while Thatcher and the state bludgeoned the miners and their families in a year long strike. When he audaciously addressed the Miners' Gala at the end of the strike, a noose was lowered over his head from the gallery above, such was the anger.
Sensing her opportunity with the weakness of Kinnock’s leadership, Thatcher pressed on relentlessly with the Poll tax. Leaderless, bloodied but unbowed this galvanised the biggest people’s campaign since the 1945 and finally brought an end to Thatcher’s rule. All this while Kinnock did nothing in an attempt to look “electable” – take note Sir Keir.
Filled with contempt for her adversary, Thatcher herself mocked his undeniably fine oratory dubbing him the “Welsh Windbag”. The electorate did the same; he lost both of the elections in which he led the ‘respectable’ Labour party. This being despite the fact that the UK was on its knees and whole section of society were being ransacked by a rampant Conservative Government .
Any talk of national unity is a trap laid by Dominic Cummings to escape the blame and mask the Tory failure to support our NHS and other public services over the last 10 years. Don’t fall for it!
More articles from this author
- Welfare that makes you ill: The cruelty of the DWP
- Antigone: A shining example of disability-inclusive arts and thought-provoking theatre - review
- Women's liberation and the trans debate
- Stagecoach in Scotland: next stop, strike action - News from the Frontline
- 'Royal College of Burnout': Why lecturers are striking
- The Tories' Winter storm: meetings on the crisis in your area
- Lambeth College strike: ‘This is about people, not just about pay’