Keir Starmer's "forensic" opposition amounts to siding with the government against unions and public health it seems, writes Katherine Connelly
The government dragged its feet over shutting the schools. The government delayed even longer declaring a lockdown. We are now witnessing the consequences: it has been predicted that government inaction will lead to Britain having the highest death toll in Europe.
This morning the new Labour leader Keir Starmer used an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme to urge the government to provide an exit strategy for the lockdown this week and suggested that schools should be among the first to go back.
It is a signal to the establishment and big business that they can trust Starmer to look out for their interests. And it’s deadly for working-class people.
Starmer’s intervention can only strengthen the government in its desire to return to ‘business as usual’ as soon as possible. No wonder Boris Johnson was so keen to invite him to government meetings – a ‘privilege’ denied of course to Jeremy Corbyn.
And part of this signalling to the establishment also involves undermining trade unions. Just yesterday, the National Education Union called on the government to put an end to speculation that the schools would soon be opening. Within 24 hours, Starmer directly contradicted this, encouraging further speculation and placed himself on the opposite side to the union that represents teachers.
This is even more grotesque when we think how Starmer could have used his high-profile interview. There is a huge social crisis over Coronavirus. There has been nothing like the level of testing required; there is a massive shortage of ventilators, the numbers are set to increase painfully slowly.
Workers doing the jobs we need to save lives are themselves lacking in life-saving PPE, nurses report producing makeshift protection from bin bags, leading to a large number of healthcare workers losing their lives. The government’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock disgustingly suggested that this shortage of PPE could have been due to overuse, rather than government ineptitude.
Other frontline workers have found themselves similarly exposed with inadequate protection: 21 London transport workers have lost their lives. Bus drivers report being afraid to work because of the lack of protection.
There has been pressure on the elderly and people in care homes (including those with learning disabilities) to sign Do Not Attempt CPR forms.
These people aren’t likely to get a big interview with Radio 4 reported throughout the day. That was given to Starmer because he is leader of the Labour Party; “labour”, Sir Keir, means “work” – as in what those you are supposed to represent do all day. But he didn’t use this interview to express the pain and fear and anger that working-class people feel about how the government is treating them and how they have been left unsafe at their places of work. He used this interview to ask: when is the government going to get more people back into those workplaces.
Badges, medals . . . but no more pay
One thing Starmer has also suggested is giving a medal to NHS workers. Not to be outdone, at today’s government briefing Health Secretary Matt Hancock unveiled a special badge for care workers.
Hancock took the opportunity to remind everyone that it’s not a clap for the NHS, it’s a clap for our carers which people have been joining on Thursdays. He was certain that the “public value your work in care as much as I do.”
There’s a clever trick being pulled here. Under pressure because of the high number of deaths in care homes – it is estimated that half the deaths due to Coronavirus are in care homes and that these numbers are not being included in official figures – and the scandal of Do Not Attempt CPR, Hancock has to be seen to address this sector.
And he is seen to acknowledge that care workers are so often overlooked, made to feel undervalued and invisible. The cause of that, however, is not the lack of a special badge. It is due to the privatisation of this work, where many people are precariously employed by agencies, and low pay. According to Payscale.com, the average hourly rate for a care worker is just £8.19 – that’s the average, meaning many are paid less. But none of that is remedied, there is no suggestion of bringing care work under the auspices of a national service like the NHS, no: a badge.
Boris Johnson’s praise for healthcare workers also hit the headlines at the beginning of this week, as he singled out two individuals in a video message. There is no doubt that those individuals would have worked with incredible dedication and care befitting their profession.
It is, however, indicative of establishment contempt for ordinary people that the gestures towards healthcare workers have been represented by superficial symbols, like badges and medals, or individual praise, rather than a recognition that workers, collectively, in the entirety of this sector deserve the dignity that comes with being properly paid and in secure work. Ten days ago Matt Hancock (badge inventor and Health Secretary) said “now is not the time” to discuss a pay rise for nurses.
Now is the time that lives are at risk. It is precisely the time to demand safety, decent pay and conditions, and for concerns of workers and trade unions to be treated with the utmost importance. In this context, Starmer’s intervention is not just unhelpful, it is dangerous.
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Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
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