Lindsey German on Covid-19, Labour collusion, the dictates of capital and remembering WW2
Don’t be fooled by talk of division in the cabinet over when to end the lockdown. Every sinew of business and government is being strained to this purpose. For sure, Johnson and Hancock are very nervous about this because they know that they already have one of the worst death records from coronavirus anywhere in the world, and because all evidence from other countries and from scientific projections is of a rapid second spike in the virus if the lockdown is ended too early. But they also are desperate to ‘get the economy moving again’, and that will mean taking risks with working people’s lives in order to ensure it happens.
Every day the media carries this theme, predicting dire consequences if the lockdown continues. Boris Johnson’s speech when he returned from convalescence praised private enterprise in a nod to those businesses whose only concern is maximising their profits. Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer has been a great asset here, putting all his emphasis on getting an exit strategy from the lockdown. His refusal to criticise government policy in any serious way is not a lack of insight or courage. It is a deliberate policy choice and is shared by his shadow ministers – see for example Anneliese Dodds refusing to ‘point the finger’ at George Osborne for ushering in a decade of austerity.
We are in the most serious crisis of our lifetimes but there is no parliamentary opposition. This is despite a government which has fixed the figures over testing in the most blatant way, delayed lockdown as long as possible, has failed to provide PPE and has let the virus spread through care homes with very high numbers of resulting casualties.
Not pointing the finger has seen Labour’s support in the polls go backwards, as Johnson’s rotten record is allowed to go unchallenged. The lockdown was never particularly rigorous compared with Italy or Spain, for example, but the talk of ending it is leading to an unofficial easing of it. Anecdotal reports show more people in shops and on the roads, and this will continue as more employers pressurise their workers to restart in non-essential and often dangerous industries, such as construction (much of which never stopped).
Opinion polls show, however, very sizeable majorities who want the lockdown to stay, including keeping schools, shopping centres, restaurants and pubs closed for much longer. This is despite the pressure to ease it. They demonstrate that ordinary people understand the threat not just to them and their families but to wider society – and they are right. Cue for government and compliant media to change the ‘messaging’ – making it, in the words of Guardian editor Kath Viner, more ‘nuanced’.
In itself, this shows a horribly condescending attitude to the rest of us. Government and experts were always surprised by how much people supported the lockdown, which was more effective than they expected. Now they are using the people who brought us the Tory election victory and the Vote Leave campaign to find a new slogan along the lines of ‘get back to work for Britain’.
We can expect much more of this in the days and weeks to come. Working people have nothing to gain from acceding to these demands. A profit driven return to work will lead to further unnecessary deaths. And they will use talk of the crisis, sacrifice, and all being in it together to launch fresh attacks on working class people’s living and working conditions. Instead, we should be looking at how to change a society which puts such emphasis on profit at the expense of the public good and of health and safety. Already there have been many protests and disputes over working conditions and changes as a result – these have for the most part been through the actions of rank and file workers, sometimes not even in unions, rather than from the top of the unions.
We know that there is going to be a huge problem of unemployment worldwide. Here in Britain, there are short term government support schemes, but they will be gone by summer. A retail executive said recently ‘There are between three and five million people currently furloughed in the UK. A lot of them are actually unemployed. They just don’t know it yet.’ The evidence of layoffs already points to millions unemployed for the first time in decades. BA and Rolls Royce have announced major job losses, as have other aviation industries.
Immediate questions raised are ensuring those people receive sufficient income to live decently, and that new jobs are created which address the needs of society as well as creating work and income. There must be major investment in health and social care, and it must be taken away from private companies and threats of privatisation. We do not need the levels of air travel we have become accustomed to, flying rich people to business meetings for example. We know it is hugely damaging to the planet. Those jobs can be converted to socially useful ones. There are far fewer homeless on the streets during the pandemic – this is a result of government policy and it raises the question of why the levels of homelessness have been allowed to grow for so long.
The answer to that is austerity and inequality. Studies now show coronavirus hits the poorest hardest. Who knew? Levels of health inequality are rife in Britain and all the major capitalist countries. The worst affected area is Newham, one of the poorest London boroughs, where poverty, overcrowded housing, poor working conditions and high levels of health problems are the norm. The London borough, along with the two next worst affected, Brent and Hackney, also have very high ethnic minority populations, who are disproportionately affected.
The changes needed have to tackle all these and many more questions. That change will only take place through the actions of working people – and it will be bitterly resisted by Johnson and his new best friends on the opposition benches.
A travesty of the truth
Instead, we can only prepare for a mass patriotic nostalgia-fest from the people who gave us this crisis. Friday marks the anniversary of VE day, when the Second World War ended in Europe. We are promised an address by the queen, a speech from Winston Churchill, a Vera Lynn singalong and hours of endless BBC nostalgia.
Let me make it clear that I have no trouble with people marking this anniversary. It was a terrible sacrifice for so many – in Britain but also much more so in many other European countries which were occupied. I come from the generation brought up by those who fought in the war. My mother celebrated in the West End on VE day, and often became tearful when listening to Vera Lynn. I am full of respect for that generation.
However, I find the way in which this anniversary is used to promote the policies which disrespect that generation absolutely sickening. Two months after VE day Britain voted Churchill out and ushered in a landslide Labour government which nationalised industry, created the NHS and built council houses. We have to assume that many of those dancing in Trafalgar Square were already fed up not just with war but with the Tories. None of this will be touched on in establishment narratives on Friday, because it will challenge the theme park view of the Second World War which Johnson trades on with his ridiculous Churchillian references.
This is a government which has slashed funding for the NHS, privatised everything in sight, presided over the worst housing crisis since the war, and will continue to do so. Its callous disregard for that generation – many of those still alive now in care homes where they have been put in danger through lack of testing and PPE – is palpable.
Working class people came out of that war wanting change, saying that nothing should be the same again. Many of us will come out of this crisis saying the same. This fight will be crucial not just for us, but for future generations.
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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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