Lindsey German on Cummings, Covid and the reassertion of working class organisation
Whatever Boris Johnson thought he was doing on Sunday, when he launched his unrepentant, arrogant, fact free defence of Dominic Cummings, it clearly hasn’t had the desired effect. Instead, opinion ranging from a number of Church of England bishops to his Islington neighbours who berated Cummings from their open windows, has if anything hardened against both him and his boss. That seems to me will still be the case after Cummings’ ludicrous press conference which contradicted his own written account of the illness.
In fact it has brought a wave of anger which Johnson should be extremely worried about. There are millions of people who have made often heartbreaking sacrifices in the past two months. They have stayed away from family members, been unable to attend funerals of loved ones, been denied the ability to hold newborn grandchildren, and have found it impossible to interact physically with family and friends even in times of grief and emotional turmoil. Many have also gone to work in dangerous conditions, sometimes living apart from their children to ensure they do not catch the virus. Nearly all of them are in far worse financial and housing conditions than Cummings, who despite his ridiculous persona is very much part of the elite.
There are two things which have made people particularly angry: the idea that there is one rule for the government, their friends and the rich generally, and another for the rest of us; and the complete refusal to acknowledge any remorse about Cummings' behaviour which made the press conference quite shocking in its display of contempt for everyone who dared to question this flagrant breach of the lockdown. Both require a level of lying about what the government guidelines have been. Back in March we were told to self-isolate if ill, in our primary residence (not a problem working that one out for most of us), not to travel, not to visit relatives, whether we were ill or not. Now we are suddenly told that it’s ok to follow your instinct on this, if you are concerned about your childcare and finding ‘the right kind’ of childcare as Johnson put it.
The explanations about government guidance don’t add up. Nor too do the actions of Cummings and his family. It’s unfortunate for them that both he and his wife, Mary Wakefield, decided to go public on their illness in the Spectator. She also did a truly cringeworthy piece on Radio 4's Today programme, where she emphasised how ill he was. You don’t have to look very closely at any of these boastful and self-centred pieces of journalism to see that they cannot possibly be true if set against the times Cummings was known to be in Downing Street or Durham.
Johnson is doing himself real political harm by clinging on to Cummings. There is enough dissatisfaction with his handling of the Covid crisis, and no doubt a great deal of it internally close to government. So why is he doing it? Partly because he relies very heavily on Cummings to do the strategic thinking of which he is clearly not capable (but given recent evidence, perhaps Cummings isn’t quite as clever as he thinks he is). Partly also that Johnson and Cummings share the same contempt for the rest of us. That was all too apparent at the press conference, where questions were ignored or answered with bluff repetition from an increasingly tetchy Johnson. They really do believe that there is one law for them and another for us.
Perhaps more importantly however is what lies behind the defence of Cummings. He wanted herd immunity, a term now dropped because it was so unpopular, but a policy which is being carried out by stealth. He and Johnson are desperate to lift the lockdown and ‘get the economy moving’ regardless of what it means for the spread of the virus. That is why the press conference also highlighted the partial return of schools from next week. They were determined to double down on that even though teachers, parents and many others feel it is not safe and not necessary – and is being forced through for political reasons.
The easing of the lockdown relies on getting the schools back. It is however completely unjustified. Only yesterday the hospital at Weston-super-Mare announced it was closing its doors because it had too many Covid-19 cases. While the death rate is going down, it is doing so very slowly, and after the UK becoming the worst place for the virus in Europe, and one of the worst in the world. At every stage the government has shown cavalier attitudes to safety, whether PPE or testing and tracing, and has allowed widespread flouting of health and safety regulations.
Cummings and Johnson are in this together and they want a return to normal as quickly as possible. We are supposed to pay the price. But they have expended a huge amount of political capital in the past few days. Even with the very feeble opposition from Sir Keir, I can’t help feeling that all that support they hoped to solidify in the ‘red wall’ areas across the north of England is drifting away.
If you look at the history of trade unions, growth of union membership tends to come in waves. We appear to be on the edge of one of those waves again. And that fact alone is going to make a big difference to how working people come out of the lockdown and how confident they feel to take action to defend their living standards.
There are increasing numbers of workers joining unions, most spectacularly in the teachers’ union NEU which is seeing a big increase in members and in union reps. The union has been at the forefront of fighting the government’s reckless campaign to send several years back to school for the remainder of term, which runs the risk of causing a new spike in the virus (the numbers ill with Covid-19 are in any case declining very slowly in the UK.) But the transport unions, health unions and most other major unions are also seeing rises in membership that they haven’t seen for a long time.
The coronavirus crisis has led to massive changes in the way people work: many are working from home, isolated from fellow workers and friends and family. Millions more are working in key industries often under dangerous conditions, doing work that is essential from intensive care nursing to emptying bins or delivering food. Then there are those furloughed, receiving 80% of their wages but with the threat of future unemployment looming. Yet more are working in non-essential work but have been told they must do so or risk losing their jobs.
All of these situations are in different ways putting strains on workers with many employers trying to enforce work without proper PPE or distancing. They are also in cases like Rolls Royce and British Airways trying to impose redundancies on swathes of the workforce, while at the same time expecting government bailouts.
The rise in union membership suggests that considerable numbers of workers are finding themselves in conflict with the employers over jobs, wages, and health and safety. They therefore want the collective solidarity of the union to protect them from attacks. Factory workers, warehouse workers, NHS staff, tube and bus workers in London have all been taking action to roll back management attacks. In some cases, they have taken effective control of the labour process, deciding when and how they work.
But there is something else going on here as well.
We know that many of those doing essential work have been low paid, often on zero hours or other insecure contracts, often migrant workers, and whose jobs have been regarded as ‘unskilled’ (as I said a few weeks ago, a fairly meaningless term which increasingly means that they can be fobbed off with the minimum wage). There has been a complete change in social attitudes to these workers today. It is patently obvious that society could not run without their work. On the other hand, the hedge fund managers, commodity sellers, managers and estate agents can be dispensed with for months on end without any substantial social decline – in fact the opposite.
This fact has been important in developing class consciousness among different groups of workers and it is one of the features which is helping the growth of the unions.
That was true back in the history of how working-class people organised. They turned to the trade unions in large numbers in the late 1880s, when the ‘new unions’ won real victories in the course of organising the unskilled, including women and immigrants. These fights were led by some of the poorest workers in one of the poorest areas of the country – the East End dockers, match women, gas workers, tailors and many others. It was true again in the years of the Great Unrest before the First World War, when transport, docks, mining and factory workers all struck.
Unions grew rapidly during both world wars, as labour shortages gave workers more bargaining power. Then in the 1960s and 1970s union militancy, against a background of long economic expansion, followed by a sharp recession, created another great wave of unionisation which reached its peak in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher came to power.
There were different circumstances which led to the strengthening of unions, but common to all of them there was a growth in working class confidence that their work was valuable to the employers, and that it could command higher wages and better conditions if workers combined in order to organise.
So we’ve got an important coming together of workplace conflict (the class struggle which Marx described as sometimes open, sometimes hidden), a growing sense that some of the most valuable work in society is underpaid with appalling conditions, and a third element – the political aspect of trade union organisation.
That might seem a bit counter-intuitive, given that we have seen a bad defeat for Labour in the election and an effective Thermidor in the Labour Party, with the right wing driving out the left from positions of influence and Keir Starmer promising only ‘constructive’ criticism of this appalling government. But if we look at previous waves of unionisation they are reflections of political developments as well.
This will be a major component of any new growth of unionisation, and the industrial disputes that will accompany it. The importance of some of the recent disputes, including that of the teachers, has been the way in which it has become a much wider question about the welfare of children, the safety of workers and what is the role of education. Despite the defeat of Corbynism, millions of people in Britain identify with many of its policies, including funding public services, taxing the rich and ending inequality. These ideas and many others – such as creating decent green jobs – will be at the heart of working-class struggles.
We are not there yet but coming out of the crisis we have to fight to achieve this change. The response of the union leaderships has been mixed – a very strong lead from the NEU while the main health union, Unison, seems all but invisible at national level. My own union, UCU, should have moved much quicker nationally and more forcefully, given the major crisis in Higher education. And the union leaderships have been too quick overall to work closely with a government which is frankly insupportable.
However, it will not be the union leaderships who determine the success of these potential struggles. All the previous waves of unionisation have seen very high levels of rank and file organisation, and this is likely to be the case again.
It is becoming increasingly clear that British capital is determined to make workers pay the cost of the crisis, and this will lead to real conflicts. The unions are our first line of defence, and a rise in working class struggle would be a huge political advance not seen since the miners’ strike – and that’s more than a generation ago
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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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