Lindsey German on the Covid-19 lockdown, Tory mendacity and the US revolts
Boris Johnson was determined to end the lockdown on June 1. And that is what he is doing, regardless of any scientific evidence to the contrary. He has spent the last month easing the lockdown with the ludicrous slogan of ‘stay alert’ which has seen more people mixing in groups and assuming that in effect it was over, so this was okay. This has coincided with more people travelling on public transport, being told to go back to work and – most importantly – the return of some classes to primary schools.
There is only one reason for this and it has nothing to do with safety or the science – after all, the UK still has by far the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in Europe – but to do with the priorities of the government and the class it represents. So it worries about the threat to profit and making money that is the consequence of keeping us safe. From the very beginning, far too many businesses kept open, for example in construction, and bosses like Mike Ashley at Sports Direct tried to claim that their shops were essential. There has been little adequate PPE for most key workers.
The only safe way to end the lockdown is when there is a proper system of testing, tracking and tracing in place. No one even pretends that this is the case. Leaving all the changes for another two or three weeks would make it much more likely, firstly that death and infection rates would drop much further, and secondly that such a system could be at least up and running. Even government scientific advisers are making this point and given the repeated claims that the government is following the science, you might expect at least a bit of hesitation.
Nothing so sensible from Johnson and the clowns around him. Instead they are forcing the opening of schools, against the wishes of the teaching unions, many parents, and the evidence of other countries with much lower rates that reopening of schools has led to an increase in cases. There is much talk of helping vulnerable children by reopening schools, however the schools have always been open for such children and those of key workers. The conditions under which children and teachers return to schools will be highly restricted and very stressful.
Indeed it is becoming clearer that, while Johnson has forced through the reopening on 1 June, it is already widely contrasted, and many schools will not be readmitting students today. Further plans for secondary schools to reopen look like coming to very little, and there is scepticism about whether they can be back to normal even in September.
Nonetheless, the aim here is not children’s education and wellbeing, it is getting their parents back to work and getting people out spending money again – hence the incomprehensible decision to open department stores and shopping malls in two weeks’ time. Expect a spike in cases quite soon if people flock to shops, beaches, pubs (already open selling takeaway drinks near me).
We are supposed to weather all this, travelling and working often in dangerous conditions, while employers sack many thousands – a situation sure to get worse by the autumn, when any furlough pay is likely to end. Many workers have taken steps during the lockdown to protect their work and conditions and to exert some control over where and how they work. This has been at the heart of the teachers’ campaign against school opening, of the tube drivers refusing to accept unsafe rosters, and of unions campaigning for proper social distancing in factories and building sites. This question of control – who decides what is acceptable and safe – has time and again been a central issue in workplace struggles, and it will be more important in the coming months.
Union membership figures rose last year (from a low base admittedly) even before the coronavirus crisis. They are rising during the crisis with a range of unions reporting big increases. Unions build out of struggle, and there is going to be a lot of that to come as we fight for the right not to die because of work.
Cummings not going
Probably not a lot to add to the Cummings fiasco, but a few points spring to mind. The episode has seriously weakened Johnson personally, and further shown – as the whole crisis did – how feeble and incompetent is his government. It has created major divisions within the Tories and will have lost it a lot of votes from precisely the people fooled into supporting Johnson last time round. It has also punctured the myth that Cummings is some sort of genius and a figure to be feared. He is a nasty right-wing fanatic, who was in the right place at the right time over Brexit.
But he really doesn’t have – as he likes to boast – his ear to the ground in terms of how most people feel. His scorn for the elite comes from inside that body, of which he is very much a part. That’s why he felt he could break lockdown rules with impunity, because that’s what they all think. Many of his class and with his income have been visiting their second homes, driving around in their huge cars and assuming the rules don’t apply to them.
I suspect he won’t be in his position more than a few more months, and I have thought for some time during this crisis that Johnson too may not last that long. They have both shown themselves to be incompetent liars, and that isn’t what the British ruling class needs in time of crisis.
From Mississippi to Minnesota – still burning
The brutal killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police and shown on social media has triggered a rising anger in the US which won’t be easily damped down. There are so many questions which I’m sure young and old alike – and black and white – will be asking. The struggle for black rights in my lifetime has gone from demands to desegregate the south to the mass protests around Black Lives Matter. The background to my teenage years was television footage of the huge protests in Mississippi and Alabama, the hateful policies of those like Governor Wallace, and then the uprisings in the northern cities like Detroit, where it became clear for those of us who didn’t directly experience it that the legacy of slavery wasn’t just in the former slave states.
Since then we’ve had decades of police racism and killing, the criminalisation of black people, the continued denial of full rights to vote, the institutional racism which consigns black people to the worst jobs, housing and education. We’ve also had affirmative action, changes in the law and a black president, as well as many black mayors across US cities. None of this has altered the racism which lies at the heart of US capitalism. Trump is of course particularly obnoxious in his racism and has helped the growth of a racist far right. But it goes much deeper.
I’m very interested in some of the debate among US blacks about strategy and whether riots are the answer. My response to that would be no they’re not but at least they put the question on the table. That’s why I would always defend the violence of the oppressed against the hypocrisy of those who condemn it while justifying much greater violence from the state. But it’s also true that riots represent a cry of rage, not a worked out alternative. One alternative has long been that blacks have to fight for their own representatives. That hasn’t got us far: black mayors find themselves on the frontline of managing the system for the ruling class. On a much bigger scale, this was Obama’s role.
So when people say go out and vote against Trump in November, no one can argue with that. But no one should think that Biden (or any other Democrat) will do anything other than continue with business as usual. So it isn’t a strategy. That requires organisation of black people where they live and work, alongside the whole of the working class with all its oppression, in order to fight both racism and the system which breeds it.
The US is unique in terms of its development and the centrality of slavery to the way that racism has developed there. Britain is steeped in some of the same history of slavery, colonialism and racism. Solidarity with all those fighting in the US and here over this issue has to be central to socialism.
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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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