Lindsey German on government idiocy, Black Lives Matter and Starmer’s Thermidor
It sometimes seems as though we are in a parallel universe. One major city in England, Leicester, has been maintained in lockdown for another two weeks after a spike in coronavirus cases – a spike of which the local authorities were only belatedly aware because the government kept the so-called pillar 2 testing results from them for nearly two weeks.
Meanwhile, the government has been actively encouraging people to end the lockdown by visiting pubs, restaurants, theme parks in order to ‘help the economy’. This is despite the fact that deaths from coronavirus are still alarmingly high at around 100 a day and that the total national death toll is one of the highest in the world.
The reopening of pubs is perhaps the most reckless move so far. Scenes from London’s Soho showed thousands of people on the streets, most of them not able or willing to socially distance. Increases in infections in countries which have opened pubs and bars earlier than England have been noticeable, most obviously in states such as Texas and Florida in the US, and in Germany and South Korea. There have also been higher rates of infection as a result of schools opening.
There is also no justification for pubs reopening apart from profit. The links between the Tories and the big brewers have always been close and this policy has been driven by the likes of Tim Martin, the owner of Wetherspoons. The treasury has allegedly been forcing the pace on this despite (no doubt feeble) protestations from Matt Hancock and even Boris Johnson.
I don’t quite know what they think will happen. It doesn’t take a crystal ball – there will be a second spike, the government will drag its feet over another lockdown, but will eventually have to implement one, and the economy will go into an even deeper recession. The government seems to take the view firstly that perhaps none of this will happen and it will get lucky, or that at least in the meantime companies will make lots of money.
This is of a piece with its catastrophic handling of the coronavirus crisis from day one. Lack of PPE, testing, funding of the NHS, slowness in closing schools and imposing the lockdown, the criminal policy over care homes, have all contributed to the very high death and infection rates. But there is of course much more.
At every stage, the government has doled out contracts to its friends in private industry with predictable consequences – for example, lack of laptops in schools and inefficient testing. Its early promise to use public money to help alleviate the crisis is being reneged on all the time. The homeless are no longer in hotels, the furlough scheme will soon come to an end, the hated universal credit system is back in its full sanctions mode. Those industries and sectors crying out for subsidy, from theatre to the universities, are ignored. Yet private companies which are now ruthlessly cutting jobs and paying obscene amounts to directors and shareholders are in receipt of furlough money and receive no criticism from the government.
Rishi Sunak is making an economic statement this week which will point to some government policy to deal with the mass unemployment that looms when the furlough ends. Whatever it is, it will fail to deal with the scale of the crisis. There is talk from the Resolution Foundation of vouchers for everyone to spend on hospitality industries and physically in shops. Yet there is no talk of a major hike in the minimum and living wages which would do much to help the low paid, or for pay rises for frontline staff.
The NHS is demanding another £10bn to tide it over for the rest of the year. The government endorses clapping on our doorsteps but won’t cough up what is in reality a relatively minor sum to maintain our healthcare across the board.
More importantly, there is no long-term plan – because to do so would be to strike at the heart of Tory ideology. But there has to be a questioning of why when people stop buying consumer goods and going to pubs this has such a devastating effect on the economy. Why is it impossible to conceive of an economy where there are good, well paid and secure jobs, which produce useful and necessary goods and services, and where they don’t depend on long hours of commuting and stress.
It would be nice if Labour could pose, let alone answer, many of these questions. It strikes me that Labour is worse equipped to deal with this crisis under Keir Starmer than under any other leader (with the possible exception of Neil Kinnock) in modern times. It has simply no guts, no vision, no empathy with the poorest. It will not stand up to Johnson in any serious way (I’m not talking about winning a few points at the dispatch box which so impresses The Guardian.) Certainly Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott would have had a much better go at challenging the government.
So the huge questions now facing us – the virus itself, the job losses which are now announced daily as many companies use the crisis as an excuse to restructure, the problems of the economy, the scourge of low wages which leaves millions in work depending on benefits, the lack of secure green jobs, the way in which society is structured around work – will have to be answered elsewhere. That means through the unions, the movements and the political left, both in and outside Labour, organising to demand that we need a new normal and that we won’t pay for the crisis.
Black Lives Matter: the backlash
The BLM movement has been hugely successful and still continues to demonstrate and organise even in some of the smallest English towns. It is having a profound effect in terms of the debate about racism. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves everyone agrees. Let’s start from the top. Last week both Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson went out of their way to distance themselves from the movement. Starmer called it a ‘moment’, which didn’t go down well, and then attacked it for wanting to defund the police. Johnson went on LBC – one of the most right-wing British radio stations – to say that he would not ‘take the knee’ because he didn’t believe in gestures(!).
This is quite deliberate on the part of Johnson, who is playing to those in his party and beyond who hate the idea of even having to recognise, let alone do something about, racism. Starmer may just have been displaying the lack of empathy I referred to above but given his usually over-cautious approach that too seems unlikely.
Then there’s the police. It is obvious that policing of black and Asian people in the lockdown is in marked contrast to that of white people. There is a lot of stop and search and what can only be called harassment of young people in particular. The contrast between the riot police deployed to break up street parties (most recently in working class White City) with the relaxed policing of mainly white people in Soho is clear, and it reflects a level of institutional racism which most certainly has not gone away.
And of course David Starkey, the right wing rent a gob historian repeatedly given a platform by the BBC. His latest interview has led to his sacking from academic posts and curtailment of his publishing contract. His remarks round the 2011 riots were much decried at the time. Yet he was allowed to stay in prominent public positions for another 9 years. You only have to listen to a number of clips from that interview to recognise racism again and again.
These are all reasons why the movement is so important, and why we have to keep fighting racism which is endemic to the system.
Starmer on a roll
If you thought the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey was a one off, think again. Starmer is moving fast to isolate the left in Labour and will in the process be increasingly driven by the right. His backing for STV in elections for Labour’s National Executive Committee is the latest sign. The reluctance of his shadow ministers to put a clear alternative to Johnson on any issue allows the Tories to get away with one of the worst crises anywhere. There are a whole number of disputes and possibly strikes on the horizon which the left will support and Starmer will attack. Tower Hamlets Unison members are on strike against major attacks on their employment rights by a Labour council. The Labour leadership is silent.
It is the shape of things to come. And those socialists in Labour will find themselves increasingly constrained and under attack. The battles ahead will be fought outside of Labour and in opposition to its leadership
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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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