Lindsey German on a political crisis that’s far from over
One of Margaret Thatcher’s most famous remarks was ‘the lady’s not for turning’ as she determined to continue on her course of wrecking industry, destroying the welfare state and weakening the unions. It’s not a strategy followed by her successors in Boris Johnson’s government. His own personal ratings are falling and there is growing discontent among the Tory MPs. There seems to be a government U-turn every other day, all of them left to the last minute, suggesting either complete ignorance of any potential problems that their policies might encounter, or abysmal incompetence, or possibly both.
Most stark is the U-turn over the decision to rely on an algorithm which discriminated against poorer students to decide student A level grades, and to instead agree that teacher assessment would be the fairest way to do so. Education secretary Gavin Williamson was warned about the problems with the method back in July, and saw the retreat forced on the Scottish government for the same reason the previous week. But instead of a planned and orderly retreat from his policy, he insisted on it – as did Boris Johnson – for five days before having to retreat in the most humiliating fashion.
The whole mess over A levels – costly and unnecessary in every sense - was narrowly avoided with GCSEs, but there will be many consequences to it. Hopefully this will include a generation inoculated against voting Tory. It should also lead to a debate about what kind of education children need and how their progress should be assessed. But it also has huge implications for the market in higher education where an unseemly scramble for students with high grades from Russell group universities will lead to far fewer students in lower ranking ones.
During lockdown there was a bar on evictions by private landlords, delayed once already, which was meant to be lifted this week, but at the eleventh hour was extended for a month (which cannot begin to deal with the seriousness of the issue), a U-turn brought about by sudden government realisation that this would be both highly unpopular and have severe consequences.
Government has already been forced to extend the furlough scheme for longer than it wanted and may have to do so again, at least partially. It also will also have to deal with pitiful levels of unemployment and sick pay dealing with the onset of mass unemployment.
While the U-turns are welcome, they are not the result of any change of heart by this ruthless and uncaring government, but rather because of grassroots political opposition and protests. The A-level students played an important role in this – not because they turned out in huge numbers but because they symbolised a much wider sense of injustice about what had happened. The same is true of the renters’ and housing groups which have focussed on the iniquity of the plans and who have tapped into the widespread dislike of private landlords.
There are big struggles ahead as strikes look likely on London Underground, BA, Centrica Gas, as well as protests at the Tate Gallery and South Bank centre over job losses. By this time in August there’s a slight melancholy that summer is nearly over and that the days will get shorter and colder. This year the feeling is much grimmer as we contemplate a worsening of the Covid-19 crisis, compounded by colder weather, more likelihood of people becoming infected in enclosed spaces and a NHS crisis hitting hard.
Add to that a projected unemployment level last seen more than thirty years ago, a growth in homelessness, the impact of ongoing council cuts as a result of government failures to fund, and there are multiple difficulties which point to a failure of the whole system.
The government has shown itself incompetent and incapable in relation to all these issues. Overriding all of them however is its continuing response to Covid-19. All the talk is of getting the schools back in just over a week’s time, even though schools reopening has led to a rise in Covid-19 cases across Europe. How this is expected to work without extra staff and buildings to allow a safe environment is not explained – we are now told that it is safer for kids to be in school than not – but we know the R rate is rising and that more younger people are contracting Covid-19. Even if the risks to them may be less, they can pass it on to older people.
The solution to this from the Johnson government seems to be keep older people indoors while allowing the rest to keep going out and spending money – and of course going into work. That’s why the messages sent out about the pandemic are often completely contradictory or illogical – in parts of Lancashire you can’t have people from outside your family round your house, but you can go to the pub. People coming back from holidays abroad in certain countries are being urged to quarantine, but there is little mechanism to ensure that they do.
The two major issues facing us this autumn are defeating the spread of Covid-19 – and, as has been said repeatedly, the first spike here hasn’t really ended – and stopping the attacks on working people’s jobs and wages. Schools should only reopen if really safe to do so for both students and staff, and if students can be transported to and from school safely. There are as many dangers in universities which go back next month and where halls of residence will be a major problem to keep safe, as will many campuses themselves. No staff should be pressurised to work in these environments.
We have a government which cannot be relied on to keep us safe, and which is pressing on with its market driven privatising policies. We have an opposition which is uninspiring, dull and frightened to be too critical of a failing government for fear it will seem unpatriotic or irresponsible. The minority now taking to the streets over a range of issues is hopefully the herald of a hot autumn. We’re only a short way into this crisis.
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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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