While the government is in disarray and Starmer fumbles, the opposition is building in workplaces, writes Chris Nineham
'We support the new measures as we have supported government measures all along'. Keir Starmer on Boris Johnson's new 'six person rule' announced on Wednesday. No mention of the wild inconsistencies of a policy that limits to six the number of people you can invite into your home but allows pubs, restaurants and shops to stay open. No mention either of the double standards of this response to an alarming rise in the Covid numbers when the government is busy pushing workers back into the workplace, children back to school and students back to universities.
The government's position is so incoherent that Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College commented on Thursday that it would be good 'to hesitate and maybe pause the headlong rush to get people back to offices'. This came just a week after Alex Brazier, the Bank of England's executive director for financial stability strategy and risk, said it was “not possible” for a mass return to city centre offices across Britain this autumn due to Covid guidelines, concerns over the health risks, and transport capacity issues.
Starmer's 'sensible' approach doesn't stem from any tactical calculation of Johnson's strength or credibility. This is a government in disarray, even the BBC has pointed out that team Johnson has u-turned at least twelve times over the last few months.
The problem seems to be that the Labour leader shares the government's general priorities, in particular its central focus on getting business back on its feet whatever the cost. His beef with Johnson is over delivery rather than direction. Faced with a deadly pandemic and a government that combines startling incompetence with indifference to suffering, you would expect the opposition to be putting health and welfare front and centre. Instead Starmer seems to buy the idea that balancing health and people's livelihoods is a zero-sum game.
It is not true that measures to control Covid inevitably create other social or economic problems. They can be implemented in ways which minimise damage to society and to people's well being. The furlough could be extended as in other European economies, the eviction ban could be kept in place. Money could be spent on school buildings as the teachers' union is demanding to make social distancing at school more practical, universities could be subsidised to make online learning easier for at least a term, the Tories crucifying cuts to mental health services could be reversed. A joined up track and trace system could be organised - it has been done in other countries.
As it happens, such a co-ordinated and decisive government response to the virus would almost certainly be better for the economy in the long term than the kind of stop start mixed messaging we are getting from the Tories.
But achieving all this would require a relentless focus on doing whatever it takes to save lives and control the virus. And it would involve imaginative and ambitious state intervention in consultation with local authorities and communities. Starmer isn't going there. He is desperate to bury the memory of Corbynism and his economic instincts are pretty much as laissez faire as the government's.
In the absence of effective official opposition, some working people are taking matters into their own hands. In the last few days there have been strikes over safety and job cuts at Glasgow and Brighton Councils as well as the ongoing industrial action at the Tate galleries. Workers at Burton's cake factory in Edinburgh have walked out demanding more pay and their convenor is confident that "after everything they have done for the business, and particularly against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic, our members are ready to fight to make their work better." Train drivers on the tube are balloting for strikes against restructuring and staff at many universities are pushing back against plans for face to face teaching. Meanwhile thousands of health workers will be protesting for a proper pay rise all around the country this Saturday.
Expect more of this as attacks on jobs and conditions escalate.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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