Alex Snowdon on second wave austerity, Starmer’s Labour party and Friedrich Engels
The Tories’ announcement of 16.5 billion extra funding for ‘defence’ was very swiftly followed by a leak of Treasury plans to impose a pay freeze on public sector workers. The juxtaposition is a revealing one: vast amounts of wasteful, pointless spending on the military while workers are told to accept a real-terms pay cut. Tory priorities.
The ‘defence’ funding pledge was not accompanied by any serious explanation of who, or what, the UK needs defending from. It appears to have been motivated by short-term opportunism – an attempt to shape the political agenda, unite his own MPs and get on the front foot after a series of U-turns and humiliations, from the embarrassing retreat on meal vouchers during the school holidays to the sacking of Dominic Cummings.
Boris Johnson’s announcement sends a clear signal to Washington that the UK will be a loyal subordinate to its interests, as it has been since 1945. It should serve as a reality check, too, for anyone who believes that a Biden presidency will adopt progressive foreign policy. Biden has previously indicated that, like Trump, he wants European countries to contribute more to the Nato budget. Johnson is getting his reassuring overtures to the new president in early.
The real sources of insecurity today are in the realms of public health, the economy and the environment. We are dealing with the interlocking crises of a devastating pandemic, an economic slump and climate change. Additional spending on arms and military technology and personnel will do nothing to address these problems – and is, to a great extent, intended as a distraction from them.
The contrast with Tory neglect of public services is glaring. Schools have been forced to remain fully open since September, yet with almost no extra funding to deal with the effects of resurgent coronavirus. There is now the prospect of a pay freeze affecting millions of workers, according to reports of plans being drawn up by chancellor Rishi Sunak. The boost for the military also contrasts with cuts in the international aid budget.
The talk of a pay freeze is a sign that a new round of austerity is being threatened. Emergency measures, such as the furlough, were taken to rescue the economy. We have seen a level of state intervention that we wouldn’t expect from the Tories, but this was more akin to the bank bailouts of 2008 than any indication of long-term spending or investment to benefit working class people.
The Tories are determined to make workers pay for the crisis. The speculation about a pay freeze is already accompanied by divisive and dishonest rhetoric designed to put public sector against private sector. But it is all workers who – in a wealthy and deeply unequal country and after a decade of austerity – deserve a pay rise.
The real divide is between the mass of working people and an increasingly rich elite. Class division is what matters. The Tories will seek to obscure this divide in favour of talking about how we all need to pull together, tighten our belts, and other well-worn clichés, while actually pursuing policies that protect big business and the wealthy at the same time as slashing pay and public spending.
This is happening as the Tories are floundering, in utter disarray, as coronavirus transmission continues at high levels. A lockdown in name only was never going to be enough. Data suggesting that schools are major sites of transmission is conveniently ignored because ministers are determined to keep them open.
A vaccine is promising, but tens of thousands of people could needlessly die before it is rolled out. We need a harder lockdown now – plus properly-coordinated testing and tracing – to prevent much more death and suffering.
Labour: ruthless to the left, craven to the right
Imagine what might be possible if the Labour leadership was even half as ruthless in its dealings with the Tories as it is in its treatment of the Labour left. The hostility of Starmer and those around him is mainly directed towards the left, not towards the government.
Starmer’s decision to refuse Jeremy Corbyn the Labour whip is outrageous. Corbyn was until April the leader of the Labour Party, twice elected with thumping mandates.
It involved effectively overturning a decision by an NEC panel, which had ended Corbyn’s suspension and allowed him to remain a Labour member. It constitutes precisely the sort of political interference in Labour’s disciplinary processes that was meant to be a thing of the past.
This is part of a sustained political assault, not merely a disciplinary matter. It is a political witch-hunt aimed at the left. It seeks to weaken the left as a whole, not just the man who was for several years its figurehead, and delegitimise entirely valid opposition to Israeli apartheid. It cynically misuses the serious issue of antisemitism to pursue a political vendetta.
One of Corbyn’s great assets as Labour leader was his history of anti-war and international solidarity campaigning. He represented a different approach to foreign policy to the old cross-party subordination to the Washington consensus. This, more than anything, was what made Corbyn a reviled and dangerous figure for the Labour Right.
It is therefore poignant that, in the same week as these renewed attacks on Corbyn, we witnessed Labour front benchers welcoming the Tory pledge to spend massive sums on the military. That is a shameful stance for Labour to adopt, but it’s a powerful signal of what we can expect under Starmer. It also makes it harder for Labour to coherently oppose the prospective pay freeze. It will be much more vulnerable to Tory attacks along the lines of “Where will the money come from?”
There have been other examples of Labour weakness in the last week. Shadow schools minister Wes Streeting suggested that Labour will no longer call for scrapping the hated Ofsted, which has long been a source of unnecessary stress and pressure for school staff.
Labour’s response to Tory greenwashing – with the government laughably trying to position itself as the champion of a green industrial revolution – was pathetic. Starmer’s Labour has been quietly retreating from the radical measures on energy, jobs and the climate promoted in Labour’s 2019 manifesto.
Since the pandemic began, most of the genuine opposition to the Tories has come from outside parliament. That will continue to be the case. Socialists need to look beyond Labour to find, channel and strengthen the sources of resistance to this government.
Engels at 200
On Saturday it will be 200 years since the birth of Friedrich Engels, lifelong political collaborator of Karl Marx. Engels represents an uncompromising anti-capitalism that speaks to us today.
His hatred of the social and human misery that accompanied the growth of capitalism is all the more relevant in an era when capitalism dominates the world. He documented the terrible impact of capitalism in his early book ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’. He later supported Marx in develop a far-reaching systematic critique of the system.
He was also among the very first to identify what Marx and Engels called ‘the gravedigger of capitalism’: the working class. This emphasis on working class agency was a thread running through Engels’ entire life. He grasped the class divisions endemic to capitalist society, but also understood that the working class, through its own struggles, has the capacity to make the world anew – free from class exploitation and the various forms of oppression arising from it.
The bicentenary should be a chance to renew this commitment to working class self-emancipation and human liberation.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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