Lindsey German on lockdown easing, the Unite election and the tragedy of Sarah Everard
As the toll of the Covid-19 pandemic passed 4 million deaths, and increased restrictions were introduced in countries from Israel to Korea to Australia, the British government decided to throw all caution to the winds. Despite the growth of the Delta variant and evidence of its greater transmission rates, it is planning to abandon all of its measures to combat the disease. ‘The world is looking at us with disbelief,’ said Ravi Gupta, Cambridge professor of clinical microbiology.
Even the most cautious projection of the spread of Delta means it will soon result in 100 hospital deaths a day. It is also likely to greatly increase the number of people with long Covid, the full implications of which are still unclear both medically and socially. Yet this is a time when Johnson has decided to abandon every single safety measure, including the wearing of masks on public transport and indoors, and social distancing.
Polling already shows that these moves are unpopular with many people, who want at the very least to delay them for a month. My experience in Hackney is that the overwhelming majority wear masks in shops and indoor venues, as they do on the tube. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, the level of collective awareness and responsibility towards others has been high.
And as has been the case throughout the pandemic, this has been in diametrical opposition to the government and its allies, who were late to go into lockdown, allowed major events like Cheltenham races to go ahead, failed to deliver adequate PPE, gave contracts to their friends and family, disobeyed regulations while preaching to the rest of us, and much more.
So it continues. Johnson is in hock to his right wing MPs who will justify anything in the name of profit and whose least concern is our welfare. And they are determined to ensure that this profit is protected. So while just over a year ago the Tories supported clapping for carers – a genuine outpouring of support for health workers and other key workers – their plans for us now are rather different. The uplift of £20 a week on universal credit is to be abandoned, throwing many families into real poverty; furlough will go; there are threats to the triple lock on pensions which would give pensioners an 8% rise which is deemed too much by the billionaire chancellor.
We are expected to continue paying for the crisis, while wealth and profits are both increasing. And Johnson tries to deflect opposition by wrapping himself in the flag and promoting culture wars.
It is clear that things are going to get a lot tougher for lots of working class people. Despite the very high levels of vaccination, this will not necessarily protect against a mutating virus. And we are certainly offered no protection from continued attacks on our living standards. While the pandemic has shown that there is an alternative to the old normal, that’s not something the government wants to admit because it gets in the way of profit.
The opposition that should be coming from the Labour front bench is absent as Keir Starmer remains utterly incapable of mounting any. The demand to ‘Buy British’ reflects the continued right wing stance of Labour, as does Starmer’s support for the failed Afghan war and his incredible statement that he would campaign against a united Ireland.
The lack of opposition has allowed Johnson to get away with a great deal. It is increasing its repressive powers, continues to appoint its cronies to positions and is poised to introduce even further crisis over the pandemic and the NHS. It’s interesting, however, that Tory support is looking less strong in actual election contests than it appearing in the opinion polls. This reflects a wider discontent and distrust of the government.
The Tories thought that they could use attacks on the England football team taking the knee and Black Lives Matter to build support for their ‘culture wars’ ideas. The plan backfired spectacularly.
The coming months will see growing conflict over the pandemic which is clearly very far from over, from the attacks on workers through wages and conditions, rising rents, unemployment and benefit cuts, and over issues like the policing bill. Organisation is at a premium at every level. I spent the weekend at the Revolution! Festival organised by Counterfire. We heard about resistance from every quarter. We also talked about the importance of developing Marxist ideas and of learning from the experience of working class history. It gave me hope that – as part of wider movements and working class struggles – socialists can rise to the challenge of this crisis.
I don’t usually read or share the Sun but I want to report its story from the weekend about the rape and murder of Sarah Everard, by serving police diplomatic service officer Wayne Couzens. He has pleaded guilty to these crimes. Before he carried a gun protecting the US embassy in London, he patrolled a nuclear installation in Kent – again armed. He was apparently referred to by his colleagues as ‘the rapist’ because of his creepy behaviour towards women. He had been accused of indecent exposure on several occasions, including in 2015. Only days before he abducted Everard, he was accused of two instances of indecent exposure at a McDonalds restaurant in Kent.
We have heartfelt apologies from the first woman head of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick. But we should not be fooled. This same female police commissioner also presided over vicious police attacks on women demonstrating in solidarity with Sarah Everard.
These are police forces whose actions show a high level of institutional misogyny. No prosecution in 2015, no vetting of Couzens when he got his job in 2018, no investigation of the indecent exposure this year. Nothing. Yet this man was allowed to wander round central London carrying a gun, even though there was clearly sufficient disquiet to have at the very least made sure he wasn’t appointed.
There are many issues which lead to women facing crimes and abuse feeling that they can’t trust the police. These include lack of prosecution of rape cases, too often presumptions that women’s behaviour contributed to their attacks, and very high domestic abuse levels among police officers. The Everard case is one more tragic example of why women are right.
Do the right thing
The election for Unite General Secretary is one of the most important union elections for years. If the right wing candidate Gerard Coyne gets elected it will be a major victory for the Blairites, the wider establishment and the media. It will not just be a minor change in the balance of forces within the labour movement but a major defeat for the left. It will weaken the left both in and outside the Labour Party and undo much of the good work that Unite has done in promoting left wing causes.
Coyne would be unlikely to win except for the fact that the left is split. There were three candidates but one, Howard Beckett, stood down in favour of Steve Turner, who received the most nominations from branches. The other, Sharon Graham, refused to do so and is standing. It’s a mistake which may cost the union dear. I would have been happy to support her if she had received the most nominations, but she did not. I’m not a Unite member but hope that those who are vote for Steve Turner, as there is such a lot at stake.
I also worry that her approach of eschewing Westminster politics and talking about the return to the workplace is actually an avoidance of political issues. She isn’t the first to put forward these anti-political arguments and it doesn’t usually end well.
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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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