Lindsey German sets an agenda for the new year
1The Covid-19 pandemic is still very much with us. The UK has just passed the mark of 150,000 deaths from the disease, the first country to do so in Europe. Deaths from Covid (mainly the Omicron variant) are now pushing towards 300 a day. Government is trying to get us all to ‘just live with it’, cutting availability of tests, restrictions on travel, periods of isolation, proposing charging for lateral flow tests. It hopes that the vaccination programme will do the trick, but the jury is still out on Omicron, as it increasingly affects older and more vulnerable people. That leaves aside the debilitating consequences of long Covid, which will put a burden on individuals, carers and the health service for years to come, and the prospect of future mutations.
2The criminal running down of the NHS is apparent for all to see, with military personnel being drafted in to support procedures because of staff shortages. There is a major battle going on between government and NHS managers, according to the Sunday Times, where ministers will blame the latter for scaremongering, and instead try to normalise a situation where ambulances queue for hours at A and E, and where the NHS effectively becomes an emergency-only service. What is needed is a big expansion of staff, fully funded, with much more training for medical and other essential staff; an end to privatisation of the service; and a huge injection of money to pay for decent wages and levels of staffing. And for that to be extended to care homes to ease the crisis there.
3The chancellor is determined not to do this. The view from the Tories is that far too much money has been spent on the Covid-19 crisis and it’s time to get back to helping the rich and cutting public spending. There is a tidal wave of rising costs already hitting working people and it’s about to get much worse. The level of inflation according to the old RPI measure is already over 7%. This rise falls disproportionately on poorer people who spend more of their incomes on basics such as food, fuel and housing. Fuel prices are rocketing up and will effectively double later this year. The spiral of house prices and rents continues. Tax and national insurance rise in April.
4Inequality has grown and will only get worse. There is no serious attempt to redress this from government. The Tories have no answer: taxing the rich or even a windfall tax on the energy companies are not considered. Right wing populists like Jacob Rees-Mogg call for scrapping the national insurance rise as a phony ‘levelling up’ measure – but this is to cut spending rather than provide more money for health and care from any other source. The rise in inflation will mean a real wage cut for millions of people – and not just those on the lowest incomes. In the public sector, where wage rises have been miserly, there needs to be a push for much higher increases. Sunak announced last year the abandonment of the ‘triple lock’ for pensioners. The rise in pensions will be less than half the rise in inflation this April.
5Despite the government majority, it is in real political trouble. Johnson’s regime stinks of corruption, cynicism and ineptitude. He has lost the support of many of his own backbenchers, and in practice cannot impose further Covid restrictions without the support of the Labour opposition. The Tory right wing is successfully imposing its views on any potential successor, such as Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss. The North Staffordshire by-election result just before Xmas highlighted how unpopular Johnson is when a 23,000 Tory majority was overturned by the Lib Dems.
6When Tory governments are in trouble they turn to authoritarianism – and this one is no exception. From the brutal disregard for human life that marks Priti Patel’s policy on refugees and asylum seekers to the repressive measures going through parliament on the policing and nationality bills, the pattern is clear. This is not just a British phenomenon – governments everywhere are trying to make dissent harder and using the Covid crisis to crackdown on liberties through, for example, compulsory vaccinations. Resistance to them has to come from below.
7The promotion of so called ‘culture wars’ is a central tool of the right. We have seen it most recently with the fury which has greeted the acquittal of the Colston 4 by a Bristol jury. The threat of the attorney general, Suella Braverman, to refer this case to the Court of Appeal, is more about internal politics than any legal concerns. This particular ‘culture war’ reflects fear of debate and greater understanding about Britain’s role in chattel slavery in the Caribbean. More widely, they are a mechanism to try to evacuate questions of class from debate about social issues, and to try to pose everything as about identity.
8International conflict looks high on the agenda this year. Talks between the US and Russia this week will focus on Ukraine and Nato expansion. There is also the new cold war with China, and the issues facing the nuclear deal with Iran are coming up the agenda again. We should not allow the government and media to bang the drum for war, nor to distort the facts about these disputes to their own advantage. The past year has shown us their duplicity and the consequences of their policies, most notably in Afghanistan, where 8 million are on the edge of starvation – a situation that could be alleviated by western powers unfreezing money and assets. And the revulsion at Tony Blair’s knighthood should remind us of the very deep well of anti-war opinion in this country.
9The official opposition is incapable of dealing with any of these questions. A Labour leader who stresses his patriotism and flag waving, who praises Blair, and whose shadow health secretary stresses the need for private medicine, will struggle to inspire not just the left – who have already given up on him – but also those voters in the so-called ‘red wall’ seats. Labour’s recent increase in the polls says more about Johnson’s falling reputation than about a positive endorsement for Starmer. There has to be an alternative socialist voice for working people but that will not be built easily.
10There are millions of people in Britain who want change – who supported Corbyn, signed the petition against Blair’s knighthood, demonstrated against climate change, and are fed up with the miserable lives that so many of us lead, with insecure work, poor wages and increasing costs of living. We need to organise for change – in political organisations but also in unions, social movements and community groups. Bringing those together this year to deal a blow to the government is an important task for those like the People’s Assembly. We should take heart from the growing number of industrial disputes as workers refuse to pay for the pandemic and take advantage of labour shortages in order to fight back. This is uneven and not always successful – but any revival of left politics has to have working class struggle at its heart.
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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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