Lindsey German considers the three interconnected flashpoints of modern politics
There are three major crises impacting on British politics: the huge price rises for energy, food, transport, and housing which are pushing millions into desperation; the war in Ukraine; and the resurgence of Covid-19 which is now infecting an estimated 5 million people.
The Tory government has shown itself incapable of responding to any of them: it is essentially leaving its citizens to fend for themselves over price rises, with horrific likely consequences; it pours weapons and resources into Ukraine and plays down any prospect of peace; and Covid is being allowed to let rip, with no free tests, no restrictions on those who are infected by the virus, and no protection for those who are clinically vulnerable.
The cost of living
As one of the speakers on Saturday’s demonstration in London put it, the government are murderers. It’s no exaggeration. The refusal to do anything to halt the price rises, to increase wages, to tax those making huge profits from them, to increase pensions and benefits in line with inflation, and to simply treat these as individual problems for individual families is for certain to lead to more people dying of hypothermia, suffering worsening illnesses exacerbated by shortage of heating and food, to severe hunger and even starvation.
One estimate suggests that a third of households will be in fuel stress by October. Another shows that nearly half of all children will be living below a socially acceptable standard of living. Yet while these and other statistics are dutifully reported, there seems to be little understanding of what the consequences of such changes will be.
Karl Marx wrote that the wage earned by workers in the capitalist system is just sufficient to cover the costs of reproduction of the working class. We have already had more than a decade of declining wages, leading to real cuts in living standards for millions of working-class people. These price rises are going to make it impossible for many wages to cover the costs of reproduction – in other words food, housing, clothing, and other necessities.
The advice being handed out to put on extra jumpers, turn down thermostats, prepare budget meals and the rest is simply not going to cut it. Rents and house prices are both unsustainably high, heating and cooking will be beyond the means of increasing numbers of people, and even basic food such as bread or pasta is going up well beyond levels of inflation.
What can happen in this situation? Either wages rise sufficiently to keep pace with these price rises – or working-class people are plunged into further misery. There is little sign in the public sector that wages are rising beyond miserly single figures, and while some workers in the private sector have made big gains recently, most obviously in transport, most rises are well below inflation. In addition, further costs are being pushed onto workers – hospital staff having to pay for parking, workers having to pay for Covid testing, increases in National Insurance.
In the 70s, when there was high inflation following the oil price shock, trade unions were much stronger and pushed for higher wages. In addition, the Labour government put subsidies in a range of essentials including fuel and some food. This crisis is a real test for the unions today, which so far have not stepped up to face this challenge. The caution from the TUC is nothing new but it is even less use than normal given the situation.
The P&O debacle has demonstrated how few rights workers have in Britain. Any serious action in solidarity with other workers is illegal, and any industrial action is straitjacketed by restrictions on ballots and thresholds. Serious strike action is going to have to confront these legal constraints if it is to be successful. The share of wealth going to the richest has grown dramatically since the weakening of the unions from the Thatcher/Reagan years. The rich – including chancellor Sunak who is holidaying in his multimillion dollar penthouse in Santa Monica, California as we huddle beneath our duvets – have absolutely no intention of rectifying that situation. Only our organisation is going to do that.
We’re five weeks into the war in Ukraine and already the consequences are devastating. The latest news talks of civilian deaths, rape, and other attacks by Russian troops. Fighting continues in the south and east, and especially in Mariupol the death and damage are horrific. The Russian invasion has been much less successful than originally planned, with an assault on Kyiv now abandoned and many Russian troop losses.
The key question for anyone wanting to end this war is how to bring about peace. That is not going to be done by escalating the conflict or by demanding further and more extensive weapons, as our government and a number especially in Eastern Europe want to do.
You would be hard pressed from most of the reporting in Britain to know that peace talks between Russia and Ukraine are taking place in Istanbul. That perhaps tells you exactly the priority put on them by the British government. The story is that the British government is urging Ukraine not to make concessions in these talks – in other words urging that they fail. It has put pressure on the US to do the same, rather than follow the line of Germany and France. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky told The Economist magazine that he thought that Johnson might be wanting the war to drag on as this would strengthen Johnson while weakening Putin.
Meanwhile Joe Biden made a supposed ‘gaffe’ talking about regime change in Russia – a development which could only escalate this terrible war. Labour’s answer to all this is more money on defence and a firm commitment to nuclear weapons – exactly the opposite of what is needed.
We cannot take lessons from those who have presided over a series of wars for decades now, nor can we allow them to dictate political priorities which can damage us all. The increase in military spending in Nato states will further exacerbate the attacks on working class people over the cost of living and public services, as we are asked to make sacrifices for a war which, if it continues, is likely drag further countries into the conflict. Germany has already agreed to double its military spending and to cut the Nordstrom 2 pipeline – demands put on it by Nato and the US in particular and which will lead to hardship for its population.
The inter-imperialist conflict that we see now is reaching crisis point. These powers see wars as an acceptable means of sorting their economic conflicts. And they expect us to pay the price.
Covid-19 in its latest variation of BAC2 is tearing through the population. No one in government seems remotely bothered. Overworked and underpaid NHS staff are expected to cope with increased hospital admissions as well as catching up with the backlog caused by two years of Covid. Employers report staff vacancies everywhere as people stay home with the disease. Huge numbers of school children and their teachers are off sick.
Whatever the limitations of measures two years ago, they are treated as completely utopian now by government which says it can’t afford to pay for tests or for furlough or sick pay. The projection is presumably a form of herd immunity where there are permanent vaccinations, large numbers of people with long Covid, and vulnerable people kept out of wider society for fear of contracting it. Presumably too there will be new variations of the virus which will hit new layers of people.
Boris Johnson hosted a party for Tory MPs where he joked about being threatened with a no confidence vote. He must be so comfortable in assuming that he is safe from the ‘partygate’ scandal that he hosted another party – one which was demonstrated against by families of Covid victims. But whatever the Tories’ arrogance and ignorance on this question, the disquiet over those scandals have not gone away.
This triple crisis still has a very long road to run. And its timetable will not be dictated by elections or by the ever-feeble Labour opposition.
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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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