“These failures go beyond Tory incompetence. They’re rooted in the class character of this Tory government.”
This is an edited version of a speech by Richard Burgon MP at the recent ARISE event “Fighting Back in 2021” – you can watch the full video here.
Our communities are being hit by the greatest health and economic crisis in decades. Our Government has totally failed the population. It’s failed them on the most basic level – with tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. And it’s failed them by not putting in place proper economic support to help people through this crisis.
These failures go beyond Tory incompetence. They’re rooted in the class character of this Tory government. But we can’t wait for the next election to force the government to change direction. As the education unions have shown, this government is for turning. So we need to be forcing that change from the government now.
Key to that is campaigning for the Labour leadership to adopt and fight for the policies needed. But if it doesn’t then we also need to be building the movements that will force the government to change. History waits for no-one.
This is a huge period of crisis, so we as the left must be putting forward serious alternatives. And, believe me, what seems unthinkable today will soon become mainstream as this crisis develops. Events change politics, and we need to be positioning ourselves to ensure that when they change, they’re changed in a good way. Not with a rise of the far-right or some other reactionary force.
I know many are frustrated at the direction Labour is currently taking. I know many are angry against the appalling treatment of Jeremy. But it’s called the class struggle for a reason – it’s a struggle not a picnic in the park – so let’s dust ourselves down and be ready to fightback in 2021. As Tony Benn said: “Every generation has to fight the same battles as their ancestors had to fight, again and again, for there is no final victory and no final defeat.”
But we have to be clear what we are fighting for – I think there are two key sets of demands.
The first is the immediate demands – the health and economic measures – needed right now to get people through this current emergency. Then there are the medium term demands – the ones that will shape how our society looks as we come out of this crisis and into the future – on jobs, on public services, on the climate and on equalities.
THE BATTLE FOR ZERO COVID
For me the most immediate demand is for a Zero Covid plan. The UK has the highest current Covid death rate in the world. This was entirely avoidable. In contrast, the countries following a Zero Covid strategy like New Zealand and Vietnam have incredibly low death rates, their societies are safely returning to something resembling normality and their economies are growing again.
The vaccine offers real hope but it’ll be many months – perhaps a year – until everyone is protected. We can’t go on for months more with the same failed strategy. We need to be campaigning for our government to adopt a Zero Covid strategy too.
And to do so is to defend our class because Covid is a class issue – those in poorer housing, those in lower paid work who can’t work from home, Black communities and so many others have all been hit hardest.
Fighting for Zero Covid means fighting to drive the virus right down – not trying to balance the economy and lives as the government has tried to do – and failed on both fronts.
A Zero Covid plan means locking down properly. Too many people are still having to go to work – because they can’t do their jobs from home, because their boss is insisting on it and refusing them furlough, because they are self-employed and don’t get Government support. Or because they simply can’t afford not to, after almost 12 months of reduced incomes.
So we need to be fighting for the financial support for people to “Stay At Home”. That means fighting for all non-essential workers who can’t work from home to be furloughed on full pay. It means fighting for sick pay at the Real Living Wage for everyone who needs to self-isolate.
Zero Covid also means pushing to kick out Serco and the other profiteers from Test and Trace – with the NHS taking over. It means fighting, alongside the NEU, for safe schools, and fighting for universities to remain online – with fees scrapped and replaced by public investment and students reimbursed for the costs of accommodation they can’t even live in.
A VISION FOR OUR SOCIETY
But beyond the immediate demands we have to be doing the work now so that the proper lessons are learnt from this crisis and so we are prepared for the jobs, inequality and climate crises to come.
This crisis has shone a spotlight on the failings of 40 years of neoliberalism – we need to be pushing for this crisis to be a moment to drive a stake through the heart of neoliberalism. Its agenda of attacking workers’ rights, privatising key services, and hollowing out public services have been exposed in this crisis. Now is the time to be fighting for an alternative.
The Tories want to use this crisis to push their agenda. We’ve already seen the pay freezes for public sector workers and the new wave of “fire and rehire” – that’s just a sign of what’s to come. So we need to prepare to build the movement against Austerity 2.0 – and we need to be defending every worker forced to take strike action.
But fighting cuts is not enough – we need to be putting forward our vision for how we would deal with the deep crisis to come.
That means calling for full employment as the response to mass unemployment.
It means public investment in a green recovery – a Green New Deal with hundreds of thousands of skilled jobs to prevent runaway climate change and to prepare our society for the damaging effects of climate change that are coming. We certainly can’t go into the climate crisis as badly prepared as we have been for this health crisis.
It means rebuilding our public services – creating hundreds of thousands of jobs – so we can deal with the social crisis in the NHS, in social care, in education, in housing and so on.
It means using the failed example of Serco to end outsourcing and privatisation once and for all.
It means highlighting how a lack of workers’ rights has put people in life-threatening danger during this crisis and demanding that the current restrictions on trade unions be replaced with proper workers’ rights.
It means fighting for the principles of universalism in the welfare state – so all kids have free school meals, all homes have decent broadband and where everyone can get access to social security – not the disgraceful scenes we have seen in recent months where millions have been left completely out of Government support.
In short, we need to be using this moment to show “Yes there is an alternative”.
OPPOSING THE CLAMPDOWN ON LABOUR PARTY DEMOCRACY
Finally, just a few words on the internal Labour situation. I am deeply concerned by the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the Parliamentary Labour Party and the wider clampdown on party democracy, legitimate discussion and the recent wave of suspensions.
Let’s be clear – this is a direct attack on the left – the recent NEC results show that the left can still win a majority in the party. So let’s make sure that we continue to fight for the readmission of Jeremy and against the clampdown in 2021.
IF YOU DON’T FIGHT YOU’LL NEVER WIN.
To end, I’ve done a lot of meetings lately and many are down and despondent. Comrades, I am afraid we just don’t have the time for that. All around the world people are fighting this crisis – sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But as the late great Bob Crow said: “If you fight you won’t always win. But if you don’t fight you will always lose.”
Just over a year ago there was a military coup against Evo Morales – one of the greatest socialists of our lifetime. The people of Bolivia didn’t give up. They rolled their sleeves up and fought back. And they overturned a military coup. They got their party back into the presidency. And Evo Morales back playing a leading role – just months after he had to flee in exile.
As I am talking about Latin America I am going to end on the words of the great Chilean Socialist Salvador Allende – words that he gave as the presidential palace was being bombed in the US-backed fascist coup against him on September 11, 1973.
As Allende said then – in the most difficult of circumstances – “we will overcome this dark and bitter moment” so “Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free people will walk to build a better society.”