“The Labour front bench’s… determination to be embraced by the establishment is absurd, since this is the hour of the ruling class’s greatest disgrace, with its mishandling of the pandemic piled atop the unresolved agonies caused by the 2008 banking crash.”Andrew Murray
When the pandemic hit, I wasn’t necessarily expecting Britain to be a “world beater”, in the government’s now-notorious phrase, in handling it. After all, Boris Johnson hadn’t chosen his cabinet for brains or competence, and any team starring Gavin Williamson, whose ambitions can’t realistically go beyond leaving home in a morning with his trousers on, isn’t likely to play a blinder.
But nor was I expecting what has actually transpired – that Britain’s record would be just about the worst in the world at least in terms of coronavirus deaths relative to population. This sombre fact speaks to several facts. One is the hollowing out of the neo-liberal state in terms of its core competencies, an erosion that goes beyond just the austerity of the last decade, devastating as that has been, but embraces the culture of contracting out and marketisation which flourished under New Labour.
The present government is still the servant of that neo-liberal class project, even as the worst excesses of austerity are abandoned. Its priority throughout has been the maintenance of the present system and social hierarchy in Britain.
So let’s be clear – covid is not (or certainly not only) a national crisis, it is a class crisis. It bears most heavily on the poorest – those who live in over-crowded housing, those who work in jobs that cannot be done from home, those who have to use public transport to get to work; those employed in conditions were social distancing and other safety measures are neglected; those who can’t afford to self-isolate because they won’t get paid; those with underlying health conditions. So of course it is small surprise that the pandemic has also borne hard on BAME people since they are over-represented among the poorest through systemic racism.
On the other side of the class question, the crisis has been the occasion for fabulous enrichment for many of the already wealthiest, and it has been manna from heaven for the well-connected – those married to a Tory MP or with an inside track to those running public procurement processes. Johnson’s signature contribution to the pandemic has been a truly world-beating orgy of cronyism which has not even had the redeeming merit of delivering acceptable public health outcomes.
At every stage the Tories have endeavoured to prioritise the interests of big business. Only public pressure has imposed the requirements of saving lives. The Tories’ class project has been sanctified by the holy water of “libertarianism”. The meanderings of the libertarians, from Spiked to Sumption, have at least served to remind us that their ideology, of everyone doing as they please regardless, is a bourgeois one with not the slightest connection to progress.
What would Labour have done? It is hard to get a clear sense from Keir Starmer’s approach of broad support for the government allied to values-free criticism from time to time, focussing on competence alone. But what if Labour under Corbyn had won in December 2019? It would be idle to pretend that all would have gone perfectly, that no mistakes would have been made. When a crisis of that magnitude hits, and it would have been at a time before any of the reforms in the economy and society we contemplated had been enacted, problems would have been unavoidable.
Nevertheless, we can be sure that a Corbyn government would never have let any consideration trump the requirement of saving lives. And we would have used the crisis to rebuild state capacity for the future, to rebuild manufacturing industry so we are not scrambling around for vital equipment, PPE and drugs, to protect people’s incomes, to invest in tackling inequality at work and in housing. If this crisis programme seems familiar, that would be because it is the programme Labour was planning anyway, and formed the basis of our 2017 and 2019 manifestos. It has escaped no-one’s notice that the resources the Tories denied existed when Labour was urging such a programme in December 2019 were miraculously discovered and more – just a few months later. The coronavirus crisis has been a sad vindication of the necessity for Corbynism.
The apparent retreat from radicalism by the Labour front bench is disappointing, and its determination to be embraced by the establishment is absurd, since this is the hour of the ruling class’s greatest disgrace, with its mishandling of the pandemic piled atop the unresolved agonies caused by the 2008 banking crash. The bourgeoisie owe the British people a lost decade and more.
Naturally, mobilisation around the demands of the people is challenging given the restrictions imposed by coronavirus. But it is essential to find the forms – amid all the concerns about Labour’s present course, it should be remembered that the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn was not at all the product of a shift in parliamentary opinion, but rather of the mass movements against war and austerity in which he had played such a signal part. The best policies in the world avail little unless backed by mass popular movements. Black Lives Matter and the campaigns against climate change have shown the way.
So too have trade unions. My own Unite has focussed from the first moment of the pandemic on three demands – securing safe workplaces, protecting jobs and maintaining incomes. Victories have been won – as the recent battle to save the Barnoldswick Rolls Royce plant shows. People should be joining and strengthening their trade unions.
Finally, let us talk about socialism. The Corbyn period put the idea back on the agenda, where it belongs. When we talk of building back better, this cannot and should not mean a revived capitalism. The crisis has reinforced the rotten nature of our social system with its inequalities and corruption. Socialism means first of all replacing the power of the capitalists with the power of working people. Who can say this is not necessary today?
- Andrew Murray is the author of “The Fall & Rise of the British Left” and the above is based on his speech at Fighting Back in 2021 – How Labour’s Left should respond to the current crisis – you can watch the event in full at https://youtu.be/kj9k_ypCuTY