Two important victories, but a prolonged struggle lies ahead

Statue of slave trader Edward Colston goes into Bristol harbour

By Mark Buckley

Two separate and notable victories have been registered by the teachers’ unions led by the NEU and by anti-racists led by the Black Lives Matter movement. They are important to celebrate and learn from, as the coronavirus crisis will lead to an enormous ruling class offensive and any resistance will need to match it to stand a prospect of success.

Teachers successfully campaigned against the government’s early reopening of the schools. This had nothing to do with a newly-found concern for the education of poorer or vulnerable children as ministers claimed. It had everything to with getting their parents and carers back to work so that capital can get back to generating profits.

In parallel, anti-racists here, as part of the global movement inspired by the US Black Lives Matter mobilisations, have demonstrated across the country in huge numbers. This is both a solidarity movement with the US and a protest against the systematic racism of British society, and its source, the history of colonialism and slavery.

The teachers were able to lead the broadest layers of society, who remain fearful of the consequences of the virus for themselves and their loved ones, and won the support of many local councils, against not only the Tory government and media but numerous right wing Labour peers. Their success can be measured by the fact that, on the government’s own data, only around one-quarter of eligible children returned to school.

In the US, Black Lives Matter have scored enormous successes. Trump was obliged to withdraw the 82nd Airborn Division from Washington DC, the council has voted to disband the Minneapolis police and replace it with a community-based alternative, and many more have come under pressure to ‘de-fund’ the police by redirecting their enormous budgets from policing to schools or healthcare. Most importantly, the movement has dominated the political agenda on the issues of racism and police brutality, against Trump’s plan to centre the election campaign on China-bashing. The result is that an overwhelming majority of US society supports BLM: 67% according to PEW Research.

The UK movement has not registered the same successes because it is not as large. But it too has transformed the political agenda so that there is now an unprecedented discussion of Britain’s colonial past, including slavery. The government now pretends to be concerned about racism, having just buried the recommendation to tackle aspects of racism in the inquiry in excessive black and Asian deaths from the coronavirus. As in the US, a majority supports BLM: 59% versus 15% who oppose it, according to one poll.

The teachers’ victory and the Black Lives Matter successes are linked by the coronavirus. Unfortunately, there are very many deaths of black people at the hands of the police and George Floyd’s terrible fate is far from unique.  But his death lit the explosive material created by the coronavirus, where racism in everything from healthcare, to housing to schools and of course police brutality has come to the fore during the crisis. Black people both here and in the US feel the brunt of all this. But because others also experience some of them to a greater or lesser extent, these protests resonate across society. BLM now speaks for the nation, and Trump does not.

The teachers and Black Lives Matter have forged unity in the struggle by focusing on the key demands and uniting with everyone prepared to go at least part of the way with them. “It’s not black versus white, it’s everyone versus the racists,” as Patrick Hutchinson brilliantly put it. They have not been distracted by media attacks, the slanders of the Tories or the smears of the Labour right. They have shrugged off the lack of support form the Labour leadership, and have gained majority popular support through relentless campaigning. Crucially, when millions are fearful for their lives, their jobs and their livelihoods, they speak for the majority.

All of this will be extremely important to learn from and repeat, on a much larger scale, in the period ahead. The catastrophic approach to the coronavirus crisis in the neoliberal countries like the US and UK is being followed by a catastrophic economic crisis. Just as the 2008 recession was followed by 2010 austerity, the ruling class will launch a huge attack on workers and the poor, whipping up racism and Islamophobia along the way, and demonising foreigners and foreign powers.

The current economic crisis looks set to be significantly worse than in 2008. The effort to make workers and the poor pay for it will be commensurately more ferocious. Learning from the NEU and BLM is vital in the period ahead.