An effective Labour opposition is a matter of life and death

Keir Starmer

By Mark Buckley

Government policy in Britain remains much closer to ‘herd immunity’, which is tantamount to letting the COVID-19 crisis rip through the population, than to an effective lockdown. As a result, using the analysis from the Financial Times and other sources, it is clear that this country has the second worst trajectory of any large country in the world and the worst of any large country in Europe. Throughout the crisis the main watchword of the new leader of the Labour party has been ‘now is not the time’ to criticise the government. The main initiative is to side with sections of big business and the hard right of the Tory party in calling for an end to the lockdown. Both of these lines will deepen the public health catastrophe and, not wholly irrelevant, may prove electorally disastrous for Labour if there is no change of course.

Britain’s cumulative death toll announced by the Department for Health will exceed 20,000 people before next week. Estimates from the FT suggest that including deaths in care homes and the community more than doubles that total. The government claimed it was ‘flattening the curve’, while in reality the only major country with a higher peak on its curve is the US, where an unhinged President is now suggesting injecting disinfectant. Boris Johnson’s exhortation to ‘take it on the chin’ was only less deranged by degree.

Literally tens of thousands of people have died unnecessarily, and the current totals of fatalities are set to be less than half the final outcome. The final tally depends on how reckless are the Western governments in pursuing a premature end to the lockdown. By comparison on a per capita basis, if the UK had followed the Chinese approach to lockdown and testing the death toll would have been held at less than 250.

Government strategy

Instead, this government has throughout pursued a strategy of putting profits first, especially the banks who are the beneficiaries of another taxpayer bailout of £330 billion. By contrast, hard-pressed local authorities facing hugely increased demand for their resources received just £1.6 billion. The bankers get 200 times greater a bailout. The government now claims ten million key workers will be eligible for coronavirus testing. There is no mention of the claimed ‘global shortage of reagents’, which they previously claimed prevented testing from getting above ten thousand tests a day, or any probing by the media on how this new PR claim will be achieved, when testing rates remain pitifully low.

But this has been the consistent pattern. The media have been the Tories’ lapdog throughout, focusing on Boris Johnson’s health over the thousands dying, never providing comparisons of Britain’s woeful performance relative to other countries, never examining the blatant lies from ministers about contact with supermarkets, with manufacturers, on PPE availability and deliveries, on PR about ventilators from Dyson, and so on. The list is extraordinarily long.

Of course, this media bias provides the threadbare excuse of the Labour right that it’s impossible to criticise the government. On the contrary, Keir Starmer’s ‘not the time to criticise’ line has been repeatedly and faithfully reported by the press. So too his terrible line on a plan to end the lockdown.

In reality, the opposition to government policy has been led by health workers themselves and other key workers. A small number of the new Labour MPs have distinguished themselves by refusing to toe the leadership line and have criticised a government causing thousands of unnecessary deaths. And Diane Abbott, Richard Burgon, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have continued to play the role of attempting to act in the interests of the population rather than big business.

The pressure from these sources has forced the media first, and then the new Labour leadership to slightly adjust its line. There is now some mild, belated criticism of the government. But this is an object lesson for the Labour right, and completely debunks its craven political line. Because of the pressure from health and other key workers, some unions and the small number of Labour MPs, the media has adopted a more critical line. So much so that that Labour leadership clearly lags behind even reactionary outlets and personalities, such as the Daily Mail and Piers Morgan. The government for the first time is forced to defend itself, and lacks the evidence to do so.

Why such an abject response?

One of the most damaging myths of British politics is that the Tories are ‘born to rule’. This would be simply delusional self-aggrandisement if the myth was a purely Tory one. Unfortunately, many in Labour have always believed it too. Anyone who has read the leaked Labour document on the investigation in Labour antisemitism will recognise this truth.

The report shows that many people in the most senior levels of the Labour apparatus were dismayed that Labour was advancing in the polls in 2017, wanted to lose by-elections to destabilise the Corbyn leadership, and expressed the most vile racist and sexist abuse against leading members of the Corbyn Shadow Cabinet. They clearly wanted the Tories to win in 2017, not a Corbyn-led Labour Party.

This element of the Labour Party, who are nearly all part of trade union bureaucracies and/or appointed by them at all times seeks social, industrial political peace. Whether it is the imperialist slaughter of the First World War, or the attempts to crush colonial rebellions, or more recently the austerity offensive or now the catastrophic prioritising of profits over people in the coronavirus crisis, the Labour apparatus has always sought to avoid conflict with the Tories and more generally with the ruling class.

This explains too their vehement hostility to Jeremy Corbyn, who does oppose austerity, was never prepared to attack migrants, or religious and ethnic minorities and who is opposed to further imperialist wars.

The report shows that the issue of antisemitism was significantly used for factional purposes. The entire campaign to focus on antisemitism in the Labour Party, when in reality the number of real antisemites in the Labour Party was small, served to undermine Corbyn and Labour’s prospects. Antisemites clearly should have no place in the Labour Party, as racists do not belong there. But the suggestion either that antisemitism is rife in Labour or even that it is generally worse in Labour than in all other parties is contrary to the fundamental evidence, including from this report of Institute for Jewish Policy Research, funded by the Home Office and the Community Security Trust, among others.

Despite its strong opinion poll ratings now, the Tory government’s abject response to the coronavirus crisis makes it very vulnerable either to a change in public mood as the death toll mounts, or even simply to a refusal to go along with a premature lifting of the lockdown, which sections of big business, the Tory right and media are openly campaigning for. For those seeking social peace and not political upheaval, more than saving lives, ‘now is not the time’ to oppose the government vigorously.

The campaign to end the lockdown

It is easy to demonstrate that the campaign to end the lockdown is motivated by reviving profits. One of its cutting edges is the threat to re-open the schools. However, there is no comparable drive to re-open the colleges and universities. In principle, these two cohorts should be treated similarly. The difference is that getting children back at school allows their parents to be ordered back to work, and businesses to resume, whatever the cost to human life, whereas university and college students, who are old enough to look after themselves and many of whom do not live with their parents, does not so affect the ability to force people back to work.

There has also been a brazen propaganda campaign, using the very real problems of rising deaths from lack of cancer treatments and growing mental health issues, as well as a documented upsurge in domestic abuse cases, to end the lockdown. But the slogan, ‘the cure is worse than the virus’ is as misleading as it is reactionary. First it is not true. Second these undoubted issues should be dealt with by more resources and better allocation of them. For example, Diane Abbott has called for the empty hotels to be opened for victims of domestic abuse as has been done in France. No cancer patient, no-one suffering mental health problems and no victim of domestic abuse is going to be better off with more people dying from coronavirus.

Unfortunately, the Labour leadership’s demand of a plan to end the lockdown supports this deadly campaign. Judging by the plans advanced by both the Welsh and Scottish governments, which talk about ‘living with the virus’ rather than ending it, it is a blueprint for a reckless back-to-work programme.

It is already reported that May 18 is the date set for a return of almost the full service on the rail network. This is clearly co-ordinated by the government, as separate train operating companies would be unable to co-ordinate in this way. In fact, many of those companies are now publicly owned once more.

This plan fits in with the government’s entire approach, which is best characterised as ‘herd immunity by stealth’. There is no reference to the actual trends in the spread of the virus or the death toll in setting an arbitrary exit date in the near future. China had a much stricter and therefore effective lockdown. China waited about two months after its (very much lower) peak in new cases before ending its lockdown. The decline in numbers in this country is set to be much more gradual after the peak, because the lockdown here has been so feeble.

Instead, it ought to be the decline in new cases to a manageable level that drives the gradual easing of lockdown measures. That manageable level would be where there is effective testing, tracking, tracing and isolation of all new cases. The purpose of policy should be saving lives, which means crushing the curve, not simply flattening it and ‘living with’ the consequences. Paradoxically, this approach also offers the best hope of recovery for the economy, which is currently in dire straits globally.

Based on this economic calamity, it is quite possible that scare stories about firms’ finances, or government finances, will be used to threaten workers that their subsistence payments will be cut off if they refuse to return to work when lockdown ends. Starving people back to work, even under threat of losing their lives, will be a key tactic if there is any premature end to the lockdown. Currently, the lockdown enjoys strong support in opinion polls.

Health workers have become the most vocal and consistent critics of the government policy. The teachers’ union NEU has campaigned against an early re-opening of the schools, and transport unions have been highly critical of the lack of PPE on buses and elsewhere. Many others will need to join these campaigns and amplify them, including supporting workers who refuse to risk a death sentence at work. Socialists will of course whole-heartedly support every effort to resist this government and its deadly policies in the name of profits.