On 29 January 2020, the first case of Coronavirus was discovered in York. The press attacked China for having lost control over a virus in a lab working on a biological warfare program to impose China’s rule in the world. Boris Johnson did not quite go along with this, but he did nothing, and went on holidays.
Around mid-March, many workers were no longer going to work and the teachers had imposed the closing of the schools. After a further delay, Johnson declared a lockdown on 23 March.
Today, 31 May, the official total loss of life in the UK since February is 38,489; but on 28 May, the Financial Times was reporting that the absolute number of excess deaths was “above 50,000” – the highest in Europe and second only to the United States in the world.
Today also, the lockdown – broke down. News came of actual (and not virtual) demonstrations taking place from East to West in the United States against the police killing of yet another Afro-American young man, George Floyd, this time in Minnesota. Demonstrations started in London and Cardiff this lunch-time, and then they spread and swelled. In London, the demonstrators received written salutes from the main UK Trade Unions and from Jeremy Corbyn. Tonight, the marchers will go to the Grenfell Tower to remember the 72 immigrant and British workers who died when their housing tower caught fire in 2017. Although all these demonstrations have contravened the new Coronavirus Act, there was nothing that Johnson could do – except to say, as he did – that he supports “Black Lives Matter”!
THE QUESTION IS NOT SO MUCH THE VIRUS AS CAPITALISM!
In May 2019 – well before the arrival of the pandemic in Britain therefore – the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, had read the following statement to the UN General Council: “The austerity programs inflicted by successive Tory-led governments have led to the systematic immiseration of millions across Great Britain. There are 14 million living in poverty, record levels of hunger and homelessness and falling life expectancy for some groups”.
Indeed, decades of austerity in Britain have played a major role in weakening the capacity of the working population to resist an epidemic. What is more, the effects of 20 years of austerity led to the NHS structures being separated from each other, sold to private interests and speculated against. Over that period, hospitals were closed and at least £30 billion were removed from Welfare and Social Security. In the last decade, 32,000 beds were lost, along with 200,000 nurses and 6,000 mental nurses. From 2009, England alone lost 2,309 learning-disability nurses; and with the training programs cut, it has had to recruit thousands of nurses from India. Quite apart from government incompetence, this has contributed to tens of thousands of extra deaths in Britain. This is a crime. A crime of historic dimensions. A crime for which the leading capitalists must be taken to court. The sort of crime that needs to be judged by popular tribunals.
Social inequality unites all the angers:
Analysts say that people from Black and Asian ethnic groups are twice more likely to die with Covid-19 than those with “white British backgrounds”. But this high rate of dying is not specific to ethnic groups. It resembles that in the abandoned workers areas in the North and North-East of Britain. It is specific to the working class, made unhealthy by zero-hour contracts, insecure incomes, discrimination, violent human relations, unemployment, unsanitary housing, 1.5 million living from hand to mouth. The ‘left-behind’ in Britain are both Blacks and Whites! If 1% of the population owns 40% of the wealth, it stands to reason that the most deprived will be the most vulnerable to an epidemic. In the UK, the workers are being killed by ignorant and arbitrary government in the same way as George Floyd has been dispatched by the US police. Rest assured that the British workers, even if they could not all turn up, were all present in the G Floyd’s demonstrations. The fact that Boris Johnson did not dare indict the (now illegal) demonstrations – and obliquely defended G Floyd instead – shows that his government does not have long to go.
Workers, Unions and population take the lead in the crisis:
On seeing the death curve rising quickly, the government declared lockdown with hardly any preparation on the 23rd of March. Public transport continued however, and the employers could choose to stay in function. On 24 March, Housebuilder Redrow (in South Wales, Manchester and London) were forced by their workers to sanitise the warehouses. On 29 March, 500 ASOS workers (Yorkshire) walked out due to staff beginning to sicken. Soon after this, 80 workers walked out at APB Meats in Lurgan, Northern Ireland. There, by the way, reporting sick could get you the sack. In the south of England, public outcry caused TfL to abandon some of the CrossRail works. As for Amazon, it took advantage of the surge in demand for its services to impose compulsory overtime throughout its 17 UK warehouses. But then, the trade unions won double-pay for overtime and a £2 rise in the hourly wage.
In London, some municipalities started welcoming volunteers. They arranged to get the most vulnerable visited, look after those shielding and others recovering at home, restock the shelves in the supermarkets, etc. Thousands of volunteers organised themselves independently. They were the young, the less young, the students, the furloughed and the precarious, even some children. Seeing a danger in the population self-organising in this way, the government unblocked funds for the big charities to patronise people. But the charities themselves objected. The renowned Trussell Trust went on TV to say that “people deserve much better than charity as a means to actually live on”. With other charitable groups, it called on the government to increase the Universal Credit payments, lift the benefit cap, cancel the bedroom tax and raise Statutory Sick Pay. Just what Keir Starmer of the Labour Party should have said.
Programme and Hope:
In France, the new platform called “Jamais Plus” – Never Again – is led by the CGT (Trade Union), Attac, Greenpeace, Oxfam and others. They are all volunteers. They organize support for the nurses and the doctors, distribute food, look after those who self-isolate, take part in the creative and cultural innovations between parents, children and educators. Never Again upholds social demands similar to those in the 2017 Labour Party Manifesto: State funding to produce for human need, not for the banks. No sackings, No emergency laws, Requisition of empty properties, Care for the asylum seekers, Cancellation of household debts, Refuges for women and children, State funding for small enterprises, Control over capital, Ban on speculation, Social oversight of the banks, Production for need, Reduction in pay differentials, Respect for the Climate Paris agreements, De-financing of the military to develop renewable sources of energy, Reconversion and re-skilling of people, Creation of jobs in ecology, etc.
As in France, the strong desire for social change keeps growing in the UK. This feeling moves thousands of friends, young people and neighbours to care for each other. These volunteers act in solidarity with those with the greatest needs without patronising anyone. With their conduct, they reject the government’s xenophobic and criminal disdain for human life. In the way they care, there is a militant rejection of inequality and marginalisation. In this sense, their actions are anti-capitalist.
Yet these volunteers are also the ordinary folk and the neighbours. Many are professionals, often in education, whose places of work are closed. Many others reckon they will have no job to go back to, in a few months. To get to their sick pay, or Universal Credit, they must wait 5 or 6 weeks with no money at all coming in! Groups of deliveroo drivers wait by the road sides to be called for jobs on pin-money. Supermarkets give away their unsold foods. Individuals and some restaurants actually cook meals, and the volunteers distribute these.
It is remarkable how self-confident the British people are, in spite of so much death and incompetent government. And then, a great boost was added to their optimism when they witnessed China and Cuba answering Italy’s call for help – the EU having remained silent. This occasion marks the first time when the help of Cuban doctors has been sought by a European capitalist country! China donated (without charging) test-kits, protection equipment and masks to countries like Iran, Venezuela and even Syria. In the UK, ordinary people see their own selflessness validated and encouraged by the conduct of China and Cuba.
People are angry at the ignorance and impunity of the Johnson government. The latter represents nothing more than the small groups of finance capital whose only concern is ‘the economy’, i.e. profit-making. The Corbyn project for social equality is so relevant today that no-one can possibly bury it. People want to bring to book those responsible for the unnecessary death of tens of thousands of Britons. The young who break the lockdown (to go and demonstrate) are incensed by the impunity of government, and by the way the US police killed G Floyd in the USA. No one forgets the killing of Mark Duggan by police in London in 2011, as part of many other such incidents. People want social equality and justice.
The bourgeois class rushed to secure itself :
The capitalists realize that they survive on borrowed time. The Corbyn experience has shown to them that the idea of overcoming capitalism is alive and kicking. The Emergency Coronavirus Act 2020 – passed with hardly any debate by video-link during lockdown – is not a document for protection against a virus. It is a document for protection against subversion. It gives to the government two years of unprecedented powers to detain, arrest and corral – as well as to use troops alongside police – stop public meetings and surveil legally entire groups of individuals.
The Coronavirus Act gives to the employers the right to interpret government guidance. These can make overtime compulsory, increase the working hours, turn Bank holidays into working days. A proposed staggered 3-day working week, if ever implemented, will mean work-sharing with loss of pay. Add to this that the new Immigration Bill takes away the right of European workers to come and live in Britain. Immigrants already in the UK and earning less than £30,000 will run the risk of being deported. Ian Dunt, a specialist in civil liberties issues, says that this Bill is “the most extensive encroachment on civil liberties [in the UK] outside wartime”.
The capitalist class did not wait long to shore up its structures. Only 6 weeks in the epidemic – and Johnson waiting for the British population to develop “herd-immunity” (by everyone catching the virus) – the Bank of England promised to lend at least 435 billion to the government. A sum which the government will lend mostly to corporations and banks. With the country already in debt to the tune of £1.75 trillion, this money will probably be ‘printed’. But these are sums that should have been used to transform society, invest in renewable forms of energy, clean the air, reduce the pollution, create jobs. Instead of this, the profits of the Private Equity firms and Hedge Funds are soaring, as they speculate with state money on the ups, and the downs (by shorting) of the stock exchange, both in the US and Britain.
In the background, Johnson is ‘getting Brexit done’, as he says. To the extent that he has succeeded in detaching the UK market from the European Union, he has drawn closer to the United States with which he is negotiating a Free Trade Agreement. He swears that the NHS is not included in the talks, but the way US companies win contracts in the NHS suggests the opposite. This is going to assist the further privatization of the NHS, and perhaps put an end to it as ‘the socialist example’ that many on the left have considered it to be.
The Johnson government has no support :
It is with a thousand initiatives that the working class and its trade unions forced the government to close production in March. It is the doctors, the nurses, the teachers and the ordinary people who obliged the government to make U-Turns and start acting sensibly. A big defeat came to Johnson when he was forced to grant residence status to the families of the three immigrant doctors killed by the virus in their hospitals (with hardly any PPEs). Then Johnson – who was himself saved from the virus by 2 immigrant nurses – insisted that each member of these 3 families should now pay the statutory bi-annual immigration health surcharge of £600. The general indignation was so sweeping and universal that he had to waive this too, although this exoneration only applies to these 3 families!
When the government announced that all UK schools were to reopen on 1st June, the leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland disagreed and said they had not been consulted. The teachers’ trade unions said the government was putting “wealth above health”, and a petition gathered thousands of signatures demanding that schools only reopen incrementally. The teachers argued correctly that the rate of death was still too high. Johnson and his Education Minister Gavin Williamson who had originally wanted to take the teachers to court, finally backed down and agreed with the teachers. This is a government with no logical sense and no social authority.
The panic of capitalism on seeing the economy sinking into recession and depression (and not even enough ‘immigrants’ to pick the fruit and vegetables on the farms) forces it to recognise the absolute essentialness of labour in production. No capital without labour, and that is a fact. When the general public applauds and treasures the doctors and nurses, it is in tribute to their irreplaceable function as workers in the battle for life. The authority of the working class grew with J Corbyn, and it continues to grow. The trade union leaders are pressed by their members to fight for the basic rights of the workers; and in the Labour Party, Mr Starmer – who only wanted to be a ‘constructive critic’ – now finds that he must condemn the government much more fiercely than intended.
Let’s tighten the trade union, population and Labour Left front:
It was a great feat of human solidarity when the peoples of the world went to demonstrate against the killing of George Floyd. They acted as if a world political party had guided them. Originally, the 4 US police officers had hardly been identified. Then, one of them was dismissed and charged with 3rd degree murder and manslaughter. Then this turned into 2nd degree murder, whilst the other three were now dismissed, and then charged. Without the demonstrations, little of this would have happened, as usual. The world’s population witnesses the advance of anti-human intent in the capitalist class. As workers and protesters unite for social justice and equality, they create a social force capable of pitting the Pentagon against Trump in the matter of sending troops to Minnesota, for instance. Similar forces have stood in Trump’s way when Iranian tankers delivered solidarity petrol to Venezuela.
In Britain, Johnson speaks hypocritically of understanding “the cause” of “Black Lives Matter”. If he refrains from calling the demonstrations ‘illegal’ (as per the Coronavirus Bill), it is because he has not the social authority to defend this new Bill.
Throughout lockdown, people drew closer, helped each other, ensured no one went hungry, looked after the elderly, the self-isolating, the children. They linked together the Doctors Union (BMA), the Nurses Union (RCN who now recovered the bursary), the Teachers’ Unions and the social care unions (PCS, Unite, GMB and others). Together, they created a social, political and cultural force that is basically anti-capitalist.
Although the crisis in the Labour Party keeps the Corbyn Manifesto suppressed, all the ideas in that Manifesto show the way forward along the road towards social justice and equality. People bind together the trade unions, the charities, the volunteers, the local authorities and the working class, to make them serve social justice and equality. It is a matter of time before this finds an organic expression in peoples assemblies and local organisations of popular power.
The platform ‘Never Again’ in France shows that it is possible and necessary to consolidate the social front created during the lockdown. In this front, all the political parties of the left participate through their members. The same goes on in Britain where the Labour left is present in all the solidarity actions. It even organises its own. Public meetings are needed to denounce the fragmentation of the NHS that has cost thousands of lives. With huge levels of State borrowing, the working class will be expected to repay, as usual. One way to object is to hold public meetings, join forces and consolidate the solidarity for justice and equality so far developed.
The Lab0ur Party, or the Labour left, must organise public meetings. It must denounce the privatisation of the NHS that has removed from the organisation its capacity to act rationally in the defence of life.
One must forestall the new attacks on the NHS from the Free Trade Treaty with the United States.
All the private and privatised parts of the NHS – care homes included – must be nationalised. The NHS must be re-centralised within itself (primary care included), and linked closely with the public health services in the rest of the world.
For all its weaknesses, China has proven that it operates outside the speculative systems of capitalism. Thanks to its ability to plan for human need, it found the concern, the coordination, the food supplies, the funds, the tests and the means to defeat the virus like no other country has done.
Public meetings are needed to consolidate the solidarity front developed in the lockdown. Passivity and delays on our Labour Party’s part will let the multinationals use the State’s research funds to slap their intellectual property-rights on any vaccine.
Neighbours’ solidarity fronts need to be allocated space in a political, trade union and labour fronts. In the immediate, it is necessary to propose taking the Johnson leadership to court. There is even every reason to create popular tribunals to try this government and work to bring it down.
Posadists Today, 31.5.20