Socialism: the only answer

RCG protest in solidarity with socialist Cuba

Socialists face a huge challenge today: how are we going to build a movement which defends the working class in conditions of ever-deepening economic crisis and uncontrolled pandemic? We face a government so ideologically opposed to state intervention and so committed to the private sector that it is prepared to sacrifice the lives of thousands of people and contemptuously push millions to the edge in a relentless pursuit of its political interests. It is completely indifferent to the widespread evidence of its serial incompetence and unbridled corruption. Its prime concern is to remain in office for as long as possible to pursue the interests of its rentier ruling class allies. And yet, despite the more than 100,000 Covid-19 deaths, the hundreds of thousands of job losses, the soaring poverty among those forced into the clutches of Universal Credit, and the exhaustion of the NHS, there is no force representing or defending the interests of the working class, no organised anti-capitalist opposition.

The Tory government had shown its naked class character from the onset of the pandemic. Prime Minister Johnson missed five key meetings of the emergency Cobra committee in January and February 2020. As infections started to soar and hospitals to fill with very ill patients, government circles contemplated a ‘herd immunity’ strategy in addressing the pandemic, only to be told that the result would be at least 500,000 deaths before it was achieved. Public Health England (PHE) ran a test and trace system until mid-March 2020 when it was overwhelmed by the number of cases: its budget had been slashed by 40% since its establishment in 2013, and it had only 290 contact tracers to cover the whole of England. Sidelining the PHE and the 130 local authority public health teams in favour of the private sector, the government issued a plethora of contracts to more than a dozen private companies to provide the same service at the grossly inflated cost of £22bn. None had any experience of contact tracing, least of all the 25,000 contact tracers who were to be recruited on the minimum wage, salaries which were a fraction of the £1,000 a day paid to 900 Deloitte consultants to mismanage the whole process. Despite the name ‘NHS Test and Trace’, the system has nothing to do with the NHS: it was a deliberate misrepresentation to give unmerited credibility to what has been a consistently shambolic service.

Reactionary pseudo-science

The determination of the government to interrupt as little as possible the serious business of profit-making was evident first in the critical delay in authorising the first national lockdown, and then in the arbitrary manner in which it was lifted. These delays and arbitrariness have characterised both subsequent lockdowns. Criminally, it preferred the advice of the pseudo-scientists behind the reactionary Great Barrington Declaration to that coming from the real scientists in its SAGE advisory committee to reject the latter’s call for a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown in September 2020. Instead, it implemented a tier system which failed to stop the virus spreading, and inevitably led to the second national lockdown. However, with far looser restrictions than the first one, this had little impact and when it was lifted on 2 December the spread of the infection was being driven by a much more contagious variant. The predictable consequence was a third lockdown as hospitalisation rates soared, but the damage had been done: by early January 2021, infection rates were 60,000 cases a day across England and the NHS in London and the South East was buckling under the pressure. By 26 January 2021 the official number of Covid-19 deaths had exceeded 100,000.

Mismanagement

Every element of mismanagement by the Tory government has been a consequence of an ideological dogmatism grounded in the parasitical character of British capitalism. Throughout the pandemic, it has lavished money on the private sector, particularly on companies run by or associated with its political allies. In contrast, it has placed every obstacle possible in the way of extending extra finance to the state sector. Up to £10bn has been spent on over-priced Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), much of it without any form of competitive tendering, much of it supplied by companies with no experience of producing anything let alone PPE, and much of it by companies who were able to have their ‘bids’ fast-tracked through a ‘VIP lane’ through their association with Tory political figures. In contrast, NHS hospitals have had funding bids to prepare for the expected winter surge in Covid-19 cases either ignored or knocked back, despite Chancellor Sunak’s claim that the service would ‘get what it needs’. The amounts are a fraction of what the government has thrown at its test and trace system – £500m extra hospital spending rejected compared to £22bn promised for privatised test and trace run by Dido Harding, friend of Prime Minister Johnson. Meanwhile local authorities across the countries are preparing their 11th year of budget cuts as central government support is reduced to a minimum: Labour-run Liverpool is cutting £15.4m, Manchester £52m, while Newham in East London is facing a £250m deficit.

The impact particularly on the poorest sections of the working class has been disastrous. While swathes of better-off workers had some protection by being able to work from home and even save money, two million were immediately forced onto Universal Credit (UC). While the government conceded a £20 per week uplift to both UC and Working Tax Credit, at the same time it refused to abolish the punitive five-week wait-time. Nearly two-thirds of the claimants from the first lockdown are being forced to pay back UC loans they had to take out to survive those first five weeks. As we go to press, the government is refusing to commit to extending the £20 uplift on which 6.2 million low-income families now depend. Even before the pandemic, 2.2 million people were seriously food insecure and 1.9 million were malnourished; as the pandemic struck, foodbank usage soared, and in the six months April-September 2020 the Trussell Trust had to distribute 1.25 million food parcels compared to 1.9 million in the previous 12 months.

Unsafe working conditions

Meanwhile one in nine people are being forced to return to work in unsafe conditions. They include workers at the DVLA in Swansea, 500 of whom have contracted Covid-19 out of a workforce of 1,850. PHE data shows that there were more than 500 outbreaks, or suspected outbreaks, in offices in the second half of 2020 – more than in supermarkets, construction sites, warehouses, restaurants and cafes combined. The government says that workers can report unsafe coronavirus conditions to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), but funding cuts have slashed the number of full-time local authority health and safety inspectors, from 1,020 in 2010 to 390 by July 2020 across the UK. There have been no prosecutions for Covid-19 safety breaches, and only 0.1% of 97,000 complaints have resulted in an enforcement notice.

While the government has made much of a £500 grant to low-income workers to self-isolate, they are dependent on a letter from their employer confirming they cannot work from home. To qualify, workers also need to be in receipt of either Universal Credit, Housing Benefit or Working Tax Credits. Seven out of eight households do not receive these benefits and would be unable to claim, and 80% of such claims were refused in Liverpool when it was involved in a mass testing pilot. 40% of the Liverpool population got tested in the pilot, but one local clinician’s estimate was that this was a mere 4% in the most deprived areas: poor working class people want to isolate, but cannot afford to. Those in precarious work, part-time or temporary employment are most vulnerable to the virus anyway, and especially black and minority ethnic groups, and ONS data show that the lowest-paid workers suffer three times the mortality rates of higher-paid white collar workers. 

Labour – no opposition

Johnson has got away so far with his outrageous approach to the pandemic because he does not face any serious, organised opposition. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s promise of ‘constructive engagement’ with the government amounted to ideological capitulation. There has been no condemnation of the government’s strategy. Even as the 100,000th death was announced on 26 January, Starmer’s criticism was completely muted: there was no charging the government with responsibility for the appalling death toll. His associates were equally mealy-mouthed: Shadow Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves could only complain that ‘on a number of occasions the government should have acted sooner to put in place the measures that were needed to protect those lives’ while Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth could just bring himself to say ‘I just don’t accept the government did everything they could during the pandemic’. This is not opposition: it is providing a political cover for criminality. Labour’s utterly ineffectual response has contributed to Britain having the worst mortality rate per head of population in the world. Starmer is appalled at the prospect of extra-parliamentary opposition to the government’s conduct and he is determined to keep a tight lid on such a possibility – hence his criticism of Black Lives Matter protests when they involved toppling or defacing statues or opposing police funding. Labour will oppose anything that smacks of real resistance to this appalling government; it has taken footballer Marcus Rashford and his campaign over free school meals to show what is possible with a modicum of determination.

And what of the Labour left? It still holds on to the delusion that it can change the Labour Party despite the fact that it is losing position after position within its structures. It no longer has a majority on the National Executive Committee, and no representatives on its real authority, the NEC Senior Officers’ group. Any expression of opposition to Labour’s response to the Equalities Commission report on anti-Semitism within the Party, or to Labour’s support for the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, or expressions of no confidence in Starmer over his treatment of Jeremy Corbyn, results in immediate suspension. Debate on these issues is ruled to be ‘not competent business’ for local organisations. The appointment of a former Israeli spy to lead the monitoring of social media is yet another affirmation of Labour’s position as a pro-Zionist party – and there is nothing the left can do about it. Instead it spends huge efforts in building ineffectual campaigns to fight suspensions and expulsions as it is desperate to avoid permanent exclusion. Hopes that Corbyn might lead a breakaway were always pipedreams: he had made it clear that he will not voluntarily leave the party and has instead set up his Peace and Justice Project to keep supporters within the Labour fold. 

It is clear that capitalism cannot solve the problems facing humanity – it can only make them worse. That is the fundamental lesson from the experience of the pandemic. The Tory government’s determination to exclude the state from attempts to resolve the crisis has merely compounded those problems. Socialism is the only answer, and we have to make that central to every intervention we make. We must be out on the streets and in local communities to defend the interests of the working class as a whole – whether it is fighting racism, the impact of the pandemic, the punitive character of the benefits system, the privatisation of public services, or the exorbitant rent demands of the commercially-driven universities. We must orient towards those who already dismiss the possibility of Labour serving as a vehicle for social progress and who are hardest hit by the pandemic: black people and youth in particular. They will be the leadership of a new movement which will have to fight Labour in order to destroy parasitic capitalism.