The confrontation over Manchester between the Johnson Tory government and the Labour Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, has brought to the fore that the Tories are using the Covid pandemic and the results of their own deliberate negligence and duplicity, to further their class war against the working class, attacks on living standards, and ambitions to impoverish people and create a fearful, passive population who are just raw material for exploitation. Burnham’s refusal to endorse the Tories’ Tier 3 ‘very high’ partial lockdown measures and sign up for the impoverishment of the Manchester working class, while it has not defeated the Tories, has galvanised the hatred of much of the working class population in this country against Johnson’s government.
The real point of the Tory intransigence in Manchester was not so much the quarantine measures themselves, but cuts to furlough pay. It is of a piece with the Tories’ voting to deprive schoolkids of meal vouchers during the school holidays, which was a concession extracted in the early part of the pandemic because of popular outrage over the further impoverishment of poor children. This has created a wave of outrage and class sentiment that even seeped into parliament when Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner lost her temper with some particularly vile Tory specimen and called him “scum”.
Of course, she apologised for briefly speaking a fragment of that truth parliamentary procedures are expressly designed to suppress; that the interests of working class people require war to the death against the bourgeois scum whose political representatives sit in parliament. Rayner is less directly such a representative herself; but being part of Labour as a bourgeois workers party her kind come under potent pressure from below at times like this.
Andy Burnham, despite his refusal to endorse the government’s latest pretend strategy to supposedly combat Covid-19 with its illogical, half-baked and arbitrary three tier system of graduated restrictions, has no coherent demands to counterpose to the government. He was bid down from £90 million initial demands for funding a local furlough as good as the 80% original from the spring, to a mere £65 million but refused to allow himself to be bid down to the £60 million the Tories were prepared to agree to, and their much reduced furlough. So, no deal was reached by the 20 October deadline.
It has been suggested that Burnham, now dubbed “King of the North”, may be positioning himself as a future Labour Party leader, in the manner of Boris Johnson, hoping to jump from Mayor of a major city to potential PM, as Keir Starmer has been so craven and ineffectual that even in this enormous crisis the Tory government still manages to head most opinion polls. Burnham, to his credit, refused to join the 2016 ‘Chicken Coup’ against Jeremy Corbyn, which also gives him a semblance of clean hands. However, his own craven neoliberal support for austerity, reiterated when he stood for the Labour leadership in 2015, and complicity in NHS privatisation under Blair and Brown, make him not supportable by socialists.
It is notable that some of the concessions Johnson made in the early stages of the pandemic to working class people, through the furlough scheme and some increases in benefits, were a product of the fact that Jeremy Corbyn was still leader of the Labour Party until April and was in a position to make sharp criticisms of the Tory regime and act as a focus for working class discontent. Since Starmer became leader this has collapsed; he has grovelled in the most disgusting manner before the government, sacking ‘left’ shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey because she backed the Teachers Unions’ resistance to premature reopening of schools during the pandemic, with a smear about ‘anti-Semitism’. His sackings of other mildly leftist shadow ministers for voting against government measures like legalising murder and rape by ‘Spy Cops’, show what this was really about. Starmer is Johnson’s fag, Eton style.
One result of this is that the current tiered measures are much more geared to a bailout of big business than supporting workers than even the inadequate measures for the first wave. Starmer says virtually nothing about that, even though he has belatedly, along with SAGE, started calling for a two-to-three-week firebreak lockdown to arrest the current virus spread. And Burnham does not address this either.
As a former Blairite turned ‘soft left’ Burnham is not remotely capable of leading the kind of fightback the working class needs against this hard-right Brexiteer Tory government, though his observations about what is driving the regional lockdown policy of the government have often been quite sharp:
“Today we communicated our clear and unanimous view to the Government. It is wrong to place some of the poorest parts of England in a punishing lockdown without proper support for the people and businesses affected.
“To do so will result in certain hardship, job losses, business failure. It will cause harm in a different way to people’s mental health and is not certain to control the virus. People are fed up of being treated in this way, the North is fed up of being pushed around. We aren’t going to be pushed around any more.
“”The Government is not giving city regions like ours and the Liverpool City Region the necessary financial backing for full lockdowns of that kind. That is why we have unanimously opposed the Government’s plans for Tier 3. They are flawed and unfair.
“They are asking us to gamble our residents’ jobs, homes and businesses and a large chunk of our economy on a strategy that their own experts tell them might not work. We would never sign up for that.
“While this is not necessarily Greater Manchester’s view, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer also told us last night that the only certain thing to work is a national lockdown. But the Government told us this morning it is unwilling to do that because of the damage it will do to the national economy. And yet that is what they want to impose on the North West.”https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1348229/manchester-lockdown-andy-burnham-tier-three-latest-coronavirus-boris-johnson
There is huge pressure building up on the Tory government about the likely death toll of many more tens or even hundreds of thousands from the escalating pandemic. Around 60,000 excess deaths have already resulted from the first wave, that is, on top of the 10,000 or so that generally die from ordinary flu in a ‘normal’ British winter. The campaign about free school meals is only a part of it, but celebrities such as football star Marcus Rashford, and the mass outrage behind them, have got the Tories running scared. They have good reason to be even more scared of the death toll from the pandemic that they have allowed to get out of control again.
Fighting the Working Class, Not the Virus
A comment in a recent Facebook discussion, by Martin Deane, a long-time election candidate for the Green Party, sums up where the UK under Johnson stands in the international scheme of things regarding Covid-19:
“The UK is one of 17 countries with over 10k Covid deaths. 195 are under 10k. Look it up on Worldometer. Most of the world has washed its hands of the virus! Of them 155 countries have under 1k deaths. The UK really is an outlier with its 65k spike, 50k Of which were Covid deaths. And now facing tens of thousands more…”
This is the result of a government stratagem of not fighting against the virus but fighting against the popular will and resolve to fight to eliminate the virus. The whole litany of behaviour of Johnson’s Tory regime since the pandemic emerged has been a more mendacious, camouflaged variant of Trumpism, extreme, demented neoliberal, free-market fundamentalism. This was prefigured by his bizarre speech in Greenwich in on February 2:
“…in that context, we were starting to hear some bizarre, autarchic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases like Coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation, that go beyond what is medically rational, to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment, humanity needs some government somewhere, that is willing at least to make the case, powerfully, for freedom of exchange.
Some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles, and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of populations, of the Earth, to buy and sell freely among each other. Here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you with all humility, that the UK is ready for that role.”https://www.facebook.com/185180654855189/videos/512321552989037
At the beginning of the pandemic, the likely toll was laid out for the government through SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) by scientists and epidemiologists from Imperial College, London:
“Unmitigated, the death number was 510,000… Mitigated we were told it was going to be 250,000. Once you see a figure of take no further action and a quarter of a million people die, the question you ask is, ‘What action?’”Sunday Times, 22 March
These figures have been ridiculed by the many ‘Covid-deniers’ in part because one of the key scientists who warned of this scenario was Neil Ferguson, who later was caught out by the tabloid press as having been visited by a woman he did not live with as part of a personal relationship, in breach of the social distancing and lockdown rules at that time.
His projections were dismissed as rubbish, on grounds that he was a ‘hypocrite’ for not adhering completely to measures that he advocated, not only by Covid-deniers but also by those close to the Johnson government that embarked on a rapid and reckless winding down of precautionary measures beginning in June, ending up in early September with their public demand for most people to ‘go back to work’, to ‘save’ the city centres from economic regression.
But this is probably the sharpest expression ever of the logical fallacy of the ad hominem denunciation. Because his personal hypocrisy and his breach of the rules mean nothing in relation to whether his projections were correct, so not. They may well turn out to be correct. In this regard, Ferguson is now warning that it will be necessary to close at least secondary schools to control the currently resurgent virus. This is being ignored – for now, as was the call by Chris Whitty and SAGE for a 2-3 week ‘circuit-breaker’ national lockdown to slow the current ‘wave’ in mid-September, rejected by the Tories because it would damage the economy. ‘Herd immunity’ is still very much alive and kicking.
Johnson raised the possibility of a policy of allowing the SARS-2 Coronavirus to “move through the population” unrestricted, so the population would have to “take it on the chin” and thus develop “herd immunity” in a TV interview on 5th March. Having laid down this strategy as a possibility, he rowed back from openly endorsing it, saying it was necessary to “balance” this with other considerations.
In fact “herd immunity” was the government’s strategy to deal with the pandemic. Initially it was virtually open. As Dr David Halpern, a leading figure in the ‘Nudge Unit’ (‘Behavioural Insight Team’), a semi-privatised government body that looks for ways to manipulate the population to comply with Tory austerity, laid out in a BBC Interview:
“… and there’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows as we think it probably will do, where you’ll want to cocoon, you’ll want to protect those at-risk groups so that they basically don’t catch the disease, and by the time that they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity’s been achieved in the rest of the population.”https://twitter.com/i/status/1238097745971421184
Johnson’s ideological guru Dominic Cummings attended meetings of SAGE right from the early days of the pandemic: he is not a scientist or an epidemiologist. He evidently had a major influence on Sir Patrick Vallance, one of the government’s two main scientific advisers to this day (the other being Chris Whitty). Unlike policy wonks like David Halpern, Cummings was well aware it would not be possible to cocoon elderly people from an epidemic that infected the bulk of the population, and laid out what the real attitude of central figures in the government is to the Covid pandemic:
“Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s senior aide, became convinced that Britain would be better able to resist a lethal second wave of the disease next winter if Whitty’s prediction that 60% to 80% of the population became infected was right, and the UK developed ‘herd immunity’
At a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings outlined the government’s strategy. Those present said it was ‘herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.”Sunday Times, op-cit
This fits in very well with the incredible care homes scandal, with Covid patients discharged untested into care homes with the resulting carnage of many thousands, and the masks scandal, where billions were spent by privateers like Deloitte on substandard PPE, much of which went into the pockets of scammers.
And of course, Cummings’ own blatant undermining of the lockdown, driving from London to Durham, and to a local tourist spot, then back again, while he and his wife were infected in defiance of lockdown rules, getting away with it through a tissue of feeble lies, was designed to undermine popular support for public health measures by encouraging the view that they were all a racket to protect the privileged. This facet certainly was effective! In Britain, the first ‘wave’ was never defeated, because the measures taken to combat it were never remotely adequate. This was deliberate.
The battle to starve the virus of the chance to spread, driven by working class people from below from the beginning of the pandemic, was undertaken by the Johnson government only with great reluctance in late March, and by May they were already engaged in machinations to begin lifting it, even though there were still over hundreds of Covid daily deaths.
The population refused to play ball: the attempt to reopen schools at the beginning of June was a flop, as more than half stayed away. But from then the quarantine measures were rapidly and prematurely lifted and undermined. And schools were re-opened on a compulsory basis in September even though teenagers at least are proven to spread the disease just as easily as adults.
The ‘NHS Test and Trace’ system that was put in place in June (after testing was scandalously abandoned by the Tories in March) is a privatised scam. It is nothing to do with the NHS: £12 billion was handed to Serco for not much in particular, to invest in obsolete spreadsheets for recording test results, so thousands of results were ‘mislaid’. Tests are slow and often unavailable: people are often told to travel as far as Cummings did just to get a test! And barely 60% of contacts of infected peopled are traced when to have an effective system it needs to be between 80 and 90%. Around £8 billion of the £12 billion given to Serco is unaccounted for, most likely having been set aside for dividends and/or salted away in tax havens.
Punctuated Herd Immunity
One serious attempt to deal with the effects of the government’s duplicity and the craven nature of the response to it has come from the Workers Party GB, led by George Galloway and Joti Brar. Their recent statement, published on the 17th October, is titled “Lockdowns are neither effective nor fair, but a further proof of government failure to manage the health emergency effectively”. This has given some people the impression that the WPGB is siding with the anti-lockdown, Covid-denying idiots and dupes of the far right, but this is not true, as you can see when you read the statement. It says of the government’s Three Tier policy:
“This policy is neither fish nor fowl; it is neither effective nor fair, and, by compounding increasing levels of hardship and poverty, it is taking a heavy toll on the British working class.
We have no confidence in the leadership of this government, and no confidence in the official Labour party opposition, to protect our interests and lead us through the crisis.”https://workerspartybritain.org/2020/10/17/statement-lockdowns-ineffective-unfair-proof-government-failure-manage-health-emergency-effectively-covid-19/
It is clear that their view of how the pandemic could be fought was broadly correct:
“The Workers Party’s call for widespread testing, tracing and social isolation and care of covid patients – the public health measures that proved successful in eradicating the virus in China and elsewhere – was ignored. Travellers from the most affected parts of the globe (principally Europe and the USA) continued to fly into British airports throughout the worst months of the crisis, despite the supposed ‘lockdown’.”ibid
And they have even come up with a sharp and synthetic characterisation of what the government’s real strategy is:
“It is increasingly clear that these lockdown measures simply represent a kind of ‘punctuated’ herd immunity, and that the government has no intention of taking the measures necessary really to safeguard the wellbeing of those unemployed, elderly or impoverished workers from whom it makes little money, and therefore sees only as a burden.
“For effective protective measures – including the reversal of NHS privatisation, investment in public services, the creation of decent jobs and livelihoods for working people – undermine the very essence of the government’s goal, which is to safeguard the interest of the billionaire class at all costs, and at workers’ expense.”ibid
Fight Covid! Human Need not Profits!
Unfortunately their demands for the crisis seem to somewhat passively accept that in losing confidence in Johnson’s mendacious government and its fake protective measures and lockdown, the whole idea of quarantine measures has “lost the confidence of a large section of British workers, who are tired of the fruitless hardships they have endured.”
Thus the mistaken emphasis of the headline, that “lockdowns” (apparently in general) “are neither effective nor fair” which despite the evident intention of the authors, does cause some confusion and can mislead honest militants into embracing the idiot Covid-deniers, despite the best of intentions.
The demands of the Workers Party in this situation are too modest. They demand
“… a free and comprehensive healthcare system. We want the NHS to be able to do what is expected of it, and for it not to be attacked at every opportunity by hostile governments.
“This is also why we are calling for a corona wealth tax – a 5% one-off tax on fortunes exceeding £10 million. Because the pandemic is just the tip of the inequality iceberg – for far too long now our nation’s problems have been socialised and the profits privatised.”ibid
Even though these demands are correct as far as they go, what is missing is any immediate demands related to what is to be done about the pandemic itself. It appears that this is the result of despair and capitulation at the mood that they have noted in part of the working class, not necessarily the most advanced part, “who are tired of the fruitless hardships they have endured.“
This is not the most advanced layer of the working class; this is the layer that is most likely to be influenced by the right-wing populism that drove support for Brexit and Johnson in the first place, and maybe even by the Covid-denying right-wing idiots and the confused part of the left that is tailing them. The most advanced sections of the working class are very well aware that the discrediting of the government’s appalling duplicity and mendacity does not mean that Covid is any less dangerous. Without serious measures to suppress it, or without a vaccine to develop real herd immunity, many tens, even hundreds of thousands will die.
Whatever the mood in the working class, whatever the ‘concern’ about the economy, we must demand that all economic resources be devoted to protecting the health and lives of the population. We demand proper measures of social distancing/isolation to crush the virus and bring it down to manageable levels that can be handled by a proper testing and tracing system, be implemented and be paid for in its entirety by the capitalists. We demand full pay during this period for all workers, whether regular, casualised or self-employed, immigrant or non-immigrant, to ensure no one falls victim to destitution or starvation. We demand an end to all evictions and the housing of the homeless, not as a temporary, reversible stopgap, but securely and permanently. We demand a rise in benefits for all claimants to at least the level of a living wage, to be decided on by workers and claimants themselves, through them becoming organised in unions and similar bodies that may come into being in the struggle.
Above all, we demand that production and the economy be remodelled and re-organised to make its overarching purpose the preservation of life and considerations of human need, not private profit. The objective situation of the pandemic demands this, and in a sense, though fear of the disease in the short term makes it difficult to organise mass actions to force it, it can also act as a learning experience for the mass of the population as to the need for socialism, whose essence is production for human need instead of profit. The programme of any putative working-class party should be formulated as to make that more and more conscious among the most advanced layers of the working class.