As widely predicted, Covid-19 is now unfolding a second deadly wave. Once again Johnson’s government has been caught asleep at the wheel, as with the first outbreak where we suffered poor planning, inadequate PPE, pathetic testing and tracing, delayed lockdown and vulnerable elderly people sent from hospitals to care homes with little protection.
We now face a repeat manifested as farce. The evidence: a refusal to heed scientific and medical advice from SAGE for a national ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown; failure to devolve an ineffective, essentially privatised test and trace system to local authorities with local expertise; a much reduced furlough job and business support scheme; Westminster government standoffs with largely northern local leaders; and so on.
Again, the pandemic is hitting the poor, the disadvantaged and Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities disproportionately hard. The homeless are abandoned, while child poverty rises. The government rejected Labour proposals backing Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals during holidays and a wider package of family support.
Capping this, we now face the prospect of mass unemployment, excess deaths running at over 60,000 on last year, U-turns on schools and on listening to the science and medical advice, and top civil servants driven out. This is compounded by the prospect of a no-deal or thin deal Brexit. The inmates have well and truly taken over the asylum as Dominic Cummings’ populist ideologues take a wrecking ball to the post-war social settlement.
A crash out of the EU as the transition period ends in December underlines where dogma and ‘shock capitalism’ ideology leads: to law-breaking and a reckless disregard for people’s needs. This government has torn up the international treaty negotiated and signed by Boris Johnson and campaigned for in the Tory manifesto. The supposed party of ‘law and order’ trashes its own laws just as it prorogued Parliament and bulldozed through the draconian legislation on Covid-19.
In the current issue of Chartist, Julie Ward and Nick Dearden look at different aspects of Brexit. Nationalist intransigence on one hand and a refusal to enshrine agreed food and environmental standards in law on the other betray a race-to-the-bottom mentality. Trade deals are complex and the implications of failure to agree terms with the UK’s biggest trading partner (the EU has over 40% of our trade) spells chlorinated US chicken, unsafe workplaces and worse.
So Tory incompetence threatens both lives and livelihoods. The irony is that the small state, low tax, deregulated capitalism that zealots espouse has been replaced by massive state intervention more akin to social democratic governments. The scale of the spending package from Chancellor Sunak – at around £230 billion – has seen a huge rise in national debt, while illustrating the necessity for state support and the failure of the private sector in a crisis.
Dennis Leech argues Labour must ditch the idea of balanced budgets and put the needs of people first in making a full break with neoliberalism. Richard Murphy makes a similar case for using debt and borrowing as a way to reboot the economy.
In the face of 1980s-scale mass unemployment, Paul Nowak reminds us that trade unions have been on the front line of protecting workers and advocating a sustainable recovery plan. Drawing on his Chartist virtual Labour Party conference talk, he stresses that Sunak’s second job protection plan will not succeed for millions of self-employed and precarious workers. He calls for Labour to champion a decarbonised investment programme that brings workers onto boards in democratised workplaces. Hana Abid highlights the central role women have played in the pandemic, highlighting the Women’s Budget Group report advocating a new deal for social carers, health workers and women whose unpaid or low paid work is under-recognised.
Simon Tait warns of the plight of the creative industries, a bigger sector than finance, which, despite limited grants in October, still faces oblivion in many places, particularly theatre and live music venues. While schools have returned, teachers on the front line have been badly let down by government, says Dave Lister. He paints a picture of compound failure, from broken promises on laptops to free school meals and lack of financial support for safety measures.
The charade of ‘all in it together’ is over. While SAGE, Keir Starmer, Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland advocated or implemented a limited ‘circuit breaker’ to slow the virus and protect the NHS, Johnson rejected the scientific advice. Instead, he chose to engage in divisive attacks on northern ‘red wall’ city leaders, like Manchester metro mayor Andy Burnham, for demanding evidence and adequate financial support – before accepting, belatedly, that a new national lockdown was inevitable.
While stoking divisions with Europe and UK regions and nations, the government deepens its hostile environment policies. Olivia Bridge and Robbie Scott remind us that action on Black Lives Matter is as necessary in the UK as the US. They highlight systemic discrimination and racism in our institutions, from private and public sectors to immigration and criminal justice, and advocate a rounded history of black experience embedded in the school curriculum.
We will hear more divisive nationalist rhetoric as the year-end deadline for an EU deal approaches. Depending on the US election outcome, Tory populism could become shriller. In contrast, Labour needs to up its game by voicing the case for ethical international agreements, the needs of all parts of the UK, respect for the rule of law and human rights, rejection of the ‘spy cops’ and Overseas Operations bills – as advocated by Apsana Begum MP – and turning the heat on government pandemic failures, from test and trace to inadequate job support.