Political Report 9 January 2021

A new year generally brings new hopes.  While January is dark and cold, at least the days are getting longer, helping to breed a sense of optimism that things will improve generally.

In 2021, we desperately need that improvement.  At the present time, the Covid-19 pandemic is out of control, with hospitals and NHS staff almost at breaking point.  London Mayor Sadiq Khan has announced a Covid emergency there.  There are more people in hospital now than in the first wave – and the number is still rising.  It is inevitable that this second wave will lead to more deaths than the first.

New confirmed cases are rising in all 4 UK nations.  In England, 1 in 50 on average are testing positive – 1 in 30 in London.  In our region, figures include 1 in 100 in Carlisle, 1 in 125 in Hartlepool, and 1 in 400 in Newcastle.

The case rate per 100,000 people is highest in the 20-29, 30-39 and 40-49 age groups, with 50-59 not far behind.  The incidence rate is lowest for white and mixed race people, and up to 2.5 times higher for people of Indian, Pakistani, other Asian and Afro-Caribbean background.

75% of people in ICU beds are under 75.  Weekly ICU admissions with Covid-19 are already about 3 x the typical ‘bad flu’ season, and still rising.

The Westminster Government – after ignoring scientific advice, designating ‘Tiers’ of control which haven’t worked, and keeping schools open as much as possible, despite the clear evidence that schools are forcing houses for the pandemic – has finally announced a renewed lockdown for England, including all schools and colleges.  Scotland was just ahead on lockdown, and Wales just behind on schools.

Boris Johnson and Co were warned, repeatedly – particularly by the Independent SAGE group – of the likely consequences of their inaction.  Many of the 70,000-80,000 excess deaths UK-wide could have been avoided, had Westminster and the devolved administrations restricted movement and instituted a proper, publicly-run, ‘Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support’ system from Day 1.  That should have included international travel, on which restrictions have just now been imposed.

Furthermore, it is blatantly obvious that reducing controls such as social distancing, and allowing young people – generally symptomless when infectious – to mix, will provide conditions for the pandemic to spread rapidly.  Indeed, these are precisely the conditions which can foster mutations such as the new-variant Covid-19. 

Now, vaccination is being touted as a solution. But:

  • Even on the ‘best’ scenario, the 4 ‘most vulnerable’ groups won’t all be vaccinated (for the first time) till mid-February;
  • The delay between the first and second doses leaves open the possibility of breeding immune strains of the virus;
  • Key workers like teachers and retail staff are not included;
  • Vaccination may not prevent transmission – you can still get ill, just not very;
  • We have a new, more infectious variant – if it becomes dominant everywhere, R might still not fall below 1;
  • The ‘key worker’ definition has been broadened, so more people are going to work;
  • More children are going to school than in March;
  • The 2 metre distancing is not being strictly enforced; and
  • The streets are busier.

Is this just Government incompetence, or is there something more to it?  Well, yes and yes.  Politicians such as Boris Johnson are not only scientifically untrained but also have an overweening sense of their own importance and abilities.  So, they make decisions without really thinking through the consequences.  But their incompetence also reflects the demands of the class they serve, albeit now caught in a crisis which it has largely brought upon itself.  We have seen such class-linked incompetence in the past, for example in the Suez crisis of 1956, and the unpreparedness of the Chamberlain government at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Monopoly capital wants minimum interference with its ability to conduct business as normal, to maximise its profits.  In Britain, it has generally been focused on short-term gains, while minimising costs.  That has underpinned the whole approach of the Westminster Government, whether it is the corporate-run ‘test-and-trace’ service and Lighthouse laboratories, the various ‘Tiers’ of restrictions or the determination to keep schools open, so that employers can still rely on the labour of parents of school-age children

The epithet, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste,’ has often been attributed to Britain’s Tory war-time prime minister Winston Churchill.  But it more likely goes back to Machiavelli’s The Prince, which Churchill would certainly have read.  And the idea of never wasting a good crisis has certainly guided Tory politicians since Churchill, if not before.  That certainly was the case in the wake of the 2007-8 financial crash, when social spending was cut back while the interests of the big corporations and the super-rich were advanced.  And not wasting the crisis is what the Johnson Government has been trying to do since Covid-19 arrived.

We urgently need a Zero-Covid strategy.  There are a number of organisations calling for this – the Zero Covid Campaign, the People’s assembly, Stand Up to Racism, the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, Independent SAGE.  The initiative by Diane Abbott MP and Ben Chacko in Friday’s Morning Star, for a united campaign to change government policy, is of crucial importance.  The launch is to take place online on Sunday 24 January, 12 noon – 3.30 pm.

What the labour movement also needs to recognise is that it, too, should not let a crisis go to waste.  There is a choice: either the ruling class will impose its priorities, or the working class takes advantage of the situation to open up a different perspective.  Things will not get better by themselves: there needs to be a struggle. 

At the start of the pandemic trade unions were able to secure concessions from government and employers, and gained new members in the process.  More recently, despite the difficulties imposed by pandemic restrictions, there have been successful industrial action ballots over health & safety and jobs; and NEU members in particular were able on safety grounds to block reopening of many schools, and in fact force the Westminster Government’s hand. 

These important struggles, however, have been defensive.  As widespread vaccination begins eventually to ease the pandemic situation, the labour movement should go on the offensive, fighting around a set of demands such as those articulated in the North West TUC or by the Scottish TUC, arguing that there should be no going back to pre-Covid times.  In this process the movement will need to build alliances, with – among others – campaigners for peace, a just environmental transition and defence of public services, as well as with small employers and the self-employed, who have suffered from the Government’s handling of the pandemic.  Such alliances will need to be internationalist too, supporting working people in struggle overseas and opposing imperialism.

Internationalism must also mean that all peoples throughout the world have access to vaccines and the best medical treatment against Covid-19.  It must not be a source of profit for big corporations.

What the Covid crisis shows is that pandemics can arise unexpectedly and require international cooperation to deal with them.  An infection hot spot anywhere is a danger to humanity, just as global warming and the danger of nuclear annihilation are.  But these dangers will not be overcome without a struggle.  Imperialism – British and US – remains powerful and seeks global domination.

What happened in Washington last week was a minor reflection of the way the US has behaved in other countries wherever it has felt its position threatened – Chile, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Indonesia.  Did the assault on the Capitol besmirch American democracy?  No, the mask slipped.  US ‘democracy’ is based on denial of democracy elsewhere.  On this occasion a mentally unstable US president attempted to behave at home just as he has behaved overseas.  His ragtag of racist supporters were treated with kid gloves in comparison with Black Lives Matter protestors.

Trump’s defeat was a victory against incipient fascism in the USA but the danger remains as the sense of betrayal by the political establishment remains.  And Biden is likely to continue to pursue US imperialist interests – though with more subtlety.  He has just appointed Victoria Nuland, architect of the coup in Ukraine, as Under-Secretary for Political Affairs.

Hence the importance of the No New Cold War initiative, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Project for Peace and Justice, being launched on Sunday 17 January, 15.00-16.30.