As the virus has moved through the whole social organism, it has revealed beyond any doubt the intensity of the crisis of capitalism, in all its interconnected facets. The COVID-19 pandemic is starkly exposing the way that capitalist greed puts profit over lives; the utter anarchy of the rule of the market over the economy; the lethality of a social security system that links benefits to economic productivity; the intensifying violence of the racist hostile environment; the moral depravity of the Tory government that openly states its willingness to let the poor and marginalised die, and the complicity of the neo-Blairite Labour Party in this dire state of affairs.
Capitalism operates like a voracious cross-cut shredder, making its deadliest incisions against the most marginalised sections of society, but ultimately all members of the working class are under attack. The working-class movement needs to recognise the specificity of struggles against different oppressions and take up the fight against capitalism on every front, while simultaneously unifying against the fundamental system of wage-labour exploitation and the repressive capitalist state.
Above all the pandemic has shown that this rotten system is beyond reform, as the “advanced” capitalist countries like Britain and the US have been thrown into complete disarray. Though emergency government measures such as the rail nationalisation and temporary accommodation for the homeless are inadequate, they also show how quickly things we’ve long been told were not possible can be realised. Instead of wasting more energies on a revival of the reformist Labour “left” that never represented workers’ interests, there’s a pressing need to raise the level of struggle into a fight for revolutionary socialism and full working-class control and ownership of the state and economy.
The global coronavirus pandemic has compounded an existing system-wide crisis of capitalism. Since the 2008 financial crash, global trade growth has slowed massively from the average of 10% a year in 1949-2008 to under 2.5% by 2019. The global collapse in commodity prices has been exacerbated in Britain by the economic shock of Brexit, with the pound reaching historic lows; and a year before the COVID outbreak the Resolution Foundation thinktank forecast that a third of children in Britain would be living in relative poverty by 2023. Decaying capitalism continues in its rapacious impulse to exhaust the earth’s natural wealth, a death-drive that is inseparable from the present epidemic: the impact of capitalist agriculture and extractivism on ecosystems (e.g. deforestation and human-caused droughts) enables diseases to move rapidly into new territories, and has already been linked with the spread of malaria, Ebola and Zika. With the COVID pandemic, the International Monetary Fund is predicting the worst recession since the Great Depression, as oil prices plummet and the International Labour Organization predicts the loss of the equivalent of 195 million jobs (the 2008 crisis, by point of comparison, wiped out 22 million jobs). As always, it is the working class (the proletariat) that is being made to pay for the crisis. Households in Britain are set to lose on average £515 in disposable income per month due to job losses and reduced pay.
Greedy bosses, globally and in Britain, are scrambling to rescue profits at the expense of their workers. Wetherspoon owner Tim Martin told his 40,000 laid-off staff to consider “applying for a job at Tesco rather than ‘wait around for us to reopen’”, and said there might be “delays” to wage payments until the end of April. Jeff Bezos, who’s expected to become the world’s first trillionaire, is sacking workers while having the gall to demand working-class people donate to a “relief fund” for Amazon staff. The British GMB union describes Amazon warehouse workers as “petrified”, as the company has failed to provide basic protection like hand sanitiser or reusable gloves. Richard Branson has requested “emergency credit” of £5-£7.5 billion, and £500 million of public funds for Virgin, while sending thousands of workers home without pay and cutting sick pay in half. Multi-billionaire Branson is also one of the biggest National Health Service profiteers – his Virgin Care business has won over £2 billion from the vicious privatisation of healthcare, and he pocketed an additional £2 million of public money in 2017 after suing the NHS. Prominent Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who’s worth a reported £100 million, has major shares in a “capital management” firm which says the pandemic offers a “once or twice in a generation” opportunity to make “super normal returns” from investments in private medical supplies.
Instead of combatting lay-offs and rank profiteering, the Tory government has prioritised measures to safeguard the parasite capitalist class (the bourgeoisie), conjuring up £330 billion for emergency business bailouts (there’s always a magic money tree when it’s the rich who need “rescuing”). European governments, as well as the European Union, have also concentrated their resources on protecting the financial and business sectors. The emergency bailout came a week after the Tories attempted to prevent the total collapse of key services through what Chancellor Rishi Sunak absurdly called “a people’s budget from a people’s government[!]”. Under normal conditions, the March budget’s extra £175 billion investment over the next five years would only have reversed some of the ruthless cuts that previous Conservative governments had enacted, and compensated for the existing reduction in growth forecasts the UK Office for Budget Responsibility had made for the next few years (the economic disruption of Brexit has already cost the economy £130 billion since 2016). But that’s without accounting for the additional impact of the pandemic on production and investment. The so-called spending “splurge” is far too little, far too late. In fact to deal with the post-quarantine recession the Tories are planning another round of brutal austerity. A leaked Treasury document dated 5 May predicts a budget deficit of £337 billion (more than double the annual deficit after the 2008 crash) and possibly £516 billion in a worst-case scenario, compared to the £55 billion forecast in the March budget. The document also outlines a plan to impose £30 billion worth of tax increases for ordinary people, and cuts to pensions, as well as a two-year public sector pay freeze to “boost investor confidence” – this means cutting the income and pensions of the frontline workers the Tory leaders line up to clap for every Thursday.
The Tory response to the pandemic has been a combination of vicious cynicism – prioritising the health of the capitalist economy over the health of the population – and callous blunder. Richard Horton, medical doctor and editor of The Lancet, has testified to parliament about the Tories’ decision to ignore “the urgent warning that was coming from the frontline in China”, and concluded that “the government is playing roulette with the public”. On 13 March, the government’s chief scientific advisor, Patrick Vallance, claimed that “herd immunity” would be achieved through letting the virus spread to “about 60 percent” of people; the previous day, Boris Johnson had told the public that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”. The catalyst for a policy reversal, with the belated closure of schools and implementation of a lockdown, came on 16 March, with the publication of a report at Imperial College predicting that, unconstrained, the virus could kill half a million people, and that even the middle-of-the-road “mitigation” strategy would’ve resulted in some 250,000 deaths. This was no different from the report by the government’s own pandemic modelling committee, but it was more publicised, causing the government to backtrack and sweep its obvious willingness to let literally hundreds of thousands of people die under the rug. As early as the end of January scientific advisers concluded that the virus could be devastating, and from 13 February to 30 March the government avoided no less than eight conferences about the coronavirus between European heads of state or health ministers. Even the right-wing *Sunday Times has admitted the Tories’ utter complacency. The government issued no requests to labs for assistance with staff or testing equipment until the middle of March, and Johnson was accused of putting Brexit over breathing when the government said it “missed” the deadline for an EU scheme sourcing life-saving critical care ventilators. Johnson was also in the Tory cabinet that buried the alarming findings from Exercise Cygnus in 2016 which simulated an influenza epidemic.
Yet politicians and the billionaire-owned media have focused on blaming ordinary people for disobeying social distancing, despite the flagrant mixed messaging from the government, and the fact that bosses have continually demanded people come into work. And now the government is sacrificing more lives to boost the economy by prematurely lifting the lockdown in England, forcing millions back into work and onto crammed public transport. Those in underpaid, insecure and manual roles who typically can’t work from home will be most affected: workers in these jobs are already up to four times more likely to die of the virus.
Support for workers has been pitiful. The “wage-support scheme” up to 80% of salaries is not enough when the minimum wage is already well short of a living wage: before the pandemic, 1/5 of people in working households were already living below the poverty line. While the scheme has been extended for several months, the government has said that from August companies will have to contribute to the furloughed salary and consequently some bosses have already started giving furloughed workers notice. Many laid off workers have to starve on the meagre £94 a week sickness benefit, which in any case exempts some two million employees. Others will not be able to meet the exceedingly-bureaucratic means-tested Universal Credit criteria (even if they’re among those lucky enough to get through to the system in the first place), which also has a five-week payment wait. Even better-off workers will be discovering the cruelty of Britain’s benefits system. There is no longer a social safety net: ‘People who have paid tax and national insurance for years and never been near the social security system will be turning to it in their hour of need; yet far too late, like trapeze artists falling through the air, they will find that the net beneath them has been lowered dangerously close to the ground and is badly torn.’ The pandemic came at a time when the class war had already been burning at a high intensity for years – in late 2018 the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that the average worker has lost £11,800 in real earnings since 2008. The rich are getting richer while everyone else is getting poorer; this system has no future for the working class.
Nor does the government’s wage support scheme cover the five million self-employed people in Britain. The Coronavirus Job Retention scheme has been accurately described by the United Voices of the World (UVW) union as ‘having more holes in it than Swiss cheese’. Most of the self-employed are extremely low paid, with a median income of just £10,000. Some won’t qualify for sick pay if they have earning partners, are newly self-employed, or make a substantial part but not the majority of their income from self-employment – and none will see a penny for weeks, until sometime in June! Those who can’t work will face starvation, while those who can will be forced to work, and therefore risk contracting or spreading the virus.
The Tories have allowed the brunt of the crisis to fall on “frontline workers”: delivery drivers, cleaners, carers, supermarket workers, refuse workers, postal workers, health workers. These are people who were previously denigrated as “unskilled” and who have seen their pay and conditions attacked in the last decade and are likely to be on zero-hours or casual contracts. Under this rotten capitalist regime, it’s a hard rule that the more your work actually benefits other people, the less you’re likely to be paid. As a group of UVW security guard workers of colour at St. George’s, University of London, fighting for occupational sick pay and to be brought in-house recognise: ‘The government and the bosses who do so much to ignore us, are now finally having to admit—albeit rather reluctantly—to something they’ve long tried to convince us isn’t true: that they need us. That we, the “unskilled” workers, the security guards, the delivery drivers, the supermarket cashiers and the cleaners, are the ones who keep the wheels of the UK’s economy turning.’ We must not forget even after the quarantine has been lifted that things like cleaning, caring, transport and food production are always the essential services of society and that workers in these sectors deserve respect and a living wage – whereas the world wouldn’t be worse off if parasitic CEOs, stockbrokers and investment bankers disappeared! Despite temporarily acknowledging that the once-designated “unskilled” are in fact “essential”, the government has failed to ensure provision of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), or protection from ruthless bosses. 36-year old London bus driver and father Emeka Nyack died from coronavirus after being ‘told his pay would be cut if he missed work’. Dozens of bus drivers in London, Birmingham, Bristol and elsewhere have died due to lack of safety measures like full-cover perspex screens. Immediate measures are needed to safeguard workers including providing PPE for all those in frontline roles, a ban on punitive sickness absence policies, full pay for all workers irrespective of employment status, and provision of childcare to assist parents working in essential jobs.
We must also recognise the particular burden that is falling on women workers. As has been highlighted by the Fawcett Society, women are more likely to be in low paid and insecure work, and existing inequalities (considerably exacerbated for women of colour) mean that they are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic in specific ways. A report by the Women’s Budget Group shows that 77% of health workers and 85% of care workers are women; that women comprise nearly 4/5 of the 3,200,000 workers in “high risk” roles, and further that 98% of at-high-risk workers paid below 60% of median British wages are women. As schools and nurseries have closed it will also be women who take on most of the unpaid care work, and many women will also be trapped at home with abusive partners. LGBT+ people, who already experience high rates of homelessness, domestic abuse and impediments to accessing healthcare, will also be disproportionately impacted by the virus. All this demonstrates the sustained relevance of socialist-feminist politics and the need to challenge workplace discrimination and the current gender and sexual orientation imbalance in trade union leadership positions, as well as recognise the under-acknowledged burden of social reproductive labour (caring, cleaning, providing food etc.) that is purposefully devalued under capitalism, while being simultaneously essential to the running of the productive economy.
COVID has put a further spotlight on the housing crisis. In England, the average private renter now pays some 27% of income on housing costs, but some in London boroughs like Hackney pay as much as 83% of their normal income on rent – i.e., more than the government’s 80% wage allowance. The meagre statutory sick pay will also not cover most people’s monthly rent. But the government’s supposed rent amnesty just extends notice for renters from two months to three! As Labour’s shadow housing secretary has put it, this “just gives them some extra time to pack their bags”, while offering no help to an estimated 20,000 renters who were already in the process of being evicted. The community union ACORN has justly called for a “rent holiday” for all those impacted by the pandemic. Rent controls have been implemented by British governments in the past, including after WWII. But there is an immediate need to go beyond demands for the mere temporary suspension of rent, as in the London Renters’ Union’s petition to the government (and even Labour’s new right-wing neo-Blairite leader Keir Starmer has backed calls for rent controls) – we need a serious political challenge to the parasitic landlord class. In 2016 100 families in England and Wales were evicted every day due to extortionate rents, while nearly 1/3 private rental properties fall below the government’s own Decent Homes minimum standard: overcrowding, vermin, damp and cold are rife. This is the result of a profit-driven system that allows social housing stock to decay while the rich buy up land and second homes. It is instructive to recall the 1915 Glasgow rent strike (led by working-class women) against rent hikes and evictions, in which over 25,000 working-class families refused to pay rent, and organised on the streets to prevent court officials, police and landlords from enforcing evictions; eventually forcing the British government to implement the first ever statutory rent controls. Rent strikes in our immediate context will certainly not be easy – the risk of evictions is exacerbated in the COVID context (and further intensified for vulnerable groups like migrants), and organising on the streets is less viable during the lockdown. Targeted coordination at the local level against landlords is also essential.
The estimated 320,000 homeless people in Britain (the highest number since records began due to ever-increasing rents, frozen housing benefits and lack of social housing) are among the most vulnerable to the virus, not least because many have underlying health issues. The government asked councils to house rough sleepers in temporary accommodation such as hotels but there are serious issues of understaffing and short supplies of food and medicine. Due to inadequate funding an estimated 35,000 people are still being held in overcrowded homeless hostels, at great risk of infection – the COVID death rate of homeless people in London’s hostels is up to 25 times higher than the general adult population. Given the extent of the existing homelessness crisis, and the stripping back of shelters, the government’s initial injection of funds to local authorities quickly ran out, and a leaked report suggests the government has now stopped funding the scheme. While principally a result of ten years of Tory austerity policies, the collapse of local services partially reflects the lack of serious resistance to council cuts over the last several years, as many activists were swept up in the illusions of a “democratic socialist” Labour leadership and failed to challenge the realities of local Labour councils which Corbyn and John McDonnell instructed to stick to pro-cuts budgets: last year *The Guardian reported how ‘Councils in Ealing, in west London, Bristol, Brighton and Cardiff – all of them Labour – have washed their hands of their statutory duty to homeless families by rehousing them in repurposed shipping containers that are like saunas in the summer and freezers in the winter.’ There was already a strain on food banks before the pandemic, and homeless charity Crisis says there are now people who’ve not eaten for days. Crisis also reports that there are still a thousand rough sleepers on the streets, and there are cases of homeless people being arrested under coronavirus legislation. And then there are the “hidden” homeless, including women fleeing domestic violence and those who sleep on buses, who are still not being accommodated. There are reports of migrants being excluded from accommodation under the “no recourse to public funds” conditionality, introduced by New Labour to prevent migrants accessing a range of welfare services.
There needs to be an instant suspension of rent to stop debt building up, and a ban on cutting off utilities. The accommodation granted to rough sleepers is only temporary, but the fact they are being housed shows there’s no reason this shouldn’t always have been the case. Homelessness could swiftly be all but solved in its entirety by taking the huge stock of empty homes into working-class ownership.
Rent strikes must be politicised to foreground the fundamental issue that under capitalism the iron law of private property makes homes a commodity and investment, rather than a human right. Even Corbyn’s plans for a million new homes over a decade were inadequate given a million new homes are needed immediately; and several million needed over the next 20 years. Ultimately the current housing crisis can only be alleviated by dismantling capitalism and putting people above profit with a vast new people’s programme of building decent council housing. Blocks of flats and housing estates should be run democratically by tenants themselves, in cooperation with trade unions and local authorities.
The government’s utter disdain for the poor and marginalised has immediate catastrophic consequences in the context of the viral pandemic, but this should be viewed as an acceleration of an existing process. A decade of cuts to council services, the punitive bedroom tax, and cruel benefit sanctions have all amounted to calculated social murder: in June 2019 the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank found that cuts to public health and social care spending since 2012 had caused over 130,000 preventable deaths. The brunt of this has fallen on Britain’s 13 million disabled people: 1/5 of disabled people before the pandemic were in food poverty, routinely skipping meals or missing essential nutrients.
For years there has been an ideological assault on the disabled and working-class poor. Under New Labour, cuts to child benefit and new work capability assessments were accompanied with the demonisation of benefit-seekers as “cheats” and skivers”. The culmination of this scapegoating is a present situation in which thousands die shortly after being declared “fit for work” by the notorious Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and cases like Errol Graham, a severely ill Black man who the DWP killed by starvation, cutting off his benefits after he was incapable of attending a meeting with welfare officials. Politicians openly advocate an “ability”-segregated wage system: in 2017 chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, Labour MP Frank Field, recommended the disabled be paid less than minimum wage, and in 2018 welfare chief Iain Duncan Smith suggested bosses should hire disabled people as “they often work longer hours” and forgo holiday “because they love the whole idea of being in work”. This is an expression of the oppressive, dehumanising capitalist logic that links worth to productivity. There has also been a surge in hate crimes against disabled people in Britain in recent years, while one in two disabled people have experienced ableist bullying or harassment at work.
The “skiver vs striver” rhetoric – a revival of the old “deserving vs undeserving poor” ideology – is also weaponised by the ruling class against working-class communities, who are blamed for their own impoverishment. David Cameron’s response to the 2011 urban insurrections – cathartic outbursts against years of austerity and racist police harassment – stressed “children without fathers” and “communities without control”; Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy likewise blamed working-class parents. Tony Blair described the long-term unemployed as suffering from a “culture of poverty”: “drug abuse, low aspirations and family instability”. “They breed too much” has now become an implicit Tory mantra with the two-child-limit on tax credits that is making life unbearable for many working-class mothers. The utter disdain the rich have for the poor was recently shown with Rees-Mogg’s comment that the 72 people killed in Grenfell Tower died because they lacked “common sense”. The “deserving” and “undeserving” distinction creates a hierarchy that harms all workers by justifying the erosion of the social safety net. Now millions are discovering DWP brutality first-hand, and should abandon the neoliberal narrative that those who need benefits are “frauds” and people “not like us”. Just three weeks into the COVID lockdown, the Food Foundation charity said that 1.5 million Britons reported not eating for a whole day because they had no money or access to food, and three million people were in households where someone had been forced to skip meals.
In addition to the generalised neoliberal assault on the poor and those deemed less “able” (of making profits for the capitalists) there has also been a dangerous revival of eugenicist thinking (ideas of genetic inferiority and superiority), including among the sinister figures running the country. In 2013, as Mayor of London, Johnson said to a room of bankers: “it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 percent of our species have an IQ below 85 while about 2 percent have an IQ above 130 … the harder you shake the pack the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.” Johnson’s chief political advisor, Dominic Cummings, has argued that in education “a child’s performance has more to do with genetic makeup than the standard of his or her education” and reportedly said of the government’s approach to the virus that “if that means some pensioners die, too bad”. It’s extremely concerning that Cummings has been involved in the meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), the proceedings of which one attendee said Cummings had “inappropriately influenced”. Cummings appointed a Downing Street aide (Andrew Sabisky) who supports eugenics, has called for contraception programmes to stop the creation of a “permanent underclass”, and claimed Black people are intellectually inferior. Johnson refused to condemn this, which is unsurprising given this is a man who makes little attempt to mask his own racist views.
While all working-class people are suffering, we must emphasise that right now there is being carried out a wilful culling of the elderly, impoverished, refugees and the disabled. Daily Telegraph journalist Jeremy Warner captured the raw logic of capitalism when he wrote that “from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the Covid-19 might even prove beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents”. Again, this is an intensification of existing trends: according to a 2018 study by the charity National Energy Action, some 36,000 deaths over the last five years, mostly of older people, can be attributed to conditions related to living in a cold home, and a further 17,000 people are estimated to have died as a direct result of fuel poverty. Thanks to all the cuts, councils were already prevented from meeting the social care needs of thousands of sick and disabled people, and thus the Coronavirus Bill suspends the Care Act 2014, that put a legal duty on local authorities to meet the needs of the disabled and carers. Those living independently on direct payments haven’t been allocated any PPE or the funding to purchase it. “Do-not-resuscitate” orders (DNRs), in normal conditions intended to alleviate suffering, are now being blanketly applied to the elderly. BBC News has reported that one Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) in Brighton and Hove told care homes that “hospital admission is undesirable” and instructed them to check they have DNR orders “on every patient”, and there have been similar reports in Leeds, East Sussex and Wales. The Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS trust told people with muscular dystrophy “we’re keeping your ventilator filters for patients with coronavirus.” Initial government advice was to send recovering coronavirus patients, infectious or not, back to care homes to clear space in hospitals. A devastating emotional toll has befallen many carers; as the GMB National Officer reports, “They’re terrified– not just for themselves, but for the people they look after and their families at home.” On 22 April the Financial Times reported its analysis based on excess deaths suggesting the true COVID death toll in Britain accounting for deaths outside of hospitals was over double the official figure, including over 10,000 in care homes; the true excess death figure is now likely to be over 50,000. As of 12 May Britain’s official death toll is the worst in Europe at over 40,000, and there’s not much optimism about the epidemic subsiding anytime soon.
The government’s absolute deprioritising of the vulnerable amounts to a social cleansing of the economically unproductive. Under decaying capitalism, the first on the chopping block are those from whom little or no profit can be extracted – the disabled and the elderly – and those who are kept in as degraded conditions as possible to maximise exploitation – prisoners and migrants. The complacent denialism about the scale of the crisis among the privileged, including among a subset of the conspiracist fringe “left”, obscures this. We should all care first and foremost because countless thousands of people are dying, but also we all have disabled and elderly relatives and loved ones, and indeed the non-disabled are more accurately described as the not-yet-disabled – 3/4 older renters have a disability or chronic illness. There should already be mass outrage at the government’s approach. As economic depression and mass unemployment sets in, vast swathes of the working class will be next in the firing line.
It is not only the elderly and physically ill who are being imperilled, but also those with neurological and learning disabilities. In Wales a GP surgery sent out a request for “high-risk” people to sign a DNR, including those with non-life threatening “neurological conditions”, to save “scarce ambulance resources”. The lack of clear government guidelines on the use of DNRs has long been an issue, and last year the Learning Disabilities Mortality Review revealed that 19 hospital patients who later died had “learning disabilities” or “Down’s syndrome” given as the reason not to resuscitate them between July 2016 and December 2018. In the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (“NICE”)’s COVID-19 guideline for clinical care, published in March with the stated purpose to “make the best use of NHS resources”, healthy adults with autism and learning difficulties were encompassed in the “frailty” category subject to DNRs, and this was only amended after a judicial review challenge. But the callousness towards those with neurological conditions continues. A GP surgery in Somerset sent a letter to an autism support group saying autistic adults should have plans to prevent them being resuscitated if they become critically ill. On 24 April, learning disability care provider Turning Point raised concerns that it had received an “unprecedented” number of unlawful DNR orders for its patients. This is especially worrying as DNRs can be issued without a patient’s consent when the patient is deemed unable to make a decision themselves under the Mental Capacity Act. An open letter signed by over 400 disability charities and campaigners has insisted that treatment ‘should not be influenced by how our lives are valued by society’.
For too long the left has side-lined the struggles of the disabled. Red Fightback calls upon care workers to protect those they can to the best of their ability and to expose the realities of what is happening, and for mutual aid groups to mobilise to provide these care staff and patients with the protective equipment and essential supplies they need. But this alone is not enough: progressive forces must mount an AGAINST EUGENICS campaign, that must be led by disabled people, and which demands an end to the indiscriminate DNRs; demands the abolition of Universal Credit and its replacement with full benefits to all as a right not a privilege, and an end to the privatisation of health and social care; that does not ignore the complicity of the Labour Party in ruthless cuts to essential services; and that makes strategic linkages to the brutal methods being deployed against migrants, refugees and prisoners by the capitalist state.
Cuts to social security and welfare are also justified via rhetoric about immigrants “exploiting” the “bloated” system – and now the “bloated welfare state” is threadbare. David Cameron himself admitted in 2011, “Immigration and welfare reform are two sides of the same coin”. It is in all workers’ interests to take up the fight against ableism and racism.
Millions of those now designated as “key workers” in Britain are migrants – including nearly a quarter of all hospital staff; a fifth of care workers, and 40% of food production workers. These are the very people who politicians and the press have for years attacked for “depressing wages” and “overburdening” public services.
At the very moment that the government is encouraging us to routinely clap for the workers risking their lives on the frontline, it has intensified its commitment to the racist hostile environment that oppresses many of those same workers – even saying that some won’t be allowed in the country by January 2021. Priti Patel’s Home Department decided now was the time to reiterate that as part of its new immigration rules, “low-skilled” people, EU and non-EU, will be unable to apply for a UK work visa. The government is perfectly happy to use migrants as a hyper-exploited, precarious workforce when convenient (e.g. chartering a flight to bring in “low skilled” Romanian workers to pick fruit), to be cast aside at whim.
As is often the case with the demonisation of oppressed groups, anti-immigrant rhetoric is wholly contradictory: migrants are apparently coming to Britain to simultaneously “steal jobs” and “scrounge off the state”. Immigrants of course in reality prop up the NHS; but also, migrants are subjected to a punitive healthcare levy on top of other taxes (under sustained pressure, the government exempted NHS workers from the surcharge on 21 May, but there’s been no talk of reimbursing their previous payments). Immigrants are also overrepresented among the underpaid outsourced NHS staff who are especially lacking adequate protective equipment. Doctors and nurses are however also highly at risk and shockingly, the first 10 doctors in Britain who died from the virus were all racialised minorities, and many were Muslim. This belies the facile talking point invoked by privileged celebrities and cabinet office minister Michael Gove that “the virus doesn’t discriminate” – its impact does discriminate in a society that is structurally racist. Recent analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics found that people of colour are over-represented among the coronavirus deaths by as much as 27% and there are disturbing reports that 70% of front-line workers who have died are ethnic minorities; while research in early April suggested over a third of intensive-care patients are non-white (i.e. three times their proportion in the British population). This is directly related to disproportionate rates of poverty, precarious work, and poor/overcrowded housing conditions as well as overt discrimination in healthcare provision, though NHS leaders have attempted to obscure all this with unsubstantiated claims about genetic factors that amount to scientific racism; and racially oppressed communities understandably have no faith in the official government inquiry headed by Trevor Phillips. The Tories have not seen fit to comment on any of this, which is not surprising given they’ve spent the last decade demonising overseas NHS workers and fuelling racist sentiments. ITV News finds that the number of recorded racist attacks against NHS staff nearly tripled from 589 in 2013 to 1448 last year. This racism is also often compounded by sexism, particularly in nursing and care work which are traditionally “feminised” roles.
All this also demonstrates the need for socialists to abandon the nationalist mythos surrounding the NHS, which is now being weaponised with the invocation of the “Blitz spirit” through calls of “Your NHS needs you”, flag-waving, and talk of medals and memorials (never mind vital PPE) for the “troops” to legitimise their use as cannon fodder. Labour’s post-WWII construction of the welfare state, while partly a ruling-class concession after decades of working-class militancy (it was never “gifted” to us), was also in part a racialised nationalist project, as the NHS was serviced by superexploited healthcare workers (especially women) from Britain’s former colonies e.g. in the Caribbean and South-East Asia, who were directed into the lowest pay, least secure auxiliary roles and often placed at permanent risk of deportation. Indeed as the Windrush scandal exposed, that risk never went away, with victims such as Gretel Gocan, an 81-year-old Windrush-generation nurse kept out of Britain and separated from her children for nine years after taking a holiday to Jamaica (and deportations to Jamaica also continued in the weeks leading to the COVID lockdown). This history (and present) gets whitewashed in notions of “progressive patriotism” advanced by Corbynite shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey, some trade unionists, and the national-chauvinist Communist Party of Britain. British patriotism is not a “less sinister sibling” of British nationalism, both invoke fealty to an imperialist nation-state that is inherently exclusionary. The new (New) Labour leader Starmer is perfectly content to (quite literally) let the Tories get away with murder, saying, “In the national interest, the Labour Party will play its full part. Under my leadership, we will engage constructively with the government.” Appeals to nationalism are a ploy to plaster over class antagonisms. Nationalism is a paternalist ideology that draws on Britain’s colonial legacy, and the ability of the bourgeoisie to use the superprofits of imperialism to bribe privileged sections of the working class through improved living standards. Historic anti-colonial struggles, and resistance by racially-oppressed workers domestically, have posed great threats to British capitalism. To survive this, the ruling class has successfully convinced some white workers to short-sightedly respond to their own hardships by seeking to narrowly defend their relative, insecure privileges vis-à-vis racially oppressed workers – in employment, housing allocation, social security provision etc. – when they should be instead joining with workers of colour in combatting the overarching conditions of capitalist exploitation! We shouldn’t buy into the idea of “national interest” in a nation divided into classes. We should take pride in our CLASS history, as when Black nurses and porters demonstrated en masse alongside white NHS workers against vicious healthcare cuts in the 1970s-80s. We must fight for the defence of the welfare state – but on truly socialist terms, recognising the underacknowledged role of workers of colour, and supporting their struggles for equal pay and conditions and against racist discrimination and abuse.
Our support for migrants is unconditional. Imperialist exploitation built the ruling class we confront today, and it would be a grave and chauvinistic error to believe our struggle can be carried out separately from the struggles of racially oppressed workers exploited in Britain. At the same time, it’s very easy to demonstrate how nonsensical anti-migrant arguments are. While serving as home secretary, Theresa May suppressed up to nine studies that found immigration doesn’t negatively impact British wages! The real issue isn’t “undercutting” or “stealing” jobs; rather it’s how labour market segmentation harms the bargaining power of workers. Creating new legal restrictions on migrant labour simply increases its precarity and vulnerability to hyper-exploitation; this is part of a broad political strategy on the part of the bourgeoisie to pauperise the entire working class through intensifying flexibility and deregulation. The “skilled” and “unskilled” distinctions are likewise based on arbitrary standards and thresholds created by employers to oppress workers, and the way to combat this is to fight for the rights and pay of all workers including migrants. Migrants are in fact often at the forefront of the very struggle against low wages and hyper-exploitation they are falsely accused of causing. For example, when migrant workers at the University of London organised in the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and won the London Living Wage. The UVW workers of colour mentioned above are spot on in emphasising that:
To keep us in our ‘place’—to keep all workers in their ‘place’—bosses try to make us docile and grateful for the crumbs they throw our way; and when we resist, they adopt the most punitive measures possible to discourage us and other workers from ever demanding more. The COVID-19 crisis has laid all this bare by brutally bringing to light how successive governments have, over a period of decades, used the law as a weapon to drive our rights as workers to the barest of minimums. … while this systematic driving-down of rights, pay and conditions affects us most of all, it also affects all other workers, in varying degrees.
Racism causes harmful divisions within the working class, as seen recently with the overt scapegoating of Roma and Travellers (as in the sensationalist Channel 4 *Dispatches* episode reinforcing anti-Traveller prejudices) – an easier target now that many Black and Asian workers are temporarily visible as “essential” workers – as well as of Britain’s Chinese and South-East Asian communities, whose harassment (reported incidents include abuse in supermarkets, racist graffiti on shop windows and physical violence) is being driven by the “blame China” narrative fuelled by prominent politicians including Gove. The latter narrative draws on the racist “yellow perilism” that associates Chinese people with depravity and disease and which fuelled the murderous riots against Britain’s Chinese communities in 1919; there were also racist incidents against the Chinese community during the 2001 Foot and Mouth crisis. But racism is not just an ideological “trick” to divide workers. Racism also deprives, murders and terrorises. Workers of colour are seen as expendable, as when the SOAS University of London told a middle-aged cleaner of colour to “lock the door behind them” and disinfect a room, without being informed that a student suspected of having COVID had just been in there. The intensifying hostile environment of arbitrary deportations, inhumane asylum detentions and racist labour hierarchies is deadly: the discovery of 39 dead Vietnamese migrants in a refrigerated truck in Essex was only one particularly harrowing expression of this systemic racist violence.
There are no shortcuts to anti-racism, and the only way to achieve working-class unity is through socialists and white workers recognising the specificity of racist oppression, while at the same time unifying against the total system of wage-labour exploitation and the repressive capitalist state. Trade unions in particular need to seriously step up to combat racism within their ranks – a recent TUC report found racism in the trade union movement is being fuelled by Brexit-related xenophobia as well as a divisive narrative peddled by politicians and the media about the “white working class” being “left behind”.
The pandemic is further exposing the inhumanity of Britain’s carceral regime. Among the most at risk to the virus are those kept locked up in prisons and asylum detention camps like Yarl’s Wood. The charity Detention Action has found that not only are people still being put in immigration detention, some are being detained when presenting with coronavirus symptoms. Despite the lack of testing and overcrowded, unhygienic conditions, only around 700 detainees have been released, and the high court has ruled against the release of the 368 still being detained, against the recommendations of the British Medical Journal and key health professionals. The government has so far accepted a pitiful 16 of the 5,000 unaccompanied children living in the crammed and unsanitary refugee camps on the Greek islands, who are stranded by a hostile EU that views Greece as a “shield” to prevent the movement of refugees – many of whom are fleeing conflicts fuelled by Western imperialist destabilisation campaigns in the Middle East and Africa, in which Britain is complicit. Outrageously, deportation flights from Britain have taken place during the lockdown. Outside of detention though the situation for migrants is not much better: standard financial assistance for asylum seekers in Britain remains under £40 a week, less than half of the statutory sick pay that politicians admit is impossible to live on, and many migrants are prevented from seeking medical help because under the hostile environment medical officers are made to function as border guards.
We join dozens of pro-refugee groups and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU) in demanding the government grant “leave to remain” for all undocumented migrants to ensure access to healthcare and other essential services. But we must go beyond this and demand an end to the structural violence of the hostile environment and the racist immigration regime with its spurious “skill” categorisations, as well as the permanent closure of all immigration detention camps, and the granting of full rights to all migrants.
Prisoners are another extremely at-risk category, with COVID outbreaks confirmed in a majority of prisons in Britain and over a dozen prisoners reported to have died from the virus so far. At the beginning of April the British Ministry of Justice announced plans for the early release of at maximum only 4,000 prisoners in England and Wales, under 5% of Britain’s bloated prison population, to reduce overcrowding and risk of contamination, but as of 12 May only 55 have been released. Cells are still being shared, and prisons have become a COVID incubator as inmates exposed to the virus or displaying possible symptoms are grouped together under the “cohorting” system. To add insult to injury, some prisoners are to be put to work on £2.50 a day to make PPE after the government mismanaged the stockpile. Red Fightback support Community Action on Prison Expansion’s campaign to #FreeThemAll4PublicHealth. As socialists, we recognise that the capitalist prison system in Britain is both institutionally classist and racist (Britain imprisons more Black people proportionally than the ultra-racist USA), that it perpetuates abuse, and that it does not solve the root cause of crime which is overwhelmingly related to economic insecurity. A number of countries including Indonesia, Brazil and Turkey have already released tens of thousands of prisoners. There must be immediate universal release in Britain, and longer-term we must raise the fight for a humane carceral approach that emphasises education not punishment, with rehabilitation centres under workers’ supervision; and for prisoners to be given the right to vote.
The emergency Coronavirus Bill, which the government rushed through the House of Commons on 23 March, signals a significant tightening of arbitrary state power, as exercised through its different repressive organs (the police, judiciary, civil service etc.). Here again, this represents an acceleration of processes already long set in motion, particularly since the “war on terror” which provided the excuse for a massive expansion of state surveillance and police powers under New Labour.
Whatever the immediate justifications are, the strengthening of repressive state powers is always weaponised against the working class and progressive forces in general. Emergency powers have been routinely used by the British state to suppress working-class militancy: the Emergency Powers Act of 1920 was used by both Labour and Tory governments to combat the trade unions, including during the 1926 General Strike, the 1945-51 dockers’ strikes (which Attlee’s “socialist” Labour used troops to suppress) and the 1974 miners’ strike. This is what Lenin meant when he wrote that the capitalist state represents the dictatorship of the ruling class. We don’t lie to workers – as does the revisionist Communist Party of Britain (CPB) which has long since abandoned Leninism – that the ruling class would willingly give up state power to workers without a fight in the face of a “broad democratic alliance”; nor do we pretend that there exists a passive parliamentary path to a Workers’ State through cooperation with the bourgeois-reformist Labour “left”.
Much of the present repressive legislation in Britain was developed under Blair, including the ability of police to take DNA samples from anyone they arrest and hold the samples indefinitely, and the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act which if invoked can grant any government minister extraordinary powers. Last year, police officers implemented a city-wide ban against the Extinction Rebellion (XR) climate demonstrations in London and arrested over 1,300 protestors. While XR is a moderate movement that fails to go beyond demands for a “green” face to capitalist-imperialist extractivism, the protests were capitalised on as an excuse to ramp up state repression, with talks held between police and the government about strengthening the 1986 Public Order Act. Ruling class fears about economic collapse loomed heavy even before the pandemic – e.g. the leaked “Operation Yellowhammer” document that warned of no-deal-Brexit related shortages of essential goods leading to widespread rioting (alluding to anxieties about a repeat of 2011) and the possible use of troops to deal with “civil unrest”.
The new Coronavirus Bill is a further stripping back of civil liberties, coming after the government attacked China’s measures as “authoritarian”. The British government has put 20,000 military personnel on standby, and the Bill gives police and immigration officials powers to detain people suspected of being infected and allows authorities to ban gatherings. This authoritarianism is heavily intertwined with the racist logic of the hostile environment. Here there is a parallel to the 1970s when the racialised mugging panic was used to justify the expansion of the paramilitary Special Patrol Groups (SPGs), and development of “snatch-squad” tactics, to terrorise Black communities – both of which were later used by the government to help smash the trade union movement under Callaghan and Thatcher. The mugging panic has recently been revived in the context of an extension of police powers: Priti Patel has announced that reasonable suspicion was no longer needed as justification for stop and searches. As *gal-dem has emphasised, Black people are 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts; and immigration raids have continued while the lockdown is in effect. In this context it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was Corbyn’s “democratic socialist” Labour that first proposed reversing cuts to the police force, then exceeded Johnson’s promise of 20,000 extra officers; and it never broke from the “national security” narrative that frames immigration and criminality as inseparable – as the leaked Labour anti-Semitism report exposed beyond all doubt, the Labour Party is institutionally racist to the core.
Since the 2008 financial crash, the ruling class has attempted to rollback all the social democratic concessions left over from the pre-neoliberal post-WWII decades, and in many countries COVID will be the excuse to all but complete this aggressive bourgeois offensive. In the US too, Trump has invoked sweeping powers through the Defense Production Act. The far-right is already in power in several countries including Hungary, where Viktor Orbán has passed a bill enabling him to rule by decree indefinitely, and India, where Narendra Modi has enforced an exodus of millions of migrant workers back to their villages where the virus will spread uninhibited. There has been a conspicuous absence of serious working-class resistance to the new authoritarian measures (and virulent anti-migrant policies) in Europe and North America. In Britain, there is not (yet) any mass fascist movement, but this is partly because the hard-right Tory government, with an openly racist leader who promotes eugenics, has effectively stolen the clothes of the British National Party and English Defence League. But as the crisis of capitalism further intensifies, we cannot rule out the future likelihood of independent fascist movements being facilitated by the bourgeois state as the economy disintegrates, as a means to repress any budding dissent along the lines of the yellow vests protest movement in France. If it came to it, the repressive COVID laws in Europe and the US could come to fulfil similar functions to the Enabling Act that facilitated the consolidation of Nazism in Germany. Some mainstream pundits are already referring to the supposedly “democratic” Western world as in a state of “pre-fascism”.
The intensification of state power has been coupled with a sustained assault on workers’ rights. In Britain there have been significant ongoing disputes in the education, distribution and transport sectors as well as by gig economy workers over the last few years, which has provoked a ruling-class backlash. The draconian 2016 Trade Union Act introduced an extremely undemocratic double strike ballot threshold along with authorised supervisors on pickets. Just before Christmas 2019 the High Court ruled against Royal Mail workers’ right to strike despite a 97% vote to do so on a 76% turnout. At the moment, the most overt repression is being trained against migrant workers. The previously mentioned UVW security workers report how the university’s management ‘repeatedly called the police to unlawfully break every single one of our strikes, which on one occasion led to the unlawful arrest of our friend Franck Magennis, then Head of Legal at UVW. And we ourselves have been threatened with arrest on multiple occasions, every time on the most ludicrous of grounds—and all for having had the temerity to exercise our legal and human right to picket at our place of work.’ But the government is planning legislation to ban all-out strikes in transport, and will attempt to broaden anti-strike laws to all essential public service workers, and ultimately to all workers. The existing Free Our Unions campaign has the support of several national trade unions but is hamstrung by its affiliation with the Labour Party, as even “left” Labour leaders have not publicly committed to more than the repeal of the most recent anti-trade union act, ignoring the decades of legal limits on strikes and solidarity action since the 1980s.
Trade unions must connect the defence of the right to take collective action with a broader fight against state violence and the overarching hostile environment. We can have an effective lockdown without a loss of civil liberties; instead of relying on the army and police, trade unions in strategic sectors should liaise with local authorities and community organisations to ensure the implementation of safety measures and provision of essential supplies (as has happened in the past during general strikes).
With the depth of the crisis, the need to overturn the capitalist system in which the economy is run for profit, and replace it with one where the working class have control, is obvious. This is exemplified in how some other countries have responded to the pandemic.
In Kerala, a state in India, the government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has issued loans to families, higher allocations for a rural employment guarantee scheme, two months of pension payments to the elderly and free food grains, and instructed restaurants to provide food at subsidised rates; while utility payments for water and electricity as well as interest on debt payments have been suspended. The Communist-led government also organised mass cleaning campaigns using volunteers, and has opened thousands of temporary encampments for migrants, the homeless and destitute – by 28 March 144,145 migrant workers had been housed. Before a single case of COVID was detected in socialist Cuba, doctors and custom officials had already been trained to monitor travellers and screen patients with respiratory symptoms and specialised care facilities had been set up, and the country also quickly deployed an anti-viral drug that boosts the immune system and has proven effective in combatting COVID – testament to what can be achieved when the economy is geared towards the requirements of ordinary people. The People’s Republic of China, where new hospitals were erected in a matter of days, especially exemplifies the superiority of national planning oriented to meet people’s needs. On 1 February the Chinese government produced 773,000 test kits a day; by 31 March, 4.26 million test kits were produced per day. The government announced that testing and treatment would be free to all, and introduced immediate measures to minimise the impact on people’s daily lives including pausing mortgage and credit card payments, while local authorities have ensured every home received food packages and prescription medication. Charges of Chinese “totalitarianism”, including from much of the western “left”, miss the fact that key to China’s response were grassroots working-class mobilisations. In Chengdu, Sichuan Province alone ‘440,000 citizens formed teams to do a range of public actions to stem the transmission of the virus: they publicized the health regulations, they checked temperatures, they delivered food and medicines, and they found ways to entertain the otherwise traumatized public.’ Chinese and Cuban doctors have been in Iran, Italy and Venezuela, and have offered their services and expertise around the world – Cuba even rescued a stranded British cruise ship struck by COVID.
In the supposedly “civilised” developed capitalist countries, the responses have been staggeringly inept. In Britain the estimated total COVID death toll including care home deaths is over ten times the reported deaths in China (around 4,600) – a country with a population 20 times the size of Britain’s. The UK Statistics Authority has exposed how the Tories have deliberately spun their testing numbers to hide their consistent failure to hit the 100,000 testing target.
The gutting of the NHS over the past decade has been disastrous. A BBC *Panorama* investigation found the government ignored a warning from its own advisers in June 2019 to buy missing protective equipment including gowns, visors, and swabs for testing. It also found that millions of lifesaving respirator masks, which doctors and nurses have been demanding, are unaccounted for. Britain has failed to meet World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines on protective gear, and has resorted to reusing PPE; while some health workers have been forced to wear bin bags – but doctors and nurses are being warned by health leaders not to raise their concerns publicly. Lack of hospital beds is another major issue: Britain has just 2.8 per thousand people (South Korea has 11.5, Germany 8.3) so there’s been a huge drive to switch beds to critical care use, meaning there have been widespread suspensions of planned operations for existing patients. This crisis was set in motion eight years ago with the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, which allowed up to 50% of beds in English hospitals to be private, and which got through parliament with the aid of House of Lords members who had declared financial interests in profit-making healthcare companies. In the short term, requisitioning private hospitals, as has been proposed by the GMB trade union, would relieve pressure – in contrast to the government’s approach of renting them for £2.4 million a day. The Tories were already intent on selling off the NHS, and they’ve not taken any serious action to stop its near-collapse. Compare the recent £6.6 billion of emergency support for the health service with the £1,300 billion that the British state allocated to rescue the banks and markets during and after the 2008 financial crisis.
It’s essential to fight to save the NHS by putting an end to its privatisation. While the British government is renting hospital beds, Spain has nationalised all of its private hospitals. Pay must also be raised for all NHS and social care staff – low pay has caused mass vacancies in the sector, including shortages of 40,000 nurses. Private sector medical technology should be requisitioned, and Britain’s huge pharmaceutical industry should be brought under public ownership to ensure the priority is saving lives not making profits.
Britain’s construction industry is also ripe for nationalisation. Official government advice has been for non-essential building sites (including for luxury hotels and apartments) to remain open despite the lockdown, putting building workers (many of them technically “self-employed”) and their families at risk because, as Dave Smith from the Blacklist Support Group puts it, the industry “is run by a cartel of major contractors who have repeatedly been found guilty of putting profits before workers health and blacklisting those who complain about safety.” Trade unions organising builders should fight to nationalise the construction companies that profiteer at workers’ expense and to re-establish unionised direct labour organisations to replace corrupt council deals with private companies.
Private ownership of the economy has been one of the biggest hindrances to an effective response to the pandemic in Britain. Public ownership would enable the immediate redirection of labour and production to expand the provision of essential services and goods. But while supporting short-term calls for nationalisation to rescue key services and better enable workers to fight to defend workplace rights, pay and conditions, we must simultaneously recognise that public ownership under capitalism amounts to nothing more or less than the collective ownership of the bourgeoisie. Typically nationalisation occurs in unprofitable floundering industries, which are subsided for the sake of British capital as a whole. The Tories have at various times nationalised the BBC, the electricity-distribution network, the London Underground and Rolls-Royce. Indeed as the crisis of capitalism intensifies and competition is tightened up to ever-higher levels, nationalisations of certain sectors may become an economic necessity, and a means to intensify the exploitation of workers. The government’s last-ditch rail takeover, which will initially last six months, entails “transferring revenue and cost risk to the government”, meaning taxpayers will take the costs involved. 1/4 rail workers have still not been issued with hand sanitiser, and the rail workforce is unable to properly follow social distancing. The rail franchises have received massive handouts from taxpayer subsidies in the last decade - £7 billion to the Northern rail franchise alone – in return for extreme inefficiency and the highest prices in Europe. The RMT rail union supports nationalisation but the fight should be for full public ownership with workers’ control and without pay-outs to the profiteering franchise operators; and for nationalisation to be extended to the deregulated buses in the big cities.
While immediately, the demand for public ownership is progressive as an expression of the rejection of private ownership of the means of production, and an understanding of the superiority of a planned centrally-directed economy over one where competition and anarchy reigns supreme, we ultimately need to raise the demand into opposition to the fundamental capitalist system of wage-labour exploitation. State-controlled industry itself is not socialism if the state is owned by the bourgeois class, nor is it by itself sustainable given the cyclical history of de-nationalisations and job losses in this country. Neither does having workers own 10% of companies, as Corbyn’s Labour proposed, amount to either ownership or control: it’s merely another means to incorporate some workers into the system, involve them in the planning of their own exploitation, and undermine avenues for real change. The theoretical confusion and lack of clarity among the revisionist Communist Party of Britain and various Trotskyist groups including the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party of Great Britain leads them to label the policies of the Labour Party as “socialist” and thus aid the bourgeoisie by confusing workers about the real nature of capitalism and socialism. Forgive us for flogging a dead horse at this point, but it seems this remains necessary given the pathetic calls of “Don’t Leave, Organise”, and the further wastage of energies on restoring a Labour “left” that never represented working-class interests.
Despite provoking the ire of the neoliberal political establishment, Corbyn was a relative moderate who didn’t even restore the Labour Party’s original Clause IV (removed by Blair) which called for common ownership of the commanding heights of the economy: i.e. the major pharmaceutical and auto companies, utilities, petroleum, steel, airways, telecom, aerospace. Corbyn’s platform didn’t include taking over the big multinational banks (as is proposed by the Fire Brigades Union, and official Trades Union Congress policy, although in practice the TUC ignores it) to put an end to speculation and grotesque salaries and bonuses. But ultimately wresting control of the major strategic economic sectors away from the capitalist class can’t come through reforms. The current dictatorship of the bourgeoisie can only be defeated by a revolutionary working-class movement with complete political independence from the reformist Labour Party.
We should fight for public ownership of key services with workers’ control, for removing the market from the NHS, for a National Care Service (a Labour Party proposal during the 2019 general election), for a living wage, and for a universal benefits system. But those would be temporary reforms. We must not labour under the illusion that any kind of class compromise, like a return to the social-democratic consensus of the immediate post-WWII years, is possible; the economic conditions for that were exceptional and won’t be seen again (but also the idea of a “golden era” of social democracy in Britain with no class struggle is largely a myth – those years saw the imposition of wage controls, lay-offs and the violent repression of strikes). According to the Bank of England, Britain is currently heading for its worst recession in three centuries, and further waves of infection would completely derail the economy. Accelerating price inflation (hyperinflation) is a possibility after the lockdown lifts, as the economy reboots and governments internationally rely on yet more borrowing. But of more concern is the long-term spectre of mass unemployment based on the need of capitalism to further drive down wages and conditions to deal with the global slump in productivity and trade. Decaying capitalism is utterly incapable of meeting the basic needs of the working class. Defensive struggles over wages and conditions and to protect the health and social care sector must be coupled with an offensive political perspective. The combined economic and climate crises threaten widespread devastation on an unprecedented scale, and revolutionary socialism is the only acceptable solution for humanity.
Real socialism places all industries and all economic and social institutions directly in the hands of the working class, and dismantles capitalism entirely; replacing it with a state of, by and for the working class, in which the productive forces of society would not be the private property of the few. Socialism is not “starting from scratch” – it is reorienting the technical, scientific and infrastructural resources of society to the needs of ordinary people. Taking control of the armaments industry alone would free up billions of pounds of advanced technology and production capacity to develop vital medical supplies, instead of weapons of imperialist destruction. Socialism would also enable a truly environmentally sustainable economy, rather than just a new “green” form of capitalist extractivism. As capitalism becomes ever-more depraved, the level of working-class struggle must be heightened.
Britain hasn’t seen large strikes such as those by warehouse workers in the US and Italy, but there have been many short and sharp unofficial “wildcat” strikes. As the government has failed to protect them, workers themselves are having to take collective action, as when construction workers forced the closure of the MGT Energy plant in Middlesbrough. Bus drivers have forced Transport for London to implement free travel and close the front doors of every bus so passengers are kept at a safe distance; while poultry workers in Portadown and bin workers in Glasgow have struck for and won PPE, and staff in at least eight Royal Mail sites have walked out over safety concerns. Formally self-employed “gig economy” workers e.g. Deliveroo couriers are organising in the IWGB to demand full sick pay, safety equipment and medical testing.
On 28 April, International Workers’ Memorial Day, hundreds of thousands of people in Britain took part in a minute’s silence to honour the sacrifices of essential workers. But these workers know that while remembering the dead, there must be a fight to protect those still on the frontline. Workers took action to save lives with 30-minute walkouts in hospitals across the country, spread out to observe physical distancing, in which they laid flowers and read out the names of workers who’ve died. Racially oppressed and migrant nurses, doctors and porters played a leading role in the demonstrations. They were also joined by workers in other sectors, for instance in Wigan health and social care workers were joined by the RMT and Unite unions in a rally in the town centre in a show of solidarity. RMT workers have also organised to ensure tube cleaners sent home to self-isolate receive full pay. While Johnson tried to make the day a show of “national unity”, many workers expressed outrage at the government’s handling of the crisis. As a nurse at University College Hospital, London said “there needed to be a political message to the government, not just passively performing it”.
There have been particularly stunning displays of resistance by cleaners, including a protest outside Queen Elizabeth hospital in Greenwich, where an outsourced cleaner was suspended for refusing to work without protective equipment. Outsourced GMB cleaners at Lewisham Hospital have forced subcontractor ISS to cough up unpaid wages and increase the hourly payrate, by staging an unofficial lunchtime walkout, with community support. Outsourcer ISS has also threatened to sack a cleaner at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Woolwich for demanding PPE. On Workers’ Memorial Day outsourced UVW cleaners at the Ministry of Justice walked out to protest the lack of protective equipment in their workplace after two of their colleagues died in one week.
In stark contrast to this working-class resistance is the complicity of the cowardly leadership of the large trade unions. In a flagrant display of class collaborationism the Trades Union Congress led by Frances O’Grady has said it wants to sit down with businesses and the government for a “National Council for Reconstruction and Recovery”; Len McCluskey of Unite has also asked to be involved in the discussions. Downplaying the severity of issues over safety and pay, O’Grady says “We all want everyone to get back to work and start rebuilding Britain”. Dave Prentis of Unison has attacked “selfish” public transport users, rather than blaming businesses and the government for keeping non-essential workplaces open. During the Labour leadership campaign Unison backed right-winger Starmer – who’s also been endorsed by architect of Tory austerity George Osborne. The craven misleaders in the trade union movement have used the lockdown as an excuse to suppress their members’ existing demands. General secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) Mark Serwotka said that due to the crisis PCS members’ pay claim would be “parked” while they are forced to come into work in offices and call centres, often without social distancing measures or hand sanitiser. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) ignored an overwhelming strike vote by its membership on 17 March, issuing a statement about “setting aside differences” with the management in “the interests of the nation”. While the Royal Mail CEO is paid millions, CWU postal workers lack PPE and are being made to deliver non-essential items; they have also suffered over a decade of workplace closures and increased workloads. The pandemic has also coincided with the most sustained period of industrial action in British higher-education in history, around issues of low pay, casualisation, and racial and gender discrimination. But the University and College Union (UCU) leadership failed to criticise the government’s “herd immunity” approach and at the conclusion of the latest strike UCU members were asked to make an “orderly” return to work, without being informed of their right to refuse this in order to prevent their health being put at risk. Universities are exploiting this crisis to further attack pensions and jobs – hundreds of temporary staff have already been laid off – but the union has clung to a “national solidarity” line, postponing its planned strike re-ballot.
To a considerable extent the upper leadership of the trade unions has been bought off – the annual income of the 10 largest trade unions is over £750 million, and general secretaries earn upwards of £100,000 a year. For decades the trade unions have largely cowered behind the “dented shield”, waiting indefinitely for a Labour government to come and “rescue” them. Rather than donating to a Labour Party that only exists to systematically dupe workers, unions should be pooling funds to sustain strikers and cover legal fees. Trade unions can only represent workers’ interests if they are democratised, which would include ensuring no official be paid above the average wage of a worker within their union. The present conservatism is however partially inherent in the very nature of trade unions, which undertake defensive struggles over wages and conditions (i.e. over the terms of workers’ exploitation) – a form of narrow “economism”. Militant economic struggles are nevertheless essential, as is the fight for the right of all workers to strike and take solidarity action. Trade unions have considerable potential power to deliver blows to capitalism at the point of production, and under certain conditions they can even take down governments – as they did in Britain in 1974. Trade unions must be shaken out of their current complacency and be transformed into fighting class organisations. But even with militant unions hostile to bosses and the government, purely economic struggles will at best be a struggle within the capitalist system, not against the system itself, which is why direction from a revolutionary Party on a national basis is needed.
Socialists in Britain must recognise the present crisis of decaying capitalism (which COVID has only compounded) in all its interconnected facets – the assault on workers’ rights and conditions, the depravity of the racist hostile environment, the backwards slide on gender equality and the spike in anti-LGBT+ attitudes, especially transphobia (Tory “equalities minister” Liz Truss has announced plans to implement further barriers to healthcare access for transgender youths), and the eugenicist attacks on the socially vulnerable – and unite currently-disunified struggles into a single revolutionary wedge.
The bulk of the self-proclaimed “revolutionary” left in Britain has forgotten the need to develop independent political leadership. The capitulation of Bernie Sanders in the US to supporting the neoliberal Democratic candidate Biden is yet another warning against relying on reformist social democracy, even under the guise of “democratic socialism”. We need to build towards a unified revolutionary Communist political culture attuned to the principle of proletarian unity-in-diversity, coupled with uncompromising class solidarity and antagonism to the repressive capitalist state (whether Tories or Labour are at the helm).
One of the major grassroots responses to the pandemic has been the spontaneous emergence of “mutual aid” organisations, demonstrating the extraordinary resilience of communitarian spirit and working-class generosity, but while charitable actions are necessary for survival in these times they are not alone enough as they don’t pose any threat to the capitalist class, and indeed many mutual aid networks have been easily co-opted by the state and local authorities and de-politicised. Socialists must have an all-sided political perspective and champion the anti-capitalist struggle in all its forms, whether it manifests in rent strikes, squatting, industrial disputes (official or unofficial), urban uprisings, protests against state violence, community campaigns against local council cuts, etc. Given the severity of the economic recession, there may soon be a need for a movement of the unemployed, which could draw inspiration from the Communist-led National Unemployed Workers’ Movement of the 1920s-30s in which tens of thousands fought for the right to work at adequate pay rates and for the restoration of social security benefits.
Workers in Britain must also reciprocate the spirit of internationalism displayed by Cuba and other socialist nations, by opposing imperialist aggression. The population of Venezuela is still being harmed by US sanctions and the country has been denied £3 billion in International Monetary Fund aid to alleviate the suffering caused by the pandemic (while £1 billion of Venezuelan gold is being held by the Bank of England); and the disastrous impact of COVID on ordinary people in Iran has also been greatly accentuated by criminal sanctions.
The fight of our lives is coming, as the Tory government will again try to make us foot the bill for its bailouts to big businesses and the banks. The Tories want to lift the quarantine as soon as possible to minimise the loss of profits, but we can’t allow there to be a passive “return to normal”. Despite their lack of socialist political direction, the strike of one million council workers in 2002 and the two-million-strong anti-Iraq War protest the following year, as well as the recent Women’s March and climate strikes, all show the mass mobilising potential that still exists in Britain. It’s an unfortunate reality that for years the working class, demoralised by decades of deindustrialisation and austerity, has been largely taking a beating lying down. But as the Irish socialist Jim Larkin was fond of saying:
“The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise!”