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US BILLIONAIRE Warren Buffet once famously said “There’s class warfare all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war and we’re winning.”
Those words came to mind as I watched Boris Johnson deliver his address to the nation this week. It was a thinly veiled declaration of class war.
For all his statement’s incoherence and inadequacies, Johnson’s strategic objective was to scrap the “Stay at Home” slogan and replace it with the potentially deadly “Stay Alert” message.
This change has been justified by ministers by the need to get the economy going again, though no doubt it would be more accurate to say it’s about getting the profits of the capitalist class up again.
To do so, those who can’t work from home — that is, primarily lower-paid workers — will have to risk using public transport and entering workplaces where health-and-safety regulations may not always be at the top of the bosses’ agenda.
With over 50,000 deaths already likely according to the experts, this is a reckless shift in policy that risks many more lives being lost unnecessarily.
The Prime Minister’s call for people to navigate this evidently dangerous situation by using their “common sense” ignores the real power dynamics at play in society.
Non-unionised workers on precarious contracts, desperately needing to pay the rent and living month-to-month, simply aren’t in a position to bargain with their bosses on equal terms. They need the state to step in for them — and in recent days Johnson has made clear that it won’t.
It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the lower-paid section of the working class is being treated as the canary in the mine, especially when official figures show that workers in manual jobs are already up to four times more likely to die than some higher-paid white-collar workers.
Deep inequalities, exacerbated by a decade of austerity and entrenched by four decades of neoliberalism, are increasingly evident in the body count of this crisis.
Black people are significantly more likely to die with coronavirus, while women disproportionately make up the low-paid social-care workers who have one of the highest death rates
But if this is class war from Johnson, then the backlash from the public, the labour movement, the First Ministers of other nations and even from sections of business shows that this is not a settled matter.
Politics and organisation will determine the outcome over the coming months — potentially saving many lives. There is everything to fight for.
In fact, the lockdown itself and the increase in testing levels — however inadequate it remains — was the product of public pressure.
Likewise, the decision of the government to continue with furlough at 80 per cent is a big victory for the unions who fought for it.
There will be many more battles along the way and it will be for the left — inside and outside parliament, in the Labour Party, in the trade unions and in social movements — to build the broadest unity over the next period to win the demand of no return to work until it is safe to do so.
One coming battle is over schools, and I fully support the National Education Union’s five tests to ensure that schools only reopen when it’s safe for children, their families and staff to do so.
heir petition has already secured over 350,000 signatures. It’s great to see Labour’s front bench fully backing this pledge.
As well as the key public-safety demands for mass testing, tracking and tracing and for PPE for all workers, there are urgent economic demands.
For example, this week I called on the Chancellor in the Commons to guarantee that furloughed minimum-wage workers get the full national minimum wage. Too many are paid just 80 per cent of it, even though rents, bills and food prices haven’t fallen.
Outrageously, the Chancellor said that to plug the gap those workers should find another job — in the middle of an economic crisis!
Likewise, rent suspensions need to be higher up the political agenda in light of the looming crisis for renters who are accruing huge debts as the economy contracts.
As well as these immediate demands, we on the left need to be mapping out our vision for what a post-coronavirus society will look like.
I very much agree with Labour leader Keir Starmer’s message that “After all this, all the sacrifice and the loss, we can’t go back to business as usual.” We have to create a new normal.
In that spirit, we have to be bold in demanding that now is the time for reversing the trampling of workers’ rights of the past 40 years.
We have to fight for an end to the gross inequalities in our society that have resulted from a huge shift in the share of the economy away from labour to capital.
We have to be exposing how the free-market model left our social care and other key sectors in a weakened state of preparedness, and demand that they be made a public service.
And given the economic crisis that is to come, we need to be winning the argument for a huge investment in public works to kickstart the economy and prepare for the next crisis, be it social, health or environmental.
It will also mean a new foreign policy. Now is the time for greater support for multilateral bodies like the World Health Organisation and for a foreign policy based on co-operation.
Instead, we see a clear push for Britain to get caught up in the hostile posturing towards China that Trump is engaging in as part of his election campaign.
Johnson’s words and actions this week made it clear that the coronavirus crisis is class politics laid bare. On the left, we have to ensure that it is our class that wins.
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