COVID-19 and the Labour party leadership results

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It is now over a month since the first Covid-19 case was confirmed and two weeks into the lockdown. London is still the epicentre of the outbreak in the UK, with the West Midlands also recording increasing cases. We are now looking at a new reality, central London is virtually deserted, as are many towns and cities and our normal lives have been put on hold. 

Despite this it is inspiring to see so many UK citizens caring for the vulnerable in our communities. In all the disruption Unite and Labour party activists have taken their place with local councils, the voluntary sector, neighbours, workmates, friends and family to find time to care for others.

Essential workers, many of them Unite members, are risking their (and their family’s) health keeping public services, services for the vulnerable, passenger transport, social care, the food industry, and especially the NHS functioning.

Despite the disruption politics continues. On Saturday we  heard the result of the Labour Party Leadership & Deputy Leadership election. The United Left thanks Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (and others engaged in their transformational project) for their leadership since September 2015. 

That leadership inspired tens of thousands of people to join the Labour party, and it set out a radical socialist direction which helped challenge the narrative of perpetual austerity which the wealthy and powerful backers of the Tory Party have imposed since 2010. Where is that narrative now, in the face of the coronavirus emergency accelerating the economic crash which has loomed over us for the past few years?

The UL, like the Unite EC, backed Rebecca Long Bailey and Richard Burgeon and we are disappointed that they were unsuccessful. Rebecca voiced a clear vision of a New Green Deal to rebuild manufacturing in the UK, especially towns laid waste by the lack of a Tory industrial policy. Richard stood as a socialist and trade unionist. The left in the Labour Party now needs to avoid the danger of fragmenting and turning in on itself.

The 2010 and 2015 elections were lost for several reasons but chief amongst them was the party’s failure to be bold, to capture the imagination, to put forward a new socialist vision; to go beyond austerity-lite. Jeremy and John changed all that, and the 2017 manifesto was inspirational. 

Sadly, Labour was unable to change the narrative of the 2019 general election from one issue: Brexit. This was as a result of the destabilising demand for a second referendum which fatally weakened 2017’s clear message of standing by the 2016 result

Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner’s new leadership challenge is  to build on the socialist ideas that inspired and mobilised so many members. Any backsliding into acceptance of the bosses’ austerity programme will only end in electoral defeat. (To date Starmer’s appointments to shadow cabinet posts flies in the face of his election promises to unify both wings of the party.)

We are now struggling against coronavirus; but even here there is hope. People began by panic buying; but now we are seeing a new social solidarity emerging. There is a new awareness that Thatcher was wrong in 1979: that there is indeed such a thing as society, and that caring for the vulnerable is the truest measure of a society, much more important than the greed and corruption of a small number who have enriched themselves by privatising public assets, destroying the welfare state, imposing the “gig economy” on young people and above all, attacks on workers’ rights. 

We have been subjected to unending fake promises: from ventilator numbers, to PPE for our NHS workers, to no serious intention of effective testing of doctors, nurses or ancillary staff in our hospitals, let alone the general public. Matt Hancock’s promise of 100,000 tests by the end of April is too little and far too late, if the government even manages to achieve this.

The shambles that is the Tory leadership has been clearly exposed. The arrogance, the complacency, and the contempt. 

There is also a new awareness that many of the crucial workers we are relying on in this extraordinary and dangerous time are on the minimum wage or zero hours contracts. How ironic that the Tory government has introduced its latest rise to the NMW now: a miserable 51p an hour. Unsurprisingly employer’s organisations are already lobbying to stop or delay it.

Now more than ever we need a vision capable of meeting the new challenge; an end to attacks on the NHS, on the poor, disabled, single parents and on our unions and the rebuilding of a new manufacturing economy, able to combat climate breakdown based on the Green New Deal, an end to precarious employment and bogus self-employment.

Finally, many of our members and activists have suffered during the lock down, from their workplace closing to their health being impacted by the effects of the virus.  Despite this our activists, officers and staff have been doing a brilliant job protecting our members and our communities.

Unite has developed novel forms of communications which have helped keep activists and members informed; from AGS Howard Beckett in the Legal Departments recent Facebook Q & A session, to AGS Steve Turner’s regular manufacturing reps conferences online. When this is over, we will be ready to rebuild and reenergise our structures and ensure our members do not have to pay for failed Tory policies and inaction.

Stay safe- stay strong.

Jim Kelly – UL Chair
Bronwen Handyside – UL Editor