Socialist Alternative

Caerphilly County lockdown: we’re not all in this together

New lockdown measures started in Caerphilly County at 6pm on 9 September. The reasons for it, and the nature of the new lockdown measures reveal quite starkly the priorities of the Senedd (Welsh Government).

The background to these new measures is a rise in cases with 133 confirmed cases in the last week alone, equivalent to 55.4 cases per 100,000 people (one of the highest in Wales). Wales currently has the highest density of confirmed cases of any nation in the UK (6,000 per million compared to England at 5,272 and Scotland at 4,041).

Vaughan Gething, the Labour health minister for Wales, has attributed this to people (particularly young people) meeting indoors and not following social distancing guidelines, and to overseas summer holidays. He ignores the fact that pubs are open, public transport is crowded and schools have been open, often in a far-from safe manner, with whole-class bubbles of 30 or more. At the time of writing several schools throughout Wales have already been forced to close due to recent outbreaks, including several schools within Caerphilly County itself. Non-essential businesses have reopened. With the furlough scheme coming to an end, many small businesses face a bleak choice of bankruptcy or unsafe working. Recent pictures on social media have shown social distancing not being enforced, perhaps partly because businesses are desperate to get more customers in to attempt to recover from lost earnings of previous months.

Meeting indoors with a lack of social distancing can contribute to outbreaks. But the messages from both the UK government at Westminster and from Cardiff Bay have been very confusing at best, which has contributed to this. Travel abroad may increase the risk. But overseas travel at the moment falls mainly into two general categories – those who travel to visit family members they have not been able to visit for some time due to lockdown measures, and those who have pre-booked holidays who have no option to cancel with a full refund.

The new lockdown measures in Caerphilly Country include facemasks being mandatory for everyone over eleven inside shops (this had not previously been mandatory in Wales) and all gatherings in the home being forbidden. You are also not allowed to leave the county without good reason, such as to attend work or to care for others, but as Caerphilly has transformed increasingly into a commuter town for Cardiff this is largely an ineffective measure and is more for show. Indeed, the very fact that areas of Caerphilly County have become commuter towns is likely a large part of the reason for a spike in cases as many people will be crammed together on buses and trains during rush hour.

Questioned on why pubs would remain open, the health minister stated with certainty that the virus is not being transmitted in pubs but only in gatherings within the home. You now have the farcical situation that you cannot visit a family member (unless you care for them) or simply cycle for exercise from Caerphilly to Cardiff (12 miles) but you can go from Ystryd Mynach to Caerphilly town to go to the pub (also 12 miles). You can’t go to a friend’s house, but depending on your age, you can sit next to them in class or go to the pub with them. The only measures brought in are designed to have zero impact on any economic activity.

The coronavirus pandemic has made 2020 a difficult year for everyone, having to find new ways of communicating, working and socialising. Lockdown measures have been necessary to attempt to stem the spread of the virus. But these new measures are a lockdown for people, not for the economy. The social isolation, which has affected mental health and led to a crisis in domestic violence, will continue. The most vulnerable will be hit hardest through a lack of planning for those who need any type of support with day-to-day activities.

We cannot return to normal and risk overwhelming our already overworked health workers, plus a big rise in the death toll. But neither can we stay in a perpetual state of lockdown which is taking its toll of the wellbeing of everyone. We need a strategy which puts ordinary working-class people and their needs at the heart of solving this crisis.

This will cost money, but they money does exist in society. Jeff Bezos, who runs Amazon, is set to become the worlds first trillionaire, profiting greatly from the pandemic. But Amazon famously uses various loopholes to avoid paying the correct rate of tax. Estimates suggest the shortfall is in the £100’s of millions. The cost of replacing trident nuclear weapons is estimated to be £205 billion! But capitalism is based on the pursuit of profit and not the needs of working-class people like us, and therefore cannot deal with a crisis of this magnitude.

The labour movement must develop a programme is developed which will genuinely find a route out of the current pandemic. This must include democratic workers control over what measures are taken, including at a local level. Is it safe for schools to open, what measures need to be put in place and what resources are needed for this to happen? If it is not possible to open safely then funds must be made available to ensure parents have all the necessary learning tools available at home, if wanted. No one must suffer any loss of income through time taken off work. These decisions should be made by democratically elected representatives of teachers, parents and the community. Is it safe for non-essential businesses to open? If not, there must be funds to ensure full pay to any workers affected by a closure of their workplace, including those who are self employed. We need a huge increase in funding for services for victims of domestic violence, and a dramatic expansion of social care services.

We must fight for the necessary measures to tackle to pandemic. But doing so also presents an opportunity to start a discussion about the type of society we need – one not based on the needs of the economy but based on the needs of ordinary people. The Covid-19 pandemic affects us all, but we are not all in this together. Working class people have lost jobs; become teachers to their children, whilst working or taking huge cuts in pay; been forced to continue in unsafe working environments. Meanwhile the billionaires have increased their wealth even further by taking advantage of the pandemic. We need to fight back against the Covid-19 virus and the virus of capitalism, which can only serve to worsen the pandemic.

Covid-19: lockdown means juggling the impossible for parents

In my local Mutual Aid Facebook group, most posts are asking for help getting shopping, or offering to pick up medicines. The solidarity between ordinary people has been really inspiring – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a problem asked about that hasn’t been solved by other group members. But then one Friday night, a different sort of post jumped out at me – one that people, while kind and sympathetic, were less sure of how to help.

Rebecca wrote: “Sorry if this is the wrong place to post this but I’m a single mum and I’m finding it a bit hard. The lack of adult contact, and dare I say physical contact (desperately in need of a hug) is driving me a bit crazy. As much as I love my daughter, I’m finding it really hard cooped up in a flat with no outdoor space and not being able to have even a minute to just collect my thoughts is driving me a bit dolally. My daughter is not a big sleeper, she sleeps from about 10pm-8am so I feel like I’m always ‘on duty’. If anyone has any advice as to somewhere I could get a bit of sanity, or just vent, I would really appreciate it. Thank you! Just to note it’s been really hard for me to say I’m struggling a bit.”

Rebecca isn’t alone. The scale of the shift in patterns of daily life that lockdown represents for millions is enormous. For everyone, the reduced social contact can have a big impact on mental wellbeing. The merging of personal and work life brings difficulties, especially for those with limited space at home. But the closure of schools and nurseries is perhaps the biggest shock to the normal functioning of workers’ lives.

Families being forced to be together, and with no one else, fulltime and for several weeks if not months, is undoubtedly causing an increase in stress, tiredness and tensions in family relationships. Socialist Alternative has written elsewhere about the rising domestic violence that is one extreme outcome sparked by this dynamic. But for many more families, relationships will remain safe and loving but under enormous pressure as they try to juggle the impossible. Many parents are experiencing a huge mental and emotional strain as the expectations of what they can achieve in a 24-hour period spiral completely out of sync with reality.

Double work

To state what should be obvious, it is not possible to work fulltime and also look after young children fulltime. While some workers are furloughed completely and some may have a reduced workload when working from home, many report being expected to complete their usual contracted hours, despite having children at home to care for. It is common, for example, that workers have been provided with work computers which allow the employer to monitor how much time is being spent on work.

At the same time, parents – whether they are working or not – also face an unrealistic pressure to be providing a full day of dynamic, fun and educational activities for their children. The work that has been set by schools varies hugely – including a lot assuming access to computers and the internet. No doubt many are appreciative of some suggested activities and guidance on what would be useful and interesting to their children, but parents are not, and do not need to try to be, teachers. Neither do they need to attempt to offer some kind of summer camp. One look at social media or any parenting forum would suggest any good parent is having an hour-by-hour timetable for each day full of arts and crafts, homemade science experiments and amateur dramatics. There must be no shaming of parents who struggle to or choose not to get their kids doing organised activities – particularly given the anxiety that many children will be feeling in the current situation and the impact on their own mental wellbeing and behaviour that this can have.

Biggest burden on women

This issue is impacting everyone, but it is particularly acute for women, single parent and lower-income families. Increased pressure on household tasks inevitably means more pressure on women. This is because of the pre-existing inequality that exists for women, including within the homes, which will be exacerbated in a crisis like this. Survey after survey shows that despite all the legal rights women have won, and the influx of women into the workforce over the past three decades, women still do the majority of unpaid work within the home – cleaning, cooking, shopping, laundry, all things that are more complicated under lockdown. The capitalist system relies on reinforcing traditional gender roles and the idea that women are ‘natural’ carers and homemakers. This then justifies low pay for the employment sectors performing these roles (dominated by women) and also women providing the bulk of unpaid work on these tasks within the home.

As with so many aspects of this crisis and others, the poorest are hit hardest. Many are trying to handle these commitments in overcrowded homes with no outside space. Over 86,000 homeless families, including 127,370 children, are living in temporary accommodation such as B&Bs and hostels, with parents and children living in just one room. The number of single mothers (who make up 90% of single-parent families) living in temporary accommodation has increased by 75% since 2010. The chief executive of housing charity Shelter said at the start of March “we talk to mothers who are worried there is no space in their cramped, dirty room for their baby to learn to crawl.” These conditions are clearly a huge obstacle to parents being able to ‘homeschool’, and keep their children entertained within the home setting.

Meanwhile, it is reported that there has been a surge in demand for private tutors and even nannies offering to supervise children over the internet. For those with a bit of expendable income, many classes and events are available online for a fee, which undoubtedly gives some brief respite for overworked parents. But none of these things are an option for many low paid workers, particularly those who have had pay cuts or suffered redundancy as a result of the crisis. And that’s not to mention that some nurseries are still charging parents to reserve their child’s place, despite them not being able to attend for the foreseeable future.

Trade union struggle

We must demand realistic expectations of working parents. Socialist Alternative calls for trade union oversight of workload to take into account increased pressures, including the lack of childcare. The question in each case should not only be can this work be done from home, but does it need to be? We call for all non-essential workplaces (as determined by the workers themselves) to be closed to help stop the spread of the virus, but non-essential work should also be stopped completely if workers are no longer in a position to carry it out because of the lockdown – while guaranteeing full pay for all. Any attempt at future disciplinary action against workers who were not able to complete work during this period must be fiercely resisted by the trade unions.At the same time though, they must also organise to ensure that when it is safe and possible for workplaces to reopen there is no attempt to use what workers have managed to achieve in this extraordinary period to force new working arrangements in the long term – for example attempting to save money by having big sections of the workforce work from home on a permanent basis.

Many parents will be counting down the days until things return to ‘normal’ and kids go back to school, or can visit grandparents and friends, or just when families can have a day out of the house together. But the lockdown has brought into the general conversation an issue often behind closed doors – looking after children is hard, and can be isolating at the best of times. Raising the next generation, not just providing them with a formal education, should be a collective responsibility of society.

Socialist Alternative calls for a system of free, state-run, flexible childcare to meet need and want. This should be to enable parents to have some free time, not only to facilitate working. The Coronavirus crisis has revealed that work can also be much more flexible than employers would like to claim. Working parents should be able to work from home, part time or on a flexi-time basis to whatever degree is reasonable and works for their families. Ending poverty pay would ease the financial strains which can lead to increased tension within homes, and also offer all families the chance to enjoy days out and activities together. A mass programme to build and renovate council homes, including outdoor space such as private or communal gardens or playgrounds, would make a big difference to quality of life for many.

A socialist alternative

The conditions of life under lockdown have highlighted the problems with relying on the nuclear family to provide for all material and emotional needs. This is an extreme situation, but the reality is that even under ‘normal’ conditions the capitalist system propagates the idea that the full burden of all tasks associated with childrearing should fall on individuals, and particularly on individual women. It teaches us to undervalue the essential and tough work of caring for children and other vulnerable sections of society. A socialist world, where resources are publicly owned and democratically planned to meet the needs of all on a collective basis, would lay the ground for all tasks and relationships to be genuinely voluntary and collaborative. The Coronavirus crisis is therefore highlighting that a socialist feminist perspecive is essential to make clear that the daily struggles currently facing parents under lockdown are entirely bound up both with class oppression and the oppression of women, and that only a working class-led struggle for a socialist alternative to capitalism offers a way forward.

Issue 6 feature: Immigration – a socialist approach

The Johnson government’s plan to introduce a points-based immigration system may be one of the most cynical moves of any Tory government in recent years. It is a blatant attempt to divide the working class on the basis of the false idea that those who settle in this country from elsewhere are overwhelmingly the poorest, who don’t financially ‘contribute’ to society. Never mind the outrageous undervaluing of low paid, essential jobs that this argument indicates and the complete dismissal of the fact that people’s contribution to society and their communities goes well beyond what their job may be. Even more laughable is the idea that the Tories have any interest in making things fair for the majority of ordinary people or solving the crises of unemployment, underemployment and low pay.  

This is the logical next step for a government which has shown time and again its keenness to use attacks on migrants to try to whip up a section of its voting base. Johnson’s whole Trumpian approach is to encourage divisions between sections of working-class people, and play the part of the leader willing to ‘say what everyone is thinking but too scared to say’. This is the prime minister who referred to Muslim women who wear the niqab and the burqa as ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank-robbers’.  It’s the government of the ‘hostile environment’ which led to at least 83 wrongful deportations of Windrush generation migrants and an unknown number being wrongfully detained or denied access to services. The government which just last month forcibly deported 29 Jamaican-born people – many who had grown up here and have families they have been forced to leave behind – who had been convicted of crimes, some many years ago and for which they had served their allotted prison sentence. The government that calls on landlords and even health workers to act as spies expected to report those ‘illegally’ in the country or accessing services. 

This right-wing agenda suits the Tory party at a time when their support has been extremely unstable. But in fact this restrictive approach to immigration is not popular with many of their big business friends and financial backers, in industries such as IT, hospitality and agriculture. For the capitalist bosses, more relaxed immigration rules mean access to ‘cheap’ labour. Only a mass trade union-led struggle of workers for decent pay and working conditions for all can cut across that. The short-termism being shown by the Tories in introducing these rules is yet another sign that the capitalist class increasingly has no party it can rely on to act in its long-term interests. Those capitalists who do back the policy recognise that in some industries where low paid, insecure work dominates, an increased pool of desperate undocumented migrants can easily be super exploited and used to further drive down wages and conditions for all.

Of course, the most important opposition isn’t from the super-rich anyway. One of the main ways in which immigration can be an important issue under a Johnson government is not just the way in which it is being used by the Tories and the far right, but also the very real prospect that it can be a spark for significant mobilisation of workers and young people keen to express anti-racist and internationalist principles.

In the vast majority of cases internationally where there have been attacks on immigrants the solidarity of ordinary people has been clear. Some of the first major protests against Trump following his election in 2016 were in opposition to his ‘Muslim travel ban’ – which did have success in temporarily halting the ban. In many cases, members of Socialist Alternative (our US sister organisation) played a leading role in those protests, including Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant who led a 5,000-strong peaceful mass disobedience at Seattle Tacoma airport. Particularly during the first wave of the refugee crisis, workers on the Mediterranean coasts played heroic roles in rescuing people directly and opening their homes, while thousands of others have donated clothes and food.

In Britain there has not yet been such a focal point for this type of anger – no threat of a literal wall being built to keep immigrants out. But the huge demonstrations against Trump that have taken place here – for many motivated largely by anti-racism – show the potential for opposition to any similar attacks. And it’s clear that Johnson’s policies, combined with his own bigotry, create a high possibility of flashpoints emerging over these issues in the medium term.

In all the big struggles in Britain at the moment, an internationalist outlook is clear, particularly among the younger generation. Through the climate strikes, tens of thousands of students have taken action along with millions around the world against the destruction of the planet. In community campaigns to save the NHS the point is constantly made that the health service would struggle to function without the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who work in it. The ongoing industrial action at universities and in Royal Mail bring together workers from around the world in a common struggle against the bosses. 

So it’s understandable that many of the most combative, anti-Tory fighters have had concerns about what they perceive to be a win for the anti-immigrant right wing: Brexit. But consistently the main reasons given for people voting Leave have been shown to be related to the idea of ‘taking back control’, decision making and democracy. Of course the right-wing Leave campaign leaders have no intention of giving working class people control over anything. But there was an instinctive understanding of the anti-democratic role of the neo-liberal European Union (which has in fact shown complete disdain for immigrants, refusing access to Italian ports for rescue ships, and attacking Syrian migrants fleeing from Turkey to Greece).

This is not to claim that fear of immigration played no role in the vote for Brexit. On the contrary, immigration is generally the second most common reason given for voting Leave. Throughout the referendum campaign and afterwards right-wing politicians from all establishment parties and from both sides of the referendum debate have lazily and hatefully fallen back on attacks on immigrants. Undoubtedly some of these views have filtered down into wider society, and certainly an existing racist right wing has felt emboldened to spout their ideas more confidently. 

This sentiment could have been largely cut across had Jeremy Corbyn and the leaderships of the trade unions taken a different position.  A pro-worker, anti-racist and anti-austerity Leave campaign with those mass leaders at its head could have won millions to the position that working class and young people should oppose the capitalist EU, while building concrete solidarity with all those fighting austerity and oppression across Europe.

Contrary to the pessimistic view of many on the organised left, it is not the case that attitudes in general or on the issue of immigration are moving to the right. In fact, a number of recent polls suggest a decrease in opposition to immigration in Britain. A survey by Ipsos Mori for the BBC, for example, showed that in 2019 48% of people thought immigration had had a positive impact on the UK and 26% thought it had been mainly negative – a reversal from the 19% positive, 64% negative found in the same survey in 2011. It places the UK as one of the countries with the most positive view of immigration globally.

Importantly, many of these polls show that a turning point was the EU referendum – undoubtedly partly reflecting that thousands have been repelled by the establishment politicians’ race in the intervening years to be the most anti-immigrant. This is in stark contrast to the perspective of many left Remain organisations and figureheads, both in advance of the referendum and since, that the Leave vote in the EU referendum was a uniformly reactionary one which has strengthened the anti-immigrant right wing. While that trend has made gains in formal terms (Johnson’s rise being the clearest example), under the surface in society the picture is much more complicated.

This is also the case internationally. There is no doubt, for example, that the far right has made electoral gains in many countries in Europe, and that the single most prominent argument they have used is that against immigrants. And yet, opinion polls show no change in people’s attitudes towards immigration. So what has changed? Even the Guardian newspaper admits that the main reasons are related to the fact that mainstream parties of all colours have disgracefully incorporated the far-right’s anti-immigrant rhetoric into their own, and that there is a major collapse of ‘loyalty’ to political parties.

In other words, establishment parties – including those traditionally representing the working class – have abandoned workers, and have been abandoned in return, leaving a space for the far right to make gains. So making a stand against anti-immigrant ideas has to include a serious approach to the political alternatives on offer and building political parties that are truly representative of the working class.

What type of programme, for example, should Corbyn’s Labour Party have adopted towards this issue?  It should boldly stand against all examples of racism and xenophobia, opposing every racist comment and policy the Tories make. That also means rejecting previous examples of Labour administrations attempting to compete with the Tories’ racism – Ed Miliband’s immigration controls mug, for example, as well as the policy it referred to. This opposition also needs to be in actions as well as words – where physical attacks take place or deportations are threatened, mass protests and resistance should be organised by the trade union and Labour movement.

It was correct that Labour’s 2019 manifesto pledged to guarantee the right to remain in the UK for all EU migrants already living here. This should be energetically demanded and fought for by the trade unions now. The chaos of the Settlement Scheme applications should be made redundant and no one should face being forced to leave once Brexit is complete.

There must similarly be a struggle for the rights of asylum seekers, who are often some of the most vulnerable in society. This should include demanding that the detention centres are closed immediately and asylum seekers are not treated like criminals. All undocumented migrants should be given immediate amnesty, along with the right to work and to join trade unions.

Many of those workers who may have adopted some of the reactionary ideas being spouted by right-wing politicians can be won to an anti-racist position that defends the rights of migrants along these lines. Rather than allowing employers to super exploit migrants as part of their race to the bottom, a socialist programme would unify settled workers fighting for their jobs, terms and conditions and migrant workers. The trade union movement should campaign for mass unionisation of migrant workers – some of the ‘new’ unions have led successful struggles for cleaning and catering staff in London – fight for industry-wide agreements on pay and conditions to apply to all workers. This is the best defence against the race to the bottom. 

The right-wing benefits when working people believe there are not enough resources to be shared out, spreading the idea that we either ‘take care of our own’ or allow migrant workers in. But this can be challenged and beaten, by building a mass, trade union-led movement against austerity. A collective struggle by workers of all origins for decent jobs, pay, public services and council homes cuts across the argument that attacking the rights of immigrants is the only way to win these things for British workers. We should be clear that no Tory policy will hand any of these things to us – the working class has always had to fight for the things we need, and very often migrant workers have been at the forefront of those struggles.

We should have no faith in the government to decide who can and can’t come to live in Britain. The points based system is just an extreme version of what was already the case – the world’s super-rich, the real scroungers, are welcome to come and go as they please, but ordinary people have to jump through impossible hoops to attempt to make a decent life for themselves and their families.

As socialists, we fight for a world without borders, where everyone is free to travel and live where they please, without being forced to move because of war, persecution or poverty. On the basis of international socialism, where the means of producing wealth are collectively owned and democratically planned on a global scale, we could begin to eradicate want and meet the needs of all the world’s people, and the planet. That would open the possibility of genuine free movement, and with it an end to racism and division.

UCU strike reports

Jason Toynbee, UCU retired member

Day 6 of the strike and the sun came out on a frosty morning in Brighton. But the spirit on the pickets is high and there’s a growing sense that this dispute can – must – be won. The number of students going in at both universities is down to a trickle. Last week at Brighton’s Moulsecoomb campus there was a well attended joint student-staff rally. This morning students at Sussex have again blockaded Sussex House, the main admin building. Workers are being sent home. And at lunchtime there is a combined Brighton and Sussex demonstration for students and staff at Brighton station. Support and determination are growing. Victory to the UCU!

And Connor Rosoman, Brighton Socialist Society

Despite the cold weather, striking UCU staff at Brighton and Sussex universities have shown a determined mood, and spirits have been high at pickets across town.

In many places, they have been joined by students showing solidarity with their staff. At Sussex, students have organised daily solidarity meetings and have successfully shut down the management building with blockades at the entrance. However, Brighton University students face the challenge of a Students Union that has despicably opposed the strikes, and students that openly support the strike have faced reprisals as a result. Socialist Alternative members have discussed with Brighton students around how to challenge these actions from the Students’ Union.

Staff from both universities attended the climate strike on Friday 29th November. This is a positive step, showing the potential there is for workers to make links with the school strikers and to build the climate movement.

Among many members of staff, as well as students, there has been an increasing politicisation around the upcoming General Election. Socialist Alternative members have been raising the importance of the links that these struggles can develop between students and workers in fighting for socialist change during and beyond this election.

Sofia Wiking, Leicester Socialist Alternative

On the Leicester picket morale has been good, despite the miserable weather, with the usual racket we remember from last year’s strike, being made by drums, whistles, musical instruments and voices.