by Tom Barker, Socialist Alternative National Committee
Little over a month since Keir Starmer won the Labour leadership election, and the departure from Corbynism couldn’t be clearer. Starmer pitched himself as the “unity” candidate throughout the election campaign, but, amongst other things, his shadow cabinet appointments, his list of donors (which he refused to publish ahead of the election, despite repeated requests), and his recent pronouncement that Corbyn was the reason that Labour lost in 2019, have shattered any remaining illusions about the class interests he serves.
In his latest affront to the membership, Starmer set out a five-point plan to “protect people from bankruptcy and homelessness due to rent arrears”. Controversially the plan called on the government to “grant renters at least two years to pay back any arrears accrued during this period.” But as Labour members were very quick to point out, many renters would be unable to pay back such arrears. More than a third of people renting in the UK live in poverty, and two thirds have no savings, living hand to mouth. With the pandemic, many, particularly those working in precarious jobs, now face the prospect of joblessness once the economy ‘reopens’ – if not immediately. Over 4,000 Labour members have since signed an open letter calling for Labour to pressure the government into cancelling rent.
It was to be expected that Starmer would move more openly to the right once elected, but that the process would be a delicate one. As the Financial Times reported last week, “MPs see his gradual approach to [changing Labour’s position on] Brexit as a template for how he is likely to shift away subtly from Corbyn’s revolutionary economic agenda.” But the pace of events since the beginning of the pandemic, which have pushed the Tories to take some significant measures to try and stave off mass anger, has accelerated this process. The rightward shift in the Labour leadership is now abundantly obvious as they flail around clinging to the idea of unity - couched as ‘no opposition for opposition’s sake’ - with an increasingly toxic government that is putting profit ahead of human lives.
Prime Minister’s Questions is a case in point. On April 29, Starmer faced Dominic Raab, who was standing in for the absentee PM. Raab called for Starmer to recognise the “good work” the Tories had supposedly done on social distancing and ramping up critical care capacity. Starmer went further, describing it as an “amazing piece of work.” No mention made of the government’s track record of attacking critical care capacity over the past decade and the annual winter crises this has left our NHS facing. No mention either, of the fact that nurse to patient ratios have had to be stretched from the usual 1:1 for ICU beds to as much as 1:7 in some cases.
On testing, the Tories had promised to achieve 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month (just two days after April 29). Starmer correctly pointed out that while official government figures claimed that, on the previous Monday, they had a capacity for testing of 73,000 a day, “when you drill down into the figures only 29,000 people were actually tested.” But he then went on to make excuses for them: “I have to recognise that the 100,000 tests a day by Thursday was only ever a staging post and perhaps that the exact date doesn’t matter as much as some would think.” This would have been news to the millions of health and care workers who fear going into work and are still not getting tested!
A recent report put together Keep Our NHS Public revealed that the number of Covid deaths of health and care workers is now in excess of 200. The Tories have failed to sufficiently expand testing, not to mention contact tracing. They refused to act in a decisive and prompt manner when lessons from other countries should have been drawn and we are suffering the consequences. Their attempts to use this crisis to farm yet more services out to private contractors, such as G4S, Deloitte, KPMG, Serco, Sodexo, Mitie, Boots, with a proven track record of extremely poor services, always putting profit before need, is also putting us at serious risk. Spin on two weeks and the Tories are still failing to meet this “staging post” of 100,000 tests a day. In fact, while testing capacity needs to be ramped up extremely quickly, with a new target far in excess of 100,000, the Tories have now failed to meet the May 1 target for nine days in a row! This is even according to their own manipulated numbers, which includes the number of tests sent out – so not people tested.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s pre-recorded speech to the country yesterday evening was an absolute shambles. With just 12 hours-notice, people were told to return to work before any hard and fast rules about safe practices have been published by the government. They have since been forced to concede that they meant by Wednesday – although he did not say this!!!
Workers are being put directly in harm’s way by this callous and chaotic government. Yet in a very revealing interview with BBC Breakfast last Wednesday, Starmer was asked about precisely this issue and whether that if he thought workers should have a legal right to not go into work if they think the conditions are dangerous. His response? “I’d rather not get into that situation… because if we got into that place, then we haven’t reassured people.” But as any good trade unionist knows, Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act enables an employee to withdraw from and to refuse to return to an unsafe workplace. Before becoming an MP, Starmer was a QC and the Director of Public Prosecutions. He knows about Section 44. The fact that he did not say it tells you all you need to know about the class interests his leadership serves.
A genuine opposition would be holding the Tories' feet to the fire by exposing their failings, not for its own sake, but in order that they might feel some urgency in correcting their manifold mistakes. As it is, it is left to mass public anger and workers organised in trade unions, often through initiatives taken from below, to put pressure on them and defend workers’ lives and living standards in this crisis. Working class people are crying out for political representation!