Julie Ward, former Labour MEP for the North West, spoke to Sacha Ismail.
What demands should the left and labour movement be raising in the Covid-19 crisis?
The crisis is not just a health crisis, but an economic one, and a crisis about Britain’s place in the world. We will be judged in the history books by how we protect the health and wellbeing of our citizens compared to other countries.
Calling for sufficient PPE for all health and care workers must be a constant. But Labour should also be making the argument for PPE for other key workers, including retail, delivery and public transport workers. We should insist on high standards for what proper PPE consists of, using examples from other countries that have taken this more seriously. We must work closely with the unions, unlike this government. We should call for union leaders to be invited to SAGE meetings.
The party should have argued for private healthcare facilities to be taken into public ownership. While there is not a shortage of beds any more, this kind of demand is still relevant because labs and other vital healthcare resources are often in private hands. The £350m a week that Boris Johnson claimed leaving the EU would free up for the NHS could be used to buy back these services and end outsourcing.
We should demand UK participation in all opportunities to purchase PPE, to acquire a stockpile for the second and subsequent waves of infection that will undoubtedly come. The government should accept all offers from UK businesses offering to help, supporting them to make necessary adjustments. It should be noted this crisis provides an ideal opportunity to shift the focus to socially useful production away from arms manufacturing. The moment for a Green Industrial Revolution embracing diversification of production is now!
Refugees, asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants who are trained as health workers should be given paid work equal to their level of expertise and have their Home Office applications fast-tracked.
Detention centres should be closed and safe housing and education provide for asylum-seekers, the homeless and the majority of the prison population who are currently a health risk to themselves and to prison workers and their families. The government should requisition empty buildings for this purpose.
We should demand a comprehensive testing and contact-tracing programme, creating jobs and training legions of the unemployed to carry out this mammoth task, properly paid with decent contracts and social benefits. We should be using the skills and knowledge of our brilliant young scientists – like 25 year old Yorkshire-born Fred Turner, who won the EU Young Scientist of the Year award in 2013. He’s in California now; he developed a highly effective next-gen saliva test which the government turned down.
We should demand UK participation in EU initiatives, especially research projects to find an effective vaccine and treatments. We should support with continued membership of the European Medicines Agency and other agencies concerned with health and wellbeing, including pandemic preparedness. The pandemic demonstrates that pathogens don’t respect borders – only by working collaboratively with our neighbours can we beat this invisible enemy.
We should have been calling for a Universal Basic Income from the day it became obvious that millions would lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Support for the self-employed should be immediate, not three months later. UBI would have avoided categories of people falling through the safety net, and avoided complex and unnecessary bureaucracy.
How do you think Labour is doing?
There is too much focus on an exit strategy, especially while the number of infections continues to rise, and with no government plan for mass testing and contact-tracing. I am not sure Labour has an idea for an exit strategy, but if that’s the main focus of the leadership I would suggest writing a plan quick and consulting with countries that are beginning to take the first tentative steps out of lockdown. Participating in the recent May Day Party of European Socialists online meet-up would have been a good move. We were notable by our absence and some countries with a Left government are doing remarkably well – for instance Portugal, Iceland. Our exit strategy must be inclusive and give special attention to young people in terms of schooling, further and higher education, youth provision and mental health. We should also be the champions of public parks, open spaces, safe beaches and nature reserves.
Why did Starmer win in your view?
I think Keir has a certain bland gravitas combined with a forensic quality that many in the party craved after several years of confusion, high drama and exhausting infighting. All the candidates pledged to end the disunity, so that is certainly not unique to him. He has, however, put together an interesting team with people drawn from different wings of the party. We need to watch this space and hold him to his word on a number of issues. There should be no backsliding on key issues, particularly left-wing economic policies.
But I also think you’re asking the wrong question. Why did Rebecca Long-Bailey lose? Sadly she could not shake free of the apparent influence of the team who surrounded Jeremy, eventually suffocating him. At times she seemed more Blue Labour than Lisa Nandy and she couldn’t even lay claim to the Green New Deal because everyone in the party owns it. From my view she also failed the feminist test with her worrisome views on late-term abortions.
So where for the Labour left now?
We are effectively leadersless. The Socialist Campaign Group in the PLP are not all our friends, as many are committed Lexiteers of long-standing. Momentum is fragmenting and has proved itself not fit for purpose despite having some excellent people involved. The Labour left needs to pick itself up and be the guardians of Labour’s anti-austerity policies. Everything should be rooted to that one simple thing and grow from there.
You’ve backed the Forward Momentum and Momentum Internationalists initiatives. Explain why?
I’ve found initiatives such as The World Transformed really exciting. It seemed to me that that’s what politics had been missing – participation, creativity, education, inclusion, empowerment, fun. Forward Momentum recognises that the parent organisation is stuck in an outdated groove and needs a proverbial kick up the backside, especially with regards to democracy. I was particularly angry that Momentum’s idea of democracy in the leadership campaign limited our choices to RBL yes or no!
Momentum Internationalists mirrors my belief that you can’t have socialism in one country and that solidarity with all workers around the world must be our number one priority.
What’s your take on how the Brexit issue will play out? Why do you think the party and unions are currently so reticent about even the demand to pause Brexit?
I am a committed European. I believe that Brexit is, essentially, a far-right and racist project that plays directly into the hands of Steve Bannon and his friends. When Trump says the EU is the enemy we must be its – critical – friend. As an MEP I worked in EU institutions, successfully making small but significant changes from a left perspective and bringing unlikely people with me along the way. We need to continue working with left and anti-austerity partners at the centre of the European project, not looking from the sidelines.
However the party was placed in an almost impossible situation after the 2016 referendum; as a result it chose not to critique the flawed process or expose the lies, the dark money, the data theft or the psycho-social profiling. By accepting the referendum result without question we now find it difficult to chart a new route out of the quagmire. Johnson’s spin is still working and his popularity ratings remain high. Surviving a brush with near death in an ICU and producing a cute baby have only endeared him more to the electorate. The British are sentimental if nothing else.
And what about the demand to pause Brexit by extending the transition?
Even some notable Brexiteers, for instance Isabel Oakeshott, acknowledge that an extension to the transition period is required. The original timetable was naively gung-ho and over-ambitious on the government’s side, and the Coronavirus crisis that now engulfs us and many other EU member states means there is little public appetite for unnecessary distractions away from the life and death issues. There is also an obvious lack of administrative capacity on both sides, with civil servants and bureaucrats either not at work or moved to new pandemic-response departments.
As ever, Barnier is the pragmatic grown-up in the room and his stark warnings about the UK’s deficient and divergent negotiating texts should be emblazoned on every hoarding and public building across the UK, as per the powerful Led By Donkeys campaign.
A longer transition period will certainly help businesses whose resilience has been truly battered by three and a half years of Brexit uncertainty. If we truly care about the health of our economy, workers’ livelihoods and the viability of our most deprived communities we should have no dalliance with no deal.
A longer transition period is obviously appealing to those of us who campaigned to Remain in the EU. There’s always the remote possibility that we can find a quicker way back and in the meantime we can maintain and strengthen ties with our European neighbours.
• Republished with thanks from The Clarion.