Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
The socialist left in Britain, including us, were so invested in the Corbyn project and are still so disoriented from the December 2019 election defeat that we fail to notice what's before our faces.
That, for the first time since the Poll Tax revolt, our class is on the offensive.
Yes there are mass lay-offs, but it is almost entirely of the least powerful, least organised workers. Yes, many people are having a desperate time of it. But many others feel empowered to put they and their families' safety above their bosses needs.
Unions are growing, and unionised workers or workers in unionised sectors have seen their relative power compared to bosses and to workers in un-unionised sectors or not directly employed rise exponentially.
That is why the government and the Tories in general this don't see this as shock-doctrine type moment to impose on the working class further deregulation and cuts. Quite the contrary. Their actions are those of a government scared of worker power and the general spread of collectivist socialist ideas.
In this reading they were forced into the lockdown to retain some semblance of control over events as mass absenteeism, or workers' demands in the workplace were closing down the economy anyway. The Tories have been forced into deifying NHS and care workers. They have been forced to prove there is an alternative to laissez-faire economics.
If you want to see evidence, look on the Conservative Home website.
Ryan Bourne points out workers were already taking action pre-lockdown, and the Tories can't get out of this mess until they have a vaccine, a cure, or complete control of Covid-19.
David Gauke bemoans the fact that the government is on a sticky wicket:
"When we are through all this, the argument will be made that it will be for the State to redistribute the detriment, to more fairly share out the harm. Just like the post-World War Two reconstruction, the demands for a more egalitarian society will be strong.
"We should be wary about measures that end up diminishing our ability to create wealth – thus impoverishing us all – but it would be an unwise Government that sought to ignore the national sentiment."
He suggests a salami-like tactic of picking off this and that group of workers in a cautious attempt at normalisation:
"Treating everyone equally will stand in the way of taking the first small steps to recovery. Fairness matters – but returning to normality quickly and safely matters more."
This article by Paul Goodman is even more blunt about the issue:
"The Coronavirus is giving old-fashioned class politics a new lease of life. Boris Johnson will be well aware of this – and will be more concerned about heading Starmer off, and this threat from the left, than about the restive Tory press, and complaints from the right about the extent of the lockdown."
What does this mean for trade unions and socialists?
That we must meet the moment, seize on every moment of direct class struggle, support it, publicise it generalise it, radicalise it. Raise our horizons.
We are trying to do that already, I think but we need to make the argument as to why others should do so in optimistic terms.
The approach of the Labour leadership and many union leaders is wretched, but it does make some sense from their point of view. If Len McCluskey or Starmer have their feet under the table it's not that easy to treat them as the enemy within after this period. Plus, they may be able to shape the concessions given in ways that strengthen their position vis-a-vis the rank and file.
I doubt if the unions are pushing to scrap anti strike laws, but they will be pushing for funding of health and safety training and perhaps sectoral collective agreements over Covid-19 safety.
These things are not bad in themselves. But we should argue that scraps off the table are nothing compared to what can be won by class struggle.
A more difficult bit is re-orienting our movement away from the immediate needs of the weakest and most marginal of our class to the longer term needs of the class as a whole and getting the class as a whole to understand that.
We want the Labour Party activists spending less time on food banks and more time telling workers what their rights are and to organise into unions.
The best thing to help poor kids is that teachers win the fight to stop schools re-opening unsafely.
The best interest of workers who use public transport isn't in services increasing to a level where they can safely socially distance. It's transport workers winning the fight against a return to normal services.
We should oppose UBI. Yes, in the short term, it will help those forced into self-employment, the pseudo-self-employed and zero-hour workers. But it helps perpetuate relatively powerless types of jobs. Better they win direct employment on contracted hours where they can organise and fight.
If there is a heightening of class struggle, then the right will adopt UBI because they will see it as a tool to aid "normalisation" and divert away from workplace struggles.
The labour movement needs to rediscover the demand for "full employment".