By Paul Feldman
The very idea that there should be a “trade-off” between public health and the economy is repellent and immoral. Yet as the second Covid-19 wave sweeps the UK and the rest of Europe, the UK’s political class is reduced to bargaining over the economic cost of local lockdowns.
This amounts to a total cross-party failure, sitting alongside a state machine in disarray which in turn is directed by a Tory government totally divided over what to do next.
Watching Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, the former Blairite cabinet minister who was a total failure as health secretary, haggle over the monetary terms of a lockdown, for example, is unedifying and opportunist.
Equally sickening are Tory libertarians using the Daily Telegraph to oppose all anti-virus measures because they might impinge on “individual freedoms”. Liberty is, in reality, far from their minds. Many are champions of so-called herd immunity, which is barely disguised eugenics/natural selection.
Meanwhile, the chancellor Rishi Sunak – whose own political ambitions are barely hidden – says a national lockdown would destroy the economy, prime minister Boris Johnson is caught in the middle and Labour leader Keir Starmer is for a “circuit break” so long as workers are adequately compensated.
Compensated by whom? By the capitalist state, of course. It borrows the money from the financial markets and effectively subsidises employers. When the pandemic subsides, the state will impose harsh austerity measures to reduce the debt and the cost of servicing it.
Any half-decent Labour and trade union leadership with a modicum of vision would not sit back and wait for that. They would demonstrate that the conflict between public health and the economy is actually between social need and private ownership, between workers and capitalism.
This dominant contradiction pervades every aspect of life, from schools deprived of resources, social care that is rationed because the funds aren’t there, hospitals which have to find billions every year to pay for PFI projects, train fares that are prohibitive, to housing that is unaffordable and unavailable right round to an ecological crisis produced and driven by fabled “economic growth”.
Not to mention, of course, the pandemic itself which comes straight out of the neoliberal playbook where deforestation, land clearance and unbridled urban expansion have wrecked eco-systems, facilitating a transmission of the virus from animals to humans. Putting profit first kills, now more than ever.
Will we ever hear a word about all this from Starmer, or the union leaders whose silence is so deafening as to lead us to believe they have moved into a parallel universe? Don’t hold your breath.
If we are to avoid future pandemics and create a platform for addressing the ecological crisis, we should campaign right now for system change, especially as the “old normal” – the problem in the first place – is not coming back.
In terms of the economy, we have to develop a plan for co-operative (not state) ownership and control of the significant employers, financial institutions and natural resources like land. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that capital and profit will always trump public health.
Let’s put an end to that conflict.