In the early stages of a war or national emergency, there is often a mood to pull together in the ‘national’ interest, and the idea that ‘party politics’ should be put to one side. An Opinium poll in the Observer newspaper (London) showed trust in Tory Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has gone up. This is echoed in increased support for previously unpopular leaders elsewhere, such as for Macron in France.
Leading Labour figures like John McDonnell have said this is not the time for “political point-scoring”, and the leaders of the TUC have pledged to work with the government “in the national interest”.
Now senior Tories are floating the idea of a “Covid coalition” – some form of a national unity government.
However, despite this mood, there is no single national interest, but different class interests, which this coronavirus crisis is laying bare.
The instinct to stand in solidarity together is a strong one – not a ‘British’ value but a class one. The millions who clapped for the NHS are an illustration of that, along with the more than 700,000 people who came forward as volunteers.
Class solidarity is illustrated in the countless battles taking place in workplaces to try to win protective equipment, to fight against pay cuts and job losses, to close unnecessarily open workplaces. That stands in stark contrast to the instinct of the rich tax-avoiding bosses, demanding bailouts and refusing to pay wages.
The virus itself is not a respecter of class, but the experience of living through the crisis, and the chance of getting the necessary care, very much displays the class divide – ‘staying at home’ in a tiny over-crowded flat; struggling on 20% less pay or inadequate benefits. One week into the lockdown in Britain, and already 1.5 million adults say they cannot get enough food. We have heard the lie “we are all in this together” before, and this crisis is exposing the inability of rotten capitalism to protect lives.
The greatest fear of the capitalists is how they get out the other side of this crisis. The economy is in an unprecedented nose-dive – described by economic commentator Nuriel Roubini as “the fastest, deepest economic shock in history”. Class polarisation will only deepen.
The challenge for the representatives of the capitalist class is how do they roll back the state interventions and make the working class pay.
A form of a national unity government, as far as the Tories and big business are concerned, would be a shield, to share the blame for the punishment they aim to mete out on the working class.
They would hope bringing Labour leaders into the tent would provide a cover that would make anti-working class policies more palatable.
It is an illustration of how the boss class views Keir Starmer as a safe pair of hands for capitalist interests, that the Tory MP raising this idea, George Freeman, said: “When Labour have a sensible new leader, Keir Starmer [if elected] should be invited to a Covid cabinet, Cobra and joint No 10 briefings.”
The sigh of relief that the unreliable Corbyn has gone is almost audible. In fact, none of the candidates for Labour leader opposed the idea of a unity government.
The current dominant mood of standing together can mean that, temporarily, class collaboration in some form of national government could be accepted.
But ten years of austerity and the reality exposed by this crisis will make it much harder to get away with forcing the working class to pay.
The tolerance for a Labour Party that has not stood up and expressed workers’ anger, and that is prepared to work hand in hand with the Tories to defend the interests of the capitalists, could be short-lived.
A national unity government runs a great risk for the ruling class: that workers’ anger wouldn’t be contained by the Labour Party under its new leader, but could find expression in struggle and in efforts to forge a new working-class party, with a socialist programme. It is that risk that could stay their hand.
Within just a few days, Tory ministers managed to drive their 329-page emergency coronavirus bill through both houses of parliament.
The new Act gives the government unprecedented and widespread powers. Along with some ‘secondary legislation’ measures enacted just before, it gives powers to a range of state officials and the police to close premises, stop events, restrict or close transport networks, enforce ‘social distancing’, order isolation, detain people, and much else. It also provides power to close the UK borders.
Many of the temporary measures to protect the health of workers and their families, and save lives, will be widely supported, despite the limits on freedoms and rights. The Act also includes measures such as allowing recently retired NHS staff to return to work without any loss of pension rights.
But there are powers in the Act which could potentially impact badly on the health of sections of the population. For instance, it gives councils the power to downgrade care for the disabled and the elderly.
In addition, there are measures which could be misused. For example, it will be more straightforward for doctors to be able to certify a death without actually seeing the deceased person; and the signature of only one doctor rather than two will be necessary to section someone on mental health grounds.
It was for reasons like these that even some Tory MPs expressed disquiet. A Kent Tory MP, Tom Tugendhat, argued that some of the powers could be used in a “malicious fashion”. The criticisms led the government to promise a six-monthly ‘review’ of the measures – which have been legislated to remain in force for two years!
Why two years, when the top health representatives are saying that special measures will be necessary for six months? The trade union movement needs to be on guard for the many possible ways the Act could be used against workers’ interests.
The foremost aim of capitalist governments is not protecting people’s lives and health but defending the interests of big business and the super-rich. With the economy plummeting, sharp and major battles lie ahead over who will pay the price of the crisis – battles in which the government will seek to use laws and the justice system against workers’ struggles.
The new legislation could also be used against other democratic rights, such as the regular holding of elections in which political representatives can be removed.
The Tory government can’t be trusted to make decisions on these issues in the interests of working-class people.
The trade unions and working people need to fight for the right to be able to check and veto all emergency measures – and assess and control the way they are used. This is the only way to ensure they are used solely to safeguard the health and other interests of the overwhelming majority in society.