Labour, COVID-19, and the Fiction of National Unity

The media, bourgeois, and reformist leaders have all been whipping up a “wartime” spirit of national unity against the threat of COVID-19. Recently elected leader of the British Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, has even made overtures about joining a government of national unity with the Conservatives. But the coronavirus pandemic is exposing the class lines in society more than ever. National unity is a reactionary fiction. What is needed is workers’ unity in the face of this crisis, and against the rotten system responsible.

With no end to the lockdown in sight, the British ruling class is faced with the most severe social and economic crisis in generations. A layer of the bourgeoisie is now looking to the post-Corbyn Labour Party as a way to keep class peace.

A YouGov poll is doing the rounds that suggests two thirds of the public are in favor of a national government, involving Keir Starmer, for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. The Financial Times reported last week that Starmer’s “statesmanlike instincts” would make it “hard to refuse” an offer to join a national government. Omar Salem, vice-chair of the Society of Labour Lawyers, even suggested Starmer ought to become Deputy Prime Minister, with the fringe benefit that this “would be an opportunity to remind the public [Labour] can be a party of government.”

Head of the Welsh Assembly Mark Drakeford has already invited MPs from the Tories and Plaid Cymru to join a “COVID Core Group”: in effect a national unity government. Welsh Labour MP Anna McMorrin commended Drakeford for offering the “grownup and mature collaboration the country desperately needs,” and calling on Starmer to follow her boss’s example.

Mark Drakeford Image CPMR
Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford has already formed a cross-party “COVID Cabinet.” / Image: CPMR

For the time being, the main section of the establishment would prefer Starmer to focus on clearing the left out of Labour and turning it back into a safe second-eleven for capitalism. But with the COVID-19 emergency getting worse by the day, the ruling class wants to keep its options open. As one anonymous Starmer ally commented in the FT: “If bodies start to mount up in a serious way and lockdown has to continue and we start to see civil unrest … Johnson might say; ‘Why don’t you come in and help us?’”

In times of great crisis, the ruling class has previously coopted the tops of the Labour Party. During the Great Depression, Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald formed a national government to carry out a vicious austerity program; and Clement Attlee served on Winston Churchill’s war cabinet. But this is a dangerous gamble. In both these instances, the Labour membership ended up moving far to the left. The fact that a national government is being considered shows the desperation of the bourgeoisie—and also the bankruptcy of the Labour right, who have licked their lips at the prospect. Indeed, the recent revelations that a right-wing cabal of party staffers worked to keep Jeremy Corbyn out of power shows they have always been “united” with the Tories in terms of their common class interests.

Questioned about the prospect of joining a national government during an interview with Robert Peston, Starmer didn’t rule out the idea, but said that for now he was focusing on “constructive opposition” and “unity of purpose.” This amounts to politely pointing out “mistakes” by the government (like the lack of testing kits), and helping them “to get this right.” Difficult questions will come after the lockdown, Starmer promised, “but at the moment, I don’t think the public want to hear the leader of the Labour Party in opposition simply quipping about what should have been done.”

In short, Starmer won’t attack the reckless, Malthusian measures undertaken by the Tories during the early stages of the outbreak, where Johnson refused to carry out social distancing or halt production. Neither will he criticize the Tories for undermining the health service with years of brutal cuts, nor for the inadequacy of their financial measures, which have left millions facing unemployment and homelessness.

Instead, Labour will limit itself to assisting the government through this pandemic, and shelving any actual opposition until after the dust settles. By then, tens of thousands will have died needlessly. Even if Starmer is technically the leader of the opposition, he is behaving as though he is already part of a national unity government, at precisely the time when radical opposition is needed most. He has also lined up with big business by calling on the government to announce a timeline for ending social distancing, starting with reopening schools (against the advice of teachers’ unions). With people still dying in large numbers and thousands falling through the cracks in the Tories’ economic provisions, this is a scandalous misalignment of priorities, which reflects pressure from the bourgeoisie to restart production and get profits flowing as quickly as possible.

It looks like Britain will have the second highest COVID-19 death rate after the USA. If Starmer actually goes into a national government, it will make Labour jointly culpable for a catastrophe originating from the Tories’ appalling response to the pandemic. Labour will also bear responsibility for the program of austerity that will follow when the ruling class demands back the money it has invested to keep the lights on during the pandemic. This could destroy Labour, but the short-sighted Blairites don’t care: so long as the system is saved and they get a sniff of power.

The utopia of unity

Everywhere, the bourgeois are calling on people to “come together” during these hard times. The weakness and splits in the traditional mass parties had resulted in a large number of coalition governments before the pandemic, especially in Europe. Now, the leaders of the left are setting aside even their feeble opposition and joining the chorus of “national unity” during the COVID-19 emergency. As a result, actual or de facto national governments are on the order of the day across the world.

This repulsive display recalls the words of Lenin, condemning the leaders of the European workers’ movement during the First World War:

Even given the total impotence of the European socialists, the behavior of their leaders reveals treachery and baseness: the workers have been driven into the slaughter, while their leaders vote in favor and join governments! Even with their total impotence, they … should not have shown solidarity with their “nation,” and should not have defended their “own” bourgeoisie, they should have unmasked its vileness.

These words could have been written today! While the workers are fighting to defend their health, the political leaders of the left are accommodating themselves to the establishment.

In Ireland, Fianna Fáil frontbench TD John Lahart has called for a national crisis government. The idea has been endorsed by Labour TD’s Seán Sherlock, while Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said that, although she would prefer an election, a national government is “one of the options on the table.” In Austria, the Social Democrats voted through the right-wing People’s Party-led coalition government’s “Corona Aid Fund,” despite having all of its amendments to protect jobs and prevent evictions rejected. It has even proposed Chairwoman Pamela Rendi-Wagner be taken on by the government as a “crisis manager” in the health ministry.

Premios Goya 2018 Alberto Garzón Pedro Sánchez y Pablo Iglesias Image Carlos Delgado
All over the world, left leaders are joining in the chorus of “unity” rather than drawing out the class questions. / Image: Carlos Delgado

Meanwhile, in Norway, all the major parties—including the Labour Party and Socialist Left—have voted to grant the minority Conservative Party government of Erna Solberg sweeping emergency powers in the name of “national unity.” In Greece, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras joined in a video call on 16 March with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of the right-wing New Democracy Party to urge Greeks to stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus. The party leaders were praised by the bourgeois Bloomberg journal for their “composure” in putting aside their political differences in the “national interest.”

And in Spain, the PSOE-Podemos coalition has enacted a state of emergency that has empowered the repressive state apparatus (for which it received praise from the far-right Vox Party). Bound to the PSOE, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has offered no serious criticism of the official response to the pandemic. Although he has suggested the government should “reach out its hand to the [right-wing] opposition” for constructive suggestions!

The infighting between the European bourgeois about sharing medical resources and dealing with the financial impact of the pandemic shows the limits of their hypocritical calls for “unity.” Behind their empty rhetoric lies only the narrow national interests of their capitalists. The fact that the reformists are setting aside any opposition and lining up behind “their” bourgeoisie shows they have no answer to this crisis.

Meanwhile, in the States, Bernie Sanders has endorsed the DNC establishment pick Joe Biden for president after dropping out of the race, and has abandoned all criticism of the Democratic nominee in the name of “unity.” Biden recently shared a picture of the two standing side by side with this caption. This is especially heinous given that Biden explicitly said the COVID-19 pandemic has “not changed his mind” on Sanders’s main campaign pledge of free healthcare, and would veto it if it came across his desk. All while thousands of Americans, including prime-age workers, are dying from COVID-19 due to a lack of health insurance.

And in Brazil, where Bolsonaro maintained until the eleventh hour that COVID-19 was a hoax, the national congress has just voted through an economic program of poverty wages during the emergency (to be paid for at the cost of increasing public debt), while suspending social security payments for businesses. In effect: attacks on the workers, and gifts for the bosses. Meanwhile, overcrowding and lack of sanitation in the favelas in particular means the virus is already wreaking havoc in the country. Nevertheless, the National Directorate of the Workers’ Party (PT) has released a resolution calling for national unity, stating that “the priority in the immediate situation is to focus all our energy in fighting the pandemic.” Additionally, the PSOL, rather than building for workers’ resistance against Bolsonaro, has joined the PT and the liberal commentariat in saying that Health Minister Henrique Mandetta ought to take over the presidency. In short, they are proposing a slightly less degenerate bourgeois administration.

The leaders of the labor movement have been as bad as the reformist politicians. In Britain, the general secretary of the Starmer-backing TSSA, Manuel Cortes, is publicly pushing Labour to get into bed with the Tories. And in countries like Italy, Spain and the USA, where strikes have broken out to halt production or demand proper safety measures, these have been initiatives from below. By contrast, the union tops have tried to defuse the anger of the working class and mediate with the state. In Italy, the union tops have signed a rotten deal with the government and bosses that has put millions out of work and millions more in danger of infection.

The lack of any independent, class-based opposition from the left leaders is a complete scandal at a time when workers are dying in their thousands and seeing their livelihoods destroyed.

The limits of unity

In times of crisis or conflict, people tend to “rally around the flag”—at least for a time. This was evident at the beginning of the Falklands War, the War on Iraq and Afghanistan and even the 2008 financial crisis, for example. However, in all these cases, a tipping point was reached when this mood turned into its opposite, and class antagonisms reasserted themselves with a vengeance.

A recent YouGov poll suggests that, for the first time in a decade, the majority of British people (52 percent) approve of their government. Similar polls for other countries have shown a boost in popularity for ruling parties, including 75 percent approval in Germany, 73 percent in Italy and 64 percent in Canada. However, there is evidence that this mood is very superficial. For instance, according to a separate poll, two thirds of the British public believe the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been too slow.

The approval the Tories are currently enjoying is misleading. People don’t necessarily trust the government, but they want to believe the people in charge have a plan, and that things will get better. Boris Johnson’s brief stint in hospital with COVID-19 also served as a welcome distraction for the ruling class. But this mood won’t last, especially with more evidence coming to light that the Tories deliberately ignored advice from state-employed scientists and medics in order to justify their disastrous “herd immunity” strategy. An official inquiry is likely at some stage. When this brings the Tories’ deadly hubris to the surface, any lingering illusions in them will turn to dust.

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The Tories are high in the polls, but this will soon become its opposite when their deadly hubris comes to light. / Image: Socialist Appeal

Moreover, the economic and social consequences of the lockdown are beginning to bite. An Ipsos Mori survey found that 30 percent of respondents have either lost their jobs or would likely lose them in the near future. The Food Foundation found a sharp increase in food insecurity, with the equivalent of 1.5m people going a whole day without eating. Despite the Tories pumping billions into the system to keep businesses afloat and cover 80 percent of wages for furloughed workers, thousands of businesses have collapsed and many casually employed workers in the gig economy are ineligible for government support. There is also a massive backlog of applicants for universal credit. This is all cultivating anxiety and resentment.

Furthermore, the mood of national unity applies very unevenly across society. Consider the strikes that have broken out in various countries whose governments have scored highly in these polls. Not to mention the growing desperation and resentment of key workers (particularly in the health service) who have been risking infection on the frontlines without adequate safety equipment. Big sections of the working class are becoming furious at their bosses and governments. The pandemic has also very clearly exposed the class divide in society, with the rich enjoying relative safety while workers die on the frontlines—which is the only sense in which this situation resembles a real war.

In short, this national unity will be fleeting. In parts of Italy, there have been reports of people rebelling against police officers enforcing lockdown measures, and rioting in supermarkets out of sheer desperation. This is a vision of Britain’s future. In truth, even the ruling class are disunited, with splits in the ranks of the Tories over when and how to return to normal levels of production. This further exposes the reactionary utopia of national unity. Just below the surface, the class struggle is simmering. And when the ruling class demands its money back once the pandemic comes to an end, any semblance of unity will be transformed into open class war. The splits at the top are a harbinger of revolutionary developments.

No unity but workers’ unity!

Starmer and the Labour right are doing their utmost to sustain this phony mood of national unity by refusing to call out the Conservatives for policies that have already cost thousands of lives. They say “now is not the time for politics.” The firmest action the leadership has taken so far has been to suspend a councillor who tweeted that she had “no sympathy” for Johnson during his illness, since the scale of the outbreak was “his fault.” This reflects the pressure of the ruling class, who want to divert attention away from the Tories’ role in this disaster.

By contrast, Corbyn and left-wing MP Nadia Whittome were both slammed by the establishment press for “political point scoring” after objecting to the idea of a national government, and attacking the Conservatives’ record in power for exacerbating the pandemic. In truth, these criticisms should only be the start. The party should call for a proper, workers’ inquiry into the Tories role in this pandemic: not a stitch up by a panel of handpicked stooges like the one that whitewashed the Grenfell fire, for example. The victims deserve justice.

Labour should additionally point out the limitations of ‎Rishi Sunak’s economic measures, which at best give workers’ enough to cover rent, bills and basic necessities, but still force them to swallow pay cuts, while preserving the bosses’ profits as far as possible. The party should also highlight that whatever the capitalists give today they will demand back tomorrow, with interest. Rather than poverty wages now and austerity in the future, Labour should demand the bosses’ be made to pay for this crisis: with workers sent home on full pay where possible, and safety measures implemented to protect essential staff.

The workers can rely only on their own strength! No to national unity with the bourgeoisie! / Image: Socialist Appeal

The Tories have tried to pin the steep infection curve on “irresponsible” individuals not adhering to social distancing measures. The Labour leadership has uncritically echoed the government’s message to “stay indoors and protect frontline workers,” rather than attacking the hypocrisy of this, when Johnson was refusing to enact social distancing as recently as one month ago. Not to mention the fact that NHS staff are forced to work without adequate personal protective equipment, and that workers on insecure contracts have no choice but to risk infection or lose their income.

In truth, Labour should have proposed a workers’ lockdown: with a plan to place production under state control and ensure adequate provision for key workers in healthcare, the food industry and so on. If the bosses and Tory government refused, the labor movement should’ve taken inspiration from the Chilean unions, who called a “humanitarian general strike” to shut down economic activity with no detriment to the working class.

Both Johnson and Starmer have praised mutual aid groups for stepping up to support their communities in this time of crisis, but Labour should be taking the lead in coordinating these groups of grassroots activists into a national aid network. It should also politicize them by pointing out that ordinary workers are being forced to voluntarily give up their time to clean up the mess the Tories have created.

Finally, Labour must draw attention to the immense class disparity revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic: in which royals, celebrities and politicians are being tested early and getting prompt treatment, while workers are getting ill and dying in hospitals, their homes and workplaces. We are not all in it together: the gulf between the rich and poor has been thrown into sharp relief by this emergency.

Trotsky wrote, in relation to the bourgeois propaganda about “national unity” during World War II: “from our point of view, what is national does not exist outside what belongs to a class. Throughout the world the bourgeoisie gives out its class interests as national interests.”

Then as now, in times of crisis, the ruling class attempts to cut across class tensions by appealing to the “national interest.” But there are no national interests separate from class interests. The empty rhetoric won’t work. We can anticipate not unity, but dramatic polarization and class struggle in the immediate future. The task of the workers’ movement is not to sideline politics “for the duration of the crisis,” but to go onto the offensive: directing the attention of the workers’ towards the rottenness of the system, and proposing a socialist alternative.

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