The Covid crisis is political

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The Prime Minister made a statement last night to set out the first phase of coronavirus restrictions being lifted in England. Unfortunately, it was a confusing mess. We’ve talked a lot about how coronavirus has had a discriminatory impact on BAME communities, on (often low-paid) key workers, on people living in overcrowded accommodation. But the inequities experienced by working class people have never been made more clear than in the government update on Sunday evening. And it has never been more important for workers to join a trade union and become aware of their rights.

Boris Johnson urged those not able to work from home to return to their workplaces “this week”, with the understanding being that this meant Monday. And the government still hasn’t finalised its back-to-work guidance, having only consulted trade unions on an earlier draft that was unfinished and heavily criticised. So much for building consensus, as promised on the PM’s first day back. As Ed Miliband tweeted: “If it was about MPs, chief executives or middle class professionals the PM would never have ordered a return to work at 12 hours notice without guidance or clarity about safety”. Even more confusingly, Dominic Raab has said this morning that people are actually being urged to return on Wednesday, not today as stated in the press release. The word ‘omnishambles’ comes to mind.

The PM’s statement did not address the main day-to-day concerns of many. He made clear that sunbathing in the park and playing sports with members of our household would be permitted, but whether we can visit family members while distancing was not mentioned. It has now been clarified that you’re allowed to meet parents in an outdoor space (not a garden) with two metres between you, though Raab and No 10 disagree over whether it is one or two parents that can be met at the same time.

The statement was effectively a declaration of class war. Those who can work from home are more likely to be better paid, and they can protect themselves, whereas those in construction and manufacturing must put their lives on the line so that bosses can protect their profits. I wrote in this email two weeks ago: Labour must help to ensure that workers are protected and prioritised, and that the Tories cannot put private wealth ahead of public health while bringing the UK out of lockdown. But that is exactly what the government is doing.

The 50-page guidance outlining the new rules will apparently be provided at some point today, and another statement from the Prime Minister will be made in the House of Commons at around 3.30pm. How Labour approaches the task of scrutinising the government is up for debate within the party, as ever. 62% of the 6,071 readers who took part in our most recent survey (full results here) described Labour as “not critical enough” of the government’s Covid-19 response, while 36.5% said the opposition party had been “the right amount of critical”.

Starmer will undoubtedly want to exercise caution and sound reasonable – not angry, but very disappointed. Rather than pick holes in the plans presented, this time he will simply be pointing out gaping holes already evident to everyone. This is all the more reason for the party not to depoliticise the situation. Labour must urge workers to join a trade union, and raise awareness of the 1996 Employment Rights Act’s Section 44. It gives employees the right to walk away from unsafe work without loss of pay. This crisis is deeply political, and it is not disrespectful or point-scoring to make interventions accordingly.

The same principle goes for proactive proposals. This is why the new housing policy announced over the weekend was poorly received by members. The level of anger among party activists online – likely to be young renters, who are charged enormous amounts every month by landlords often unwilling to undertake repairs – was underestimated by the Labour leadership. The prospect of having to pay back rent arrears in two years during a global recession is obviously a very scary one.

In formulating its policy, which has prompted an open letter of protest, Labour did not give enough consideration to this entirely predictable response. And, as noted by the New Statesman, it wasn’t even necessary to include the arrears point in the plan, which could have focused only on upping benefits and banning evictions. Labour is a main opposition party, not a legal team advising the government. In this crisis, at a time of such frightening instability, clear communication is everything and politics matters.

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