By Malcolm Hunter, Leicester Labour activist
Faced with the current crisis it has been suggested that we need some kind of “government of national unity”.
At first sight his may seem to make sense, to many people. Covid-19 threatens everyone, after all, so it is in everyone’s interest to defeat it; and surely the best way to do that is if we all sink our differences and work together. Furthermore, having just lost an election and faced with the prospect of five years of Tory government some people may be attracted to the idea of being able to wield some influence after all.
For Labour to enter into any kind of accommodation with the Tories would be a grave mistake, however.
It is undoubtedly true that Covid-19 threatens everyone, but when it comes to how we confront the challenge that it poses it is quite clear that our priorities are very different.
At every stage the government has shown a reluctance to act decisively. It has latched on to any fringe, pseudo-scientific rationale for inaction that it can find, but it has been obvious that its main reason for doing as little as possible has been a desire to protect profits and, even now, it is resisting stopping non-essential work that may contribute towards the spread of the virus, such as construction projects.
In addition to this, while they were quick to announce support for the likes of Virgin, support for ordinary workers, the self-employed and small businesses has only been introduced in response to public pressure and, even then, the money to pay 80% of workers’ wages is not being paid direct to workers.
Instead it is being offered to employers, who in some cases would have kept workers on anyway, but who are not going to turn their noses up at a big public subsidy; and who in other cases may still choose to sack, or lay off staff, rather than accept the money and make up the remaining 20%.
Furthermore, some of the supposed support for small businesses and the self-employed actually takes the form of the Government agreeing to compensate private banks for any losses incurred due to small businesses defaulting on loans.
This may make it easier for small businesses to get loans, but in the absence of any income they are not going to be able to afford to repay them and they risk simply ending up deeper in debt. The Government are therefore really just supporting the cash flow and profits of the banks.
Of course, some people will argue that if we were part of the government then we would be better placed to get our very different priorities taken on board, but this would be a mistake, for two reasons.
Firstly, although they have often acted with obvious reluctance, time and again the Government have been forced into action by public pressure and we are much better placed to continue helping to mobilize such pressure from outside of government.
Secondly, if Labour were part of the government the Tories would have to worry less about eventually having to answer to the electorate, because we would share the blame for the government’s failures. This would remove one source of pressure on them to prioritize the interests of ordinary people over those of big business.
In addition, there are long-term considerations.
Some people have interpreted the Tories’ sudden discovery of “The Magic Money Tree” and state intervention as representing a conversion to socialism, but state intervention and spending money should not be seen as synonymous with socialism.
The fact that the Tories are currently pursuing these policies will prove helpful to us in the long run, because it will help us to challenge false comparisons between government and household budgets; and it will help us to argue that if you can do it for one crisis you can do it for others, but whether these things are socialist depends on whose interests they are meant to serve. There is nothing socialist about intervening just to protect profits.
The Tories remain the party who starved the NHS of resources to fund tax cuts for the rich and the party for whom serving the interests of the 1% is the priority, those of the vast majority. We should be using the current crisis to highlight the fact that there are fundamental differences between the interests of a rich elite and those of the majority of ordinary people, not helping to gloss over this fact.
Furthermore, if we let the Tories trick us into sharing the blame for their failures we will increase their chances of winning the next election. If that happens they will be able to continue pursuing the kind of policies that have left us so unprepared for this crisis, for even longer.
Where the Government are doing the right things we should support those measures, not oppose them for the sake of it; but it is vital that we retain our independence and our ability to criticise them and hold them to account when they are not.
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