Branson, Virgin Atlantic and labour movement ambition

By Alexis Green

There has been angry criticism of Richard Branson’s call for a financial bailout from the government for Virgin Atlantic, given Branson’s vast corporate and personal wealth and his demand that the airline’s workers take eight weeks’ unpaid leave during the Covid-19 crisis.

Quite right, obviously. Branson and his ilk are grotesque. The problem is that the left and labour movement tend to channel outrage at such things into shallow and usually conclusionless populism against individual rich people or institutions, avoiding both rounded socialist explanation and education and fighting for socialist or radical solutions to immediate problems. Such populism arguably feeds the right more than it helps the left.

The most striking example of this is anti-bank or even just anti-banker populism, while advocating no solutions at all beyond very limited curbing of wildly “excessive” pay and bonuses. Meanwhile TUC Congress passes policy from the Fire Brigades Union for expropriation of the banks and high finance to create a public banking and financial system under democratic control – but no one really campaigns for or even mentions it.

The unions, Labour and very often the socialist left are not ambitious either in terms of program to transform society or in terms of the immediate struggle (or linking them together).

At Virgin Atlantic unions have accepted workers getting only the minimum terms of the government’s furlough scheme, ie a 20pc wage cut. Naturally their leaders have nothing to say about how the public can use Branson’s disarray to act against his power.

As things stand Labour is not even raising the demand to impose conditions on bailed-out firms over questions like tax evasion (highly relevant to Branson, obviously), let alone anything bigger.

I’ll quote a recent interview we did with CWU telecoms and Labour Unions activist Maria Exall, both for its general approach and for a specific proposal:

“The big challenge for the labour movement [in this crisis] is not to go for the lowest common denominator but be far more ambitious – on creating socially useful jobs, including green jobs, with strong workers’ rights; on tackling inequality; on having a welfare system that is genuinely supportive not punitive; on rebuilding public services in a comprehensive and democratic form. It’s obvious to many what the problems are, but the question is can the labour movement take the initiative with radical solutions?

“… The government had no choice but to support workers’ incomes to some degree or the economy would have collapsed immediately, like bailing out the banks in 2008. The issue is we should be putting conditions, including in terms of taking public ownership or public stakes, and looking at that on a sectoral basis and not just individual companies.”

It’s important to say that these kind of demands, radical as they are in the context of the politically anaemic movement we have, do not amount to socialism. They can be steps towards socialism, but they are actually the minimum necessary for the labour movement to adequately defend and organise the working class in this crisis.

In this case, the labour movement should say that the livelihoods of Virgin Atlantic workers should be defended not by bailing out Branson, but by the state taking a major stake in the corporation – and imposing stringent conditions about issues including democratic control, workers’ rights and cutting carbon emissions. (The last might well involve reducing aviation jobs, but in a rational, planned way, with conversion and workers provided with good alternative jobs, not thrown on the scrapheap.) That is, if Virgin Atlantic is not simply nationalised.

This will be far from the only case where some version of this is possible and desirable. Indeed, many other such cases will be far more important from the point of view of reorganising the economy and society as we emerge from the crisis than a struggling airline. Nor should we limit proposals for public ownership to companies that are demanding a public bailout. My point here is that the movement’s response to the Virgin Atlantic row illustrates its wider conservatism.

Obviously beyond a certain point, radical demands imply overthrowing the Tories and replacing them with a very different government (and in turn, to make such a government possible, transforming Labour). But that is no reason not to raise them: on the contrary, if argued and fought for confidently and militantly, they can be important levers in undermining the Johnson-Raab-Sunak regime, as well as changing workers’ consciousness and how they respond to social problems.

In the very peculiar reality of the Covid-19 crisis, moreover, it may be possible to win surprising things even under this government – if, and as explained it’s a big if, we are politically bold and aggressive.

The labour movement needs to be vastly more ambitious and radical. If we aren’t, we will emerge from this crisis in a worse state than when we entered it. If we are, we can take a leap forward against the class to which Branson belongs.

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