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Editorial: ‘Build, build, build’ – what to make of Johnson's investment drive

BORIS JOHNSON’S pledge to “build, build, build” to address the economic crisis caused by Covid-19 strikes a note that may go down well with the public.

Johnson is an egotist whose political convictions are few and his government of chancers bear a deep responsibility for the devastating impact of Covid-19 on Britain.

A government that had heeded international advice over the winter would have had precious months to stock up on personal protective equipment and would have entered lockdown sooner, saving tens of thousands of lives.

But whatever ministers’ callous disregard for ordinary people, the left needs to recognise that it is dealing with a charlatan who has displayed considerable political skill.

Last year’s run-ins with the Supreme Court and Parliament sold this Eton-and-Oxford millionaire to the public as a rebel prepared to take on the Establishment — at the same time as Labour’s endless parliamentary manoeuvres against Brexit made it look like the champion of Establishment institutions against the people.

The result was a sweeping electoral victory and the defeat of Britain’s most promising socialist movement in many decades.

His government’s first Budget wrongfooted Labour with unexpected spending promises that in some cases outmatched what the opposition was actually demanding.

And when lockdown began, similarly headline-grabbing announcements involving the deployment of huge sums of money to protect jobs and incomes saw Johnson’s approval ratings soar to the highest of any prime minister on record, helped by the sympathy won by his own contraction of the virus that had shut down the country.

Those approval ratings are history. Huge job cuts declared by some of Britain’s biggest employers, grinding misery among the millions of families whose incomes have not been protected, many of whom have been exposed to a cruel and punitive welfare system for the first time, have taken the shine off necessary but inadequate measures such as the job retention scheme and the self-employment support scheme.

The contempt for the public displayed in the Dominic Cummings road trip-slash-eye test shattered the illusion that we were all in this together that had cast such a spell when the Prime Minister was hospitalised.

And most brutally of all the steadily mounting death toll, with Britain in the running for the worst per capita death rate from Covid-19 on the planet, revealed how little the government had done to protect people.

“Build, build, build” is Johnson’s bid to get back on the front foot. He knows that as lockdown eases and government support schemes are withdrawn, people across Britain are deeply anxious about their jobs.

A dramatic show of investing in economic recovery is his answer. And the left should not dismiss it: investment in hospitals and schools is welcome.

But state spending is not socialism, as Johnson himself made a point of admitting with his “I am not a communist” declaration today.

Pumping money towards private contractors with a dire record of fleecing the public, cutting corners on safety and blacklisting trade unionists does nothing to address the deeper structural reasons why austerity-starved Britain was in no shape to handle the Covid crisis.

Labour’s call for the recovery programme to focus on “jobs, jobs jobs” – repeating a word three times is obviously back in fashion – is decent as far as it goes, but where are the specifics?

The government should be pressed to act on the calls for a green industrial revolution and a revival of British manufacturing as called for by Unite, the mass teacher recruitment drive to enable smaller, socially distanced classes argued for by the National Education Union, the reinvestment in local government allowing libraries and children’s centres to reopen that Unison recommends.

The labour movement has outlined many aspects of a recovery plan that would permanently change Britain for the better.

Our thoughts must turn to how to build momentum behind that plan when Westminster is seeking to ignore it.


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