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Editorial Covid-19 has exposed the nature of class-divided Britain

THE coronavirus casualty rate is becoming a more accurate measure of the realities of life and work in Britain than any other metric.

We have become accustomed to the novel sight of Tory ministers, who a few months ago derided the British working class as work-shy, today extolling virtues to which hitherto they appeared blind.

The scale of the crisis has revealed more clearly the contours of Britain’s working class and made it crystal clear that every human being is best measured by the social value of the work they do or have done in a lifetime of labour. 

The monetary value placed on different kinds of work is a more accurate measure of society’s values than any avalanche of pious proclamations from government ministers.

The revelation, by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre, that more than half of the critically ill Covid-19 cases in hospitals in England and Wales come from black and ethnic minority backgrounds will not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the workplace realities of class-divided Britain.

These bare statistics have acquired a human dimension by the tragic array of portraits which show just how many of the NHS staff who have been struck down by the virus come from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.

Every capitalist economy replenishes its labour force by drawing migrant workers from those parts of the world where it first extracted profit. 

The way in which the movement of migrant labour is indissolubly linked to the flow of capital was first illustrated in colonial times, doubly demonstrated in the neocolonial era and completely confirmed by the patterns of migration which attend Britain’s membership of the European Union.

The not-so-mysterious workings of the labour market mean that migrant workers are always allocated the most onerous, worst-paid and least secure work, and as successive generations become more integrated into the working population these disadvantages and discriminations become even more embedded in the class structure.

To the reactionary and the racist this has become part of the natural order but it is no more “natural” than the previous invisibility of essential workers who carry out the tasks which make the whole of modern society operate, and no more “natural” that the wildly disproportionate levels of pay which have become normalised in present-day Britain.

That is why it is so necessary to assert that while the present-day revival of an illusory one nation Toryism is the hypocritical accompaniment to this crisis, the interests of the working people as a whole are best served by challenging these patterns of disadvantage and discrimination.

Stand up to Racism makes the telling point that the reason why black and ethnic minority people in Britain suffer disproportionately from the effects of the coronavirus crisis is because they are disproportionately working in front-line jobs — open to infection and because they often live concentrated in economically disadvantaged areas.

If the new Labour leadership wants to stake out a popular position on the current crisis, it could start by making it clear that a post-corona-crisis Britain will not only see a levelling up of wages but also that public ownership of transport and utilities will bring price controls; that rents are to be controlled; and that housing costs will reflect the real cost of construction rather than the dictates of a speculative market.

Tackling real-life disadvantage and discrimination must become the priority of a working class and labour movement that sees opposition in Parliament and on the streets as preparation for power rather than an accommodation with it.

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