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We need to step up the fight to save lives and livelihoods

The left needs to co-ordinate around alternative policies if it’s going to force the government to change course, argues RICHARD BURGON

YOU “must learn to live with it and live without fear.” That was the message from the Tory government in the face of the greatest public-health threat in our lifetimes. 

It came at the same time as the Tory chancellor pulled the plug on furlough, implying that mass unemployment would be a price worth paying.

Those remarks came as the world was nearing one million Covid deaths. Despite all the talk at the beginning of this crisis, the Tories have made clear that they will not do everything needed to protect lives and livelihoods.

Indeed the Tories are now pushing the line that there is a so-called “trade-off” between health and employment. 

That’s not only deeply dangerous but a totally false choice. It is designed to cover up their failings on both. 

There can be no sustained economic recovery until the virus is driven down to very low levels. We need bold measures that tackle the economic and public-health crisis.

That means not only fixing Test and Trace and decent sick pay for all, but also the government must offer a lifeline to industries and workers while it gets the virus levels down. We can’t allow millions to end up on Sunak’s scrapheap.  

The “live with it” line is in many ways an admission of failure by the government. It has clearly lost control of the virus. 

The figures from other countries show just how badly — and how unnecessarily — the government has failed.

As I write, over the past 14 days the UK has had 100 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people and rising. 

Germany has had a third of that with 30, Japan just five, South Korea three, Australia two, and New Zealand, China and Vietnam all less than one case per 100,000.

That’s why I and others have been demanding a shift to a “zero-Covid” strategy followed in the most successful countries.

The UK not only has one of the world’s largest death tolls but will suffer the worst economic hit of any country in Europe, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 

This begs huge questions not only about the direct response to coronavirus but also about the society we live in.

These failings go way beyond the failure of just an incompetent PM. It’s the result of a rigged economic system, a decade of austerity and four decades of neoliberalism and privatisation. 

They are going to become even deeper in the coming months as an unprecedented avalanche of job losses hits our communities.

So, what are we going to do about it? The crisis is happening right now and we need to act right now: tens of thousands of lives are on the line and millions of livelihoods are at stake.

This deepening crisis must be the moment when my party goes beyond criticising the government’s incompetence and lays out the policies that the government must take to defend people hit hard by this unprecedented public-health and jobs crisis.

Of course, the government has a large parliamentary majority. But it is vulnerable — because it hasn’t got the answers that match the scale of the crisis. 

The government has made U-turn after U-turn in recent months, showing that solutions the Labour Party puts forward, energetically organised around, can make a real difference to people’s lives here and now.

We need to fight for every concession possible. If we don’t force the government to change track, I dread to think what the position of working-class communities will be by the next election in four years’ time.

Many of the ideas needed in these troubling times were properly outlined and costed in our 2017 and 2019 manifestos — and Keir Starmer reflected many of them in his 10 pledges.

Spelling out the alternative policies that the government should be pursuing isn’t to be counterposed to preparing to win in 2024 — it’s an essential part of it.

If we are to rebuild trust with voters we lost, then we have to demonstrate, day after day, that we are on their side and offer a better way forward for them.

There will be many fronts to fight on. Take the current university crisis. 

The University and College Union has shown great leadership for months, warning the government that a coronavirus campus outbreak was entirely predictable and that halls of residence and in-person teaching were areas of risk.

Bold support for its alternative plan for safe learning would put Labour on the side of millions of students, parents, staff and others. 

Many will be feeling, as I do, that the health of staff and students has been put at risk after students were told to travel hundreds of miles to campuses and halls of residence despite obvious Covid-19 risks because our broken funding model means that universities need the revenue from student accommodation and fear an online model only would lead to calls to slash fees.

The left has a key role to play in putting forward the alternatives that can win broad support and force the government to shift. 

To do so, we must come up with a united programme of demands around which to co-ordinate the whole left: the left in Parliament, the unions, the party membership and social movements across the country.

There is no shortage of immediate issues around which we need to be organising. From full sick pay, maintaining furlough, benefits not being frozen, a ban on “fire and rehire” practices to a programme of public works to create hundreds of thousands of high-skilled green jobs and rebuild our public services.

The Labour Assembly Against Austerity has made a great start in getting 10,000 grassroots Labour members to sign up to such a programme. 

Others like Labour for a Green New Deal are doing wonderful campaigning in spelling out the policy detail.

So the priority for the whole labour movement must be to build on that and force the government to change tack — by laying out our solutions to the crisis faced by millions and building the movements to win those solutions.

Richard Burgon is Labour MP for Leeds East.


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