What’s going down on Covid Island? – A UK report – June 2020

This report on the situation in the UK is primarily for the debate with comrades abroad and for our own understanding about where things are heading.

We think that a social situation needs at least two characteristics in order to become revolutionary: the rulers must have lost the resources and ability to rule and the ruled must be fed up, organised and politically clued up enough to question the status quo. When we look at the bigger picture this way we have to break things down further.

We can analyse the crisis of the ruling class as the inability to enforce certain changes politically, either because the political class itself is not united enough or because they expect that the changes won’t go down well. The changes themselves are motivated by and limited by the amount of (financial) resources the state has in order to rule. This in turn depends on the general underlying profitability of the system, on productive investments in profitable businesses.

The ruled themselves are not a monolithic block. The working class is stratified by, amongst other things, uneven regional development, property ownership, citizenship status. There are various institutions, first of all the official trade unions, which claim to represent the working class, but more often than not reproduce sectorial, professional and national divisions. The self-proclaimed political representation of workers in the UK, the Labour Party, forms another buffer. We have to analyse the actual struggles which question the stratification of the class. We don’t think unification happens through well meaning demands or through individual memberships of this or that organisation – but through struggles that break through the daily imposed divisions.

In the following we go through some empirical material from the last two months, trying to detect tendencies regarding the structural constraints of the state and capital and the potentials for working class unification. This material largely stems from the mainstream media, which in itself limits this report. We therefore plan a series of interviews with co-workers and friends about their experiences during the Covid-19 regime at work, to get a sense of what’s really happening on the ground.

Please send us comments and criticism: letsgetrooted@protonmail.com

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1. The Covid-19 situation

So far the UK government has gotten away with murder when it comes to the handling of the public health aspect of the Covid-19 crisis. The main facts are pretty well known, we therefore limit ourselves to a brief summary.

With over 43,000 official deaths, the UK has one of the highest death rates in the world. A major factor was the initial government strategy of ‘herd immunity’, which delayed the lockdown. On the 2nd of March the government was warned that the virus was highly contagious, on the 13th of March the government announced their strategy of ‘herd immunity’, deciding not to implement a large scale lockdown like most EU countries. National lockdown was only declared on the 23rd of March after public pressure. Inability or stupidity are not the primary reason for this delay, but a political dispute within the political class about whether they could get away with risking the lives of thousands of ‘unproductive’ older people. According to a senior Conservative, the initial strategy was summarised by Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings as “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” This isn’t just the opinion of ‘wicked’ Cummings. Johnson wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph in 2007 titled, ‘Global over-population is the real issue.’ In it, Johnson laments how, “it is a tragic measure of how far the world has changed” that “the fertility of the human race” can no longer be publicly discussed as a government policy. This is not an attempt to fabricate a conspiracy theory, but to demonstrate the general political perspective of the leading governmental figures. These politicians don’t have a wider social vision a la Thatcher, but primarly think in terms of how to manipulate and manage various social groups in order to maintain the status quo.

The second reason for the high death rate are the holes in the productive fabric of the health and industrial sector in the UK, created by austerity and lack of investment during the last decade. The lack of protective equipment and Covid-19 tests and the inability to produce sufficient resources aggravated the situation. In June 2020 UK ranked as number 20 out of the 31 European countries with available data for coronavirus testing per capita, screening only 31.59 people for every thousand of the population. Significantly poorer Eastern European countries such as Lithuania (99.14 per thousand), Estonia (57.74), Latvia (52.9) and Belarus (49) have tested far more people relative to their population sizes. It also became public that the government fudged the official figures of how many people were being tested per day, reporting over one million more tests than the numbers genuinely tested. The fragmentation of the health sector into various NHS trusts, private clinics and care homes created further problems and fatal levels of disorganisation. Between the 17th and 15th of April, around 25,000 people were discharged from hospitals into care homes. Only small numbers of these people were tested. In mid-June the media announced that 30% of all deaths occurred in care homes, over 14,000 people in total.

A further reason for the high death rate is the high level of social inequality and impoverishment in the UK. Figures of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) covering March to May show that people living in the poorest 10% of England died at a rate of 128.3 per 100,000, compared with a rate of 58.8 per 100,000 among those living in the wealthiest 10% of the country. Brent in west London had the highest overall age-standardised rate, with 210.9 deaths per 100,000 population. Many of our former workmates in the food factories and warehouses live in Brent, where the combination of overcrowding at home and on the production lines [1] and the fact that government advice was rarely translated for migrant workers, has proved fatal.

In order to compensate for the lack of productive and care capacity the government had to continue outsourcing essential work, which contributed to the problem in the first place. After suspending commissioning rules, Tory ministers have awarded exclusive coronavirus-related state contracts worth £1.7 billion to private companies. Corruption is not the reason, but a byproduct of this. Here are just a few examples. Randox, a private healthcare firm that happens to employ Owen Patterson, one of the richest Tory MPs, has been awarded a £133m contract without any competition. PestFix, which has 16 staff and net assets of £19,000 was given a government contact worth £108m in early April to provide items such as gowns and face masks to the NHS. The US company Palantir was given a contract to use AI technology to track the coronavirus outbreak. The company has been funded by the CIA and has ties the Vote Leave-linked technology firm Faculty, which received seven government contracts within the last 18 months period. Journalists who have asked about the handling of NHS data by Palantir have been stone-walled.

Up to now there have been some critical questions by ‘experts’ regarding the handling of the Covid-19 crisis by the state, but no collective response as yet by those who have suffered most. There have been collective actions of workers against the lack of health and safety – see below – but the initiatives of family members of deceased Covid-19 victims who try to hold the state to account are still small in number. Unsurprisingly, an attempt to declare the initial government strategy as ‘illegal’ has been squashed.

2. The economic slump

In June 2020 the OECD reported that Britain’s economy is likely to suffer the worst damage from the Covid-19 crisis of any country in the developed world. A slump in the UK’s national income of 11.5% during 2020 will outstrip the falls in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the US. The  Bank of England suggest UK unemployment will double to 10 to 12% this year. When lockdown measures were first introduced in March, voluntary liquidations by small businesses rose to twice last year’s levels. The particular severity of the UK’s recession is partly due to the double-whammy of Covid-19 and Brexit, but as we will see, the economic decline has a longer running tendency.

Like in most countries, the lockdown impacted hardest on the hospitality sector, where 85% of workers have been affected. One in four workers in this sector have lost hours, one in ten have lost their job altogether, and half are furloughed. Other highly affected sectors are: education, with 60% of employees affected and nearly half having lost hours; manufacturing and construction (55% affected); and wholesale, retail and motor trades (54% affected). During the first two months of lockdown the number of hours worked fell by a record 94.2 million in April – a drop of almost 9% – but not as high as the percentage of people who were furloughed or lost their job. This might be due to the fact that the decrease in workers was compensated by an increase in overtime.

The automobile sector had been in trouble before the Covid-19 pandemic, e.g. Honda in Swindon announced the plant’s closure in February 2020. Since the lockdown, industry representatives have said that up to a quarter of workers in car dealerships, 150,000 people in total, are likely to lose their jobs in the coming months. Bentley said they will dismiss 1,000 out of 4,200 workers. Jaguar Land Rover, Britain’s biggest car manufacturer, plan to sack up to 1,100 agency staff from a total UK workforce of 32,000. In mid-June industry representatives said that 25,000 jobs, that’s one sixth of total car industry employment, are at risk. One in three of the 150,000 people employed in automobile manufacturing are still on the government’s furlough scheme.

The situation is similar in the aerospace industry. Airbus management in the UK complained that the governments in France and Germany mobilised more money to support their local Airbus plants. 13,500 jobs in UK aerospace are now at risk. Smaller aerospace part manufacturers are already dismissing people, e.g. SPS in the Midlands plan 420 redundancies and Thompson Aero Seating in North Ireland threatened to sack 500 out of 1,300 workers. In the UK, 725 out of 820 aerospace suppliers have fewer than 50 employees, while those with under 250 employees account for just over a third of the industry’s 118,000 jobs. The UK has already lost a good share of the global aerospace market in recent years, falling from second place after the US to third, behind France and roughly equal to Germany. In May, British Airlines announced it was cutting up to 12,000 out of 42,000 workers, using the fact that most workers are furloughed and less able to react collectively to this threat. Ryanair is also planning to axe up to 15% of its staff, while Virgin Atlantic is cutting about a third of its 10,000-strong workforce.

In construction more than 470 infrastructure projects in the UK worth £6 billion remain on hold and the number of new contracts and tenders in the sector has plunged due to Covid-19. Overall, work stopped on 4,800 projects across the wider construction industry, or about half of all sites – site closures often had to be enforced by workers themselves. The Covid-19 blow will accelerate the concentration process in the industry with more smaller companies going bust. In 2019, 368 companies in the sector filed for insolvency, that compares with 207 in 2016. Developers building up to 100 homes a year account for roughly 10% of new supply, according to the National House-Building Council, against 40 per cent in 1988. Over the same period the number of small house builders has dropped from more than 12,000 to about 2,000.

There are only a few sectors that have boomed during the lockdown and are likely to grow in the future. For example e-commerce volumes in April represented 31% of retail sales, 16% higher than the previous month. Online grocery sales almost doubled to 13% of the market. Ocado, an online grocery logistics company wants to raise £1 billion for investments into warehouses and vehicles. Segro, a warehouse developer, plans to invest £650 million.

3. The impact on workers

The state launched the coronavirus jobs retention scheme (CJRS) in March 2020, allowing companies to send workers home, with the state paying 80% of their usual wage and employers paying the other 20%. According to government figures published in early June, around 9.1 million workers in the UK were put on the scheme (the private sector employs 27.3 million), plus there are 2.6 million people who receive a similar benefit as self-employed workers. So far the scheme has cost the state around £29 billion. While there are less people furloughed in university towns like Oxford or Cambridge, industrial areas like Slough or Birmingham saw the highest level of over a third of local workers furloughed. Economically the Covid-19 crisis has hit women workers harder than men. While the 2008 crisis saw more men losing jobs, this time more women have lost their job, partly due to the types of jobs affected, as well as the issue of childcare, as schools and two thirds of nurseries were closed. Many working class families collapse under the additional pressure of the Covid-19 lockdown and children are the first victims of this – the number of children who need foster care due to abuse or neglect increased by 44%.

It became clear fairly quickly that given the large amounts of flexible, temporary, freelance or informal work relations in the UK many working class people would fall through the cracks. A report from the Treasury select committee alleged that 1 million people who lost their job due to Covid-19 were not receiving the designated state benefit, other sources spoke about 3 million. An additional £6 billion of household debts will aggravate an existing crisis.

There were material differences within the working class in terms of who could work from home and who couldn’t or who was furloughed and who lost their job without receiving state benefits. Another fault line runs, as usual, between renting and home-owning segments of the class. As during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the state made sure to signal to the home-owning segment of the class that they would get a ‘mortgage-holiday’ if required, whereas tenants were not given such protection. 1.8 million people have taken advantage of a three month mortgage holiday scheme (one in six mortgages) and repayments on 1.5 million credit card accounts have been paused. Even the Labour Party recently watered down their ‘opposition’ for their demand for renters’ protection. Their policy has now changed from rent suspension to rent deferment. In April somewhere between a quarter and half of all residential rents went unpaid and the protection against evictions that the government put in place will end in late August. An increase in evictions is to be expected, also because of a backlog of previous orders that couldn’t been processed during the lockdown.

The government money papered over the cracks temporarily, as the furlough scheme closed to new applications on the 10th of June and employers will have to pay progressively more for furloughed workers from 1st of August until the scheme runs out in November 2020. This means that the number of job cuts is likely to rise from now on, as bosses don’t want to pay the bill. The number of people claiming Universal Credit (basic benefit for unemployed) rose by 856,000 to 2.1 million in April and to 2.8 million in May. The state administration is not prepared to deal with such a large increase as government cuts during recent years has meant that spending on employment programmes is just £200m, a quarter of its 2016 level, and a sixth of its level before the 2008 crisis. In this scenario, Labour’s new Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Reynolds said that Britain’s welfare system needs a stronger link between “what you put in and what you get out”. Those who have made “greater contributions to the system” should receive more out of it. At least they are honest: in a situation where the state cannot keep everyone happy they have to apply divide-and-rule.

4. The re-emergence of the state and leftist illusions

Confusing to many on the Labour left, the Tory government exercised the function of a capitalist state in times of economic crisis by intervening strongly in the national economy and labour market. In mid-March the government announced state-backed loans of at least £330 billion to support UK businesses, which would total 15% of GDP. This has been made possible by the UK central bank cutting interest rates from 0.75 to 0.1% in March and and quantitative easing (QE: buying of debts, primarily government bonds) of £645 billion. A further £100 billion was announced in June. We can see that the amount of QE money thrown on the fire increased steadily without much impact in terms of economic growth: 2009 £200 billion, 2012 £375 billion, 2016 £435 billion, 2020 £745 billion. Most of the free money ended up fuelling the ‘hunt for returns’ and increased  share prices. In May the Office for Budget Responsibility was forced to raise its estimate of the cost to the state of the pandemic to £123.2 billion, from its previous calculation of £103.7 billion. Public sector debt is at its highest since 1963: it exceeded £2 trillion for the first time (25% of this debt is held abroad). A public sector debt ratio of 100% of GDP is not exceptional. France, Italy, the US and Japan have crossed that mark, too. In June the Tory government promised to bail out Tata Steel with several hundred millions of pounds – the first time since the privatisation of the British steel industry 30 years the state will hold significant shares in the industry again.

A left that thought that the main defining feature of left politics was state intervention in contrast to market liberalism was stunned. Unsurprisingly, the main criticism was that the state was still not spending enough and that the loans for businesses were not reaching them in time. The fact that the Health Secretary Matt Hancock was able to announce in April that £13.4 billion of ‘NHS debt’ – an internal balance sheet between state departments – would be written off, was taken as proof that debt doesn’t matter at all and has become purely political. One reason for this misjudgement is the illusion on the left that the national economy is somehow self-contained (“for a country like the UK, with its own currency, those fears are meaningless” – Mason). There is enough historical evidence that, in the long term, debt inflation that is not covered by an increase in profitability leads to crashes or brutal adjustment programs in order to avoid them, e.g. during the Sterling crisis in the mid-1970s. If we look at the trade balance – the amount of goods that have to be imported and paid for depending on international exchange rates – the idea of ‘sovereignty’ due to having ‘your own currency’ smacks of Empire delusions. Financial sector commentators have a more realistic view on this:

‘”In the four years since the UK voted to leave the EU, trading conditions in the pound and the big swings in exchange rates make it a better match with the Mexican peso than the US dollar, said Kamal Sharma, a currency analyst at BofA.” The pound has not recovered to levels before the UK voted to leave the bloc, losing about one-fifth of its value. And since the start of the pandemic, sterling has moved violently. At the height of the crisis, investors were bracing for such great swings in the pound that only the Brazilian Real experienced a larger increase in implied volatility.’

(Financial Times, 24th of June 2020)

In the long run, printing money or writing off debt will lead to a devaluation of the pound and rising import commodity prices, first of all food and manufactured goods. While this might not hit the UK as soon and hard as other countries, we can see the impact of the ‘free money’ illusion in countries like Lebanon, where increasing debts have translated into massive price hikes and impoverishment for the working class more immediately. It seems that an internationalist view isn’t social democracy’s strong point!

There is of course a political struggle and of course the government will try to ‘make the working class pay for the crisis’. We can see that already when the Tory government announced in mid-June that it might break the ‘triple lock’ on pensions – the breaking of a real taboo – given the likelihood that state debt will increase from its current level of 80% to 100% as a result of the current crisis. The ‘triple lock’ means that pensions have to grow with either wages, inflation or a minimum of 2.5% a year and it was the Tory’s main ‘grey’ vote winner since it was introduced in 2010. In London the Mayor agreed to cut free travel for children and increase the congestion charge by 30% in return for a £1.6 billion government bail out. There is a political struggle, but the left slogan of ‘who will pay for the crisis’ is misleading. The working class hasn’t got the money to pay for and counteract the lack in profitability. Neither would it be enough to ‘tax the rich’. The crisis cannot be solved through redistribution, neither from top to bottom, nor the other way around. Much more fundamental changes in the actual social production process – the process of exploitation – would be needed.

The statist left has to make state measures seem omnipotent and thereby under-estimates the magnitude of the crisis of global capital. The Tory government seems to be more realistic, knowing that they will have to touch the holy cow of pensions. They are also now advising local government to step back from the main money-making machine of the recent decades – the real estate bubble. In June the Treasury announced it was banning local authorities from buying up investment property, after a near £7 billion spending spree in the past three years – a 14-fold increase on the three years prior to that. Dozens of local councils are being investigated after using low-cost loans from the central government to buy investment properties for rental income as a way to shield themselves from deep cuts to their budgets. The central government fears that councils are too exposed as a severe downturn in the real estate sector is likely. Liverpool was one of the first cities that asked the government to come to its rescue and back a £1.4 billion coronavirus economic recovery plan, to prevent a repeat of the hardship experienced during the 1980s.

In the coming months the question will be whether the state can find financial and political tools to enforce a return to ‘social discipline’ (‘the rule of the law of value’) and to make sure that credit is again more closely linked to the expectation of (shorter-term) future profits, rather than turning into an eternal life line. So far government and state money is helping to drag undisciplined tenants, poor mortgage payers, badly run corner shops, unprofitable businesses, bosses who refuse to invest and unviable banks through the crisis. The challenge for the state is to select the good from the bad apples and to re-enforce that ‘hard work and investments are worth something’ and the trust in the value of money as an equivalent to actual economic performance is reinstated. Otherwise they run the risk of a chain reaction caused by defaulting private or commercial units.

The political class sees that ‘redistribution’ won’t cut it and that the productive fabric – the process of exploitation – has to be changed. Here, again, we can see that the global form of capital imposes itself on nation state politics.

5. The Huawei dilemma

Like in most ‘western’ developed economies, the low rate of profitability in the UK means that productive investments are at a historical low, companies are banking their cash and rely on low wages and speculative investments instead, while productivity declines. In the UK the annual growth in output for every hour worked fell from 2.2% between 2000 and 2007 to 0.5% between 2010 and 2017. At the same time, British companies hold nearly £700 billion unused in their bank accounts, and paying out record amounts to shareholders.

In the current phase, the material restructuring of the production process is a global issue. Decades of ‘de-industrialisation’ – as an attack on working class militancy and low profit-rates – has resulted in a depletion of productive knowledge and infrastructure in the UK. The disastrous delays of projects like the high-speed train HS2 or the planned nuclear power-plants demonstrate this. UK manufacturing has increasingly become dependent on global exchange, in particular with EU countries, the US and China. The global crisis of 2008 has aggravated the tensions between these three economic power blocks and the UK is trapped in a tough spot. With Brexit making trade relations with the EU more difficult, the dependency on China has deepened. After Germany, China is the main source of imports – and former UK prime minister Cameron is still trying to set up a £1 billion China investment fund, using his former political connections. The current dispute with the US government over Huawei 5G investments in the UK and the dependency on imported medical goods during the Covid-19 crisis are good examples of the dilemma.

In order to expand the 5G network, which is essential for being able to compete on the global market, the UK relied on the Chinese company Huawei to deliver technology. This is opposed by the US government. In early 2020 Trump threatened to restrict the UK’s access to the Five Eyes intelligence system – a project of the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand to develop independent 5G technology. The problem is that the UK does not only depend on China when it comes to communication technology. The Chinese state reacted to the possible banning of Huawei by questioning their support to build nuclear power plants in the UK. The UK government opted to restrict Huawei to 35% of total 5G investment, instead of going for a full ban. British Telecom has already said it would cost the company £500 million to comply with the government’s 35% cap, and Vodafone said it would cost them billions if a total ban would be imposed. The announcement that Huawei will invest £1 billion in a semi-conductor plant near Cambridge triggered further discontent amongst US officials – but beggars can’t be choosers, so the UK administration gave Huawei the green light. The problems with investments into infrastructure extends into space. In June the government announced they would be scrapping a £5 billion investment project into a sovereign satellite navigation system. The system was meant to be an alternative to the EU’s Galileo system, which the UK will lose access to after Brexit. The government is considering bailing out the tech company OneWeb with £500 million, which owns 74 satellites, in order to develop a cheaper version of the initial project. This will also please the US state, as OneWeb satellites are manufactured in Florida. On a smaller scale, the limited capacity of UK tech industry revealed itself when the government had to scrap a domestically developed ‘NHS’ Covid-19 tracing app in June and rely on Google and Apple technology.

The Covid-19 crisis has compounded the problem of domestic productive infrastructure and made it more visible as there was an apparent lack of supply of protective equipment, vaccines and certain chemicals, e.g. between 80 to 90% of the UK’s supply of generic medicines are imported. The UK government set up ‘Project Defend’ – an internal exercise to reorganise manufacturing and international supply-chains. In Spring 2020 the media reported that the international trade secretary is exploring the possibility of a free trade agreement with India. The Labour leader Starmer equally cosied up to the Modi government in May by speaking out against the independence of Kashmir – rather than some ‘anti-Muslim’ stance this has to be seen in the context of international trade politics: in June, Kashmir and the wider border region turned into a potential proxy war region between the China/Pakistan and US/India blocks. In the UK the proclamation of ‘protectionist measures’ will be formalised later this summer with a National Security and Investment (NSI) bill, which gives the government the right to curb foreign takeovers in certain ‘essential’ Covid-19 related sectors.

The whole ‘Project Defend’ is a bit of a joke if we see that thanks to Brexit the UK has major logistical problems to even organise food imports through the ports and to organise the domestic harvests due to lack of labour. Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, reiterated In February that that a full customs, VAT and regulatory border will be enforced. This means that in Dover alone, which handles 10,000 trucks a day at peak time, 200 million additional administrative acts a year will have to be performed. There is physically no space for additional checks in Dover and Folkestone (Eurotunnel). New checkpoints will have to be built 20 miles away from Dover. The same will be true for traffic checks from Northern Ireland. The industry complains that the government still has no official plan of how they they are ging to to reorganise this infrastructure.

In the meantime, local agricultural businesses suffer from labour shortages due to Covid-19, which can be seen as a precursor of problems that will aggravate with Brexit. UK agriculture depends on 70,000 to 80,000 migrant seasonal workers. This year the share of ‘domestic workers’ went up from 1 1% to 20 – 30%, but many farmers were not too happy: the turnover of workers doubled and the productivity of local workers was 30% lower. Wages had to be increased – which is significant given that labour can account for as much as 70% of a farm’s costs, according to the National Farmers Union. The government is aware of the problem and despite all talk of ‘national sovereignty’, implemented a migration scheme that gave 10,000 temporary non-EU farm workers the permission to work in the UK. Similar to the situation with Huawei, the agricultural sector is squeezed between the big global economic blocks: Brexit means less cheap labour and more expensive access to the EU market, which might force the UK to agree to a trade deal with the US, which has agricultural exports from the US to the UK at its heart. This would kill off a few more UK farms, what with US pork production costs being about half those of the UK.

These are some of the issues when it comes to the restructuring of the productive system, circulation and the labour market. Brexit and the fact that the post-Covid-19 recession will undermine the Eurozone’s stability will push the UK government further into the squeeze between economic dependence on China and wider political dependence on the US. The dependency on the US will be displayed and rephrased by the right-wing of the UK government as a voluntary alliance of political forces, which value ‘sovereignty’ and are on the same side of the ‘culture war’ against the ‘liberal elite’.

6. The end of the Labour mania

The Labour left which carried the so-called Corbyn project has received a double blow during the Covid-19 crisis through the election of the centre-left candidate Keir Starmer and the state-interventionist crisis-management of the Tories. Many have commented that Starmer mainly won because he looks like someone who can win (male, a Sir, legal profession, talking without saying much). Another factor might have been that many on the left were dissatisfied with the Stalinist clique around the left candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey and hoped that Starmer would allow ‘more democracy’ inside the party, which includes keeping the party open for the liberal Remain wing. The final blow for the Labour left came when Starmer sacked Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet end of June – end of story.

It’s clear that with Starmer, ‘democratic socialist’ politics as envisaged by the Corbyn project, are finished for the time being. It is therefore not surprising that the future hold over Momentum, the electoral campaign machine of the Labour Party, has now turned into the main field of struggle of the socialist parliamentarian left. Various factions have formed (Forward Momentum, Momentum Renewal, Labour Transformed, Momentum Internationalists etc.), fighting over the official leadership. While all factions pay lip service to ‘working class organising’, most of the energy is still spent on struggling over the leadership of an organisation whose purpose – the election of a socialist party – has been lost. The membership of the Labour Party has fallen significantly in recent months. For us the question is if the more radical and working class elements will get demoralised further, or if a collective debate for reorientation will emerge.   

7. The workers’ struggle and their representation

The media reports on a certain union ‘comeback’, but they base their claim not on an increase of union activity, but on a slight increase in union membership. The number of trade union members rose by 91,000 from 2018 to 6.44 million in 2019, the third consecutive year of increases following the fall to a low of 6.23 million in 2016. The proportion of employees who are union members also rose slightly to 23.5% in 2019, up from 23.4% a year earlier, and from the low of 23.3% in 2017.

More importantly for the proclaimed ‘comeback’ was the influence that certain unions had over the Labour Party candidate election. This is a general and more significant factor. The unions were addressed as partners when it came to managing the Covid-19 lockdown. The TUC advised the government about the furlough system and the back-to-work process. In return for co-management, various unions called off planned collective actions or ballots during Covid-19, for example the CWU at Royal Mail, the RMT at London Underground and UNISON in Tower Hamlets. In the case of the CWU, management thanked the union for its considered approach by announcing 2,000 job cuts a month later.

The unions also re-enter the public spotlight when it comes to the coming wave of job cuts. Unfortunately, and systemically determined by the national character of trade unions, there have been little efforts of international coordination. For example, while Unite the Union cried about the plant closure at Honda in Swindon, they haven’t announced any solidarity actions at Nissan Sunderland for the Nissan workers in Barcelona who fight against the closure there. We have written about the union meetings regarding redundancies at Heathrow already. [2]

Apart from a bunch of smaller trade union initiatives (UVW, IWGB) the main activity we have seen recently was within the education sector and fringes of Royal Mail. During the lockdown, over 10,000 teachers met in a Zoom meeting to debate the return to work and friends reported that 2,000 people came forward to take over delegate roles. The actual process of re-opening schools was not actively opposed by the union, apart from a few initiatives to petition local authorities. Casual teachers at Goldsmiths university took unofficial ‘work-to-rule’ steps in response to managements’ refusal to extend their contracts in order to make use of the furloughing scheme. Due to the significant share of foreign students, universities in the UK are hard hit by the global pandemic.

In the transport sector, some workers took independent action against a premature lowering of social distancing rules in the London Underground, but this remained an unofficial and minoritarian effort. London bus drivers’ put pressure on management to enforce that the front entry door remained shut during lockdown. In early June, Royal Mail postal workers at Bridgewater depot went on wildcat strike against repressive management tactics against the union. Another more significant rank-and-file initiative was led by a group of construction workers and activists to ‘shut down the sites’ – the high number of Corona casualties in the construction sector are sad evidence of the importance of that campaign.

All in all there were only a few open wildcat strikes during the lockdown, in particular amongst more skilled meat processing workers, but not to the extent as we have seen it in the USA – though we don’t want to rely on the mainstream media when it comes to assessing workers’ response to the crisis. We plan a series of interviews with workers about the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on conditions and potentials for collective struggle. As a network, we were in touch with and supported around 40 Pizza Hut workers who lost their job and wages after six branches closed down. The workers put (physical) pressure on their former boss and after some pickets Pizza Hut UK paid most of the workers some of their missing wages and some were later furloughed. Local mutual aid groups, normally more of a charity effort, offered to support the struggling workers. We were also in touch with two groups of Amazon drivers at different sites, who both reported an increase in the workload and said that a significant portion of the 200 drivers on their sites would be up for taking steps. Things are definitely brewing.

In the coming months we will see two conflicting tendencies creating an increasing tension around the question of the wage. On one hand, the low waged workers in the ‘essential industries’ will come out of the Covid-19 lockdown with perhaps more confidence, as they have experienced how dependent society is on their labour. On the other hand, the increase in unemployment will generally help the bosses to put further pressure on wages. As working class communists we have to understand the actual experiences and shifts of power in the workplaces during the lockdown and during the process of it being lifted.

8. The movement against racist police violence

There were several large protests in the UK from which the official left was largely absent. The marches at least in London and Bristol were dominated by young working class people with self-made placards who were also up for more than the usual marching. The tearing down of a statue of a slave trader became the centre of the culture war, Keir Starmer showed his statesman-like flexibility by both condemning the criminal nature of the protestors and kneeling down performatively for ‘racial equality’.

Both the political elite, the economic representatives (Financial Times, The Economist, Amazon management) and some self-proclaimed representatives of the movement want to reduce it to the question of ‘racial equality’, isolating it from its underlying class content. In Leeds there have been rivalries between different ‘leaders’ of the movement and when a fascist organisation called for protests in London to defend the statue of Churchill the ‘BLM leadership’ managed to call off the planned march against racist police violence in order to avoid clashes. Several ten thousand people had attended the previous marches, so it would have been relatively easy to outnumber the far right. In the end a small group of a few hundred largely working class black and white youth confronted the far right.

It seems difficult to avoid both the trap of ‘black exceptionalism’ within which the leaders want to contain or represent the movement and the trap of empty sloganeering a la ‘working class unite’. Our view on working class issues is largely dominated by sectors and regions where the working class is very mixed and the far right and organised racist politics have little influence. We need the debate with comrades in the UK to get a clearer picture of the situation, as we realise this may not be the case everywhere.

9. Our plans

The current moment needs a deeper immersion of revolutionary politics into the local day-to-day struggles of the working class and at the same time a central debate of the wider global picture. Many forces – from the day-to-day grind to false role-models on the left – tend to rip these two sides apart. We have to tie them together by politics of workers’ inquiry: we need the common UK wide and international debate to grasp the main tendencies of class struggle and verify and further develop these ideas by confronting them with the local conditions of struggle through practical engagement.

We think that in the coming months there will be an increased pressure on wages, both from below and above. Essential and low waged workers will come out of the lock-down embolded, as they have seen how dependent wider society and business are on their otherwise invisible labour. This pressure from below is countered by pressure from above through rising unemployment and bosses attempts to use the crisis in their favour – see, for example, the British Airways job cut plans. We want to understand in detail how the power relations at work have changed during the lock-down. For that purpose we will start an interview series with workers from various sectors – we will try to share the outcome of these interviews with workers in our localities.

During the lockdown we have tried to widen the debate about a UK wide network of local working class initiatives and revolutionary strategy. Some of our discussions and plans for a conference in November are documented here:

http://www.letsgetrooted.wordpress.com

If you are interested in taking part in the process, please drop us a line:

letsgetrooted@protonmail.com

[1]

https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/corona-crisis-can-workers-fight-back-against-the-jobs-vs-health-trap/

https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/workers-act-now-or-pay-later-tune-in-and-sick-out/

[2]

https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2020/06/22/crisis-in-the-air-where-are-the-workers-voices/

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