Friday, December 18, 2020

Coming to terms with COVID-19

 by Ben Soton

Blinded by Corona: How the Pandemic Ruined Britain's Health and Wealth and What to Do about It by John Ashton, Gibson Square Publishers 2020. Paperback: 256pp; £12.99. Hardback: 256pp; £40. Kindle: 256pp. file size: 461k; £5.99.

IN THE months and years ahead there will be numerous articles, books and even television dramas about COVID-19. With this in mind, John Aston’s book will be one amongst many critiques of how the pandemic was handled and for the most part mishandled.
    Prof Ashton’s book is without doubt a mine of useful information. The author, who is one of the world’s leading experts on public health, gives accounts of previous plagues starting with the Black Death, which hit Europe in the 14th Century. Cholera came in the 19th century; Spanish Flu after the First World War, and more recently the SARS and Swine Flu pandemics of the early 21st Century.
    The book lists the Tory Government’s litany of mistakes and failure to act. These include Boris Johnson’s failure to attend COBRA meetings in the early stages of the pandemic. At the same time David Halpern, the head of the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team, was stating that self-isolation would encourage people to take unnecessary time off work.
    A chapter is devoted to the infamous concept of ‘herd immunity’ as misappropriated and advocated by Dominic Cummings and upheld by the Trump administration and the Brazilian regime, to let the plague run uncontrollably through the population to devastating effect even though, as Prof Ashton explains, the best way to achieve herd immunity is through vaccination. But the Johnson Government’s greatest blunder was ordering the first lockdown too late and then easing it before even its own criteria had been met.
    In terms of which countries to follow in view of our Government’s disastrous response, there have been numerous alternative models. The real left has looked to Democratic Korea (DPRK), which has kept the plague completely out of the country, and Cuba, People’s China and Vietnam, who all acted promptly and have seen a low death toll.
    Cuba and China even sent medical aid to European Union member states such as Italy. The EU’s response was to fine pandemic-ridden Italy for infringements of EU Competition Law. Meanwhile anti-lockdown campaigners talked-up the ‘Swedish model’ – a Nordic version of ‘herd immunity’ that eventually led to the worst death toll in Scandinavia.
    For his part John Ashton prefers the Bahrain model and the effective way in which this oil-rich island kingdom beat back COVID-19. Not sure why he calls this feudal Arab Gulf state a “constitutional monarchy” but perhaps it’s because he’s the Advisor to Bahrain’s COVID Task Force...
    Prof Ashton makes several excellent observations but views the Governments failure largely in administrative terms.
    He cites the downgrading of the position of Public Health Officer in recent years; a position largely a product of Victorian municipalism. In the same vein he also speaks highly of the ground-breaking work of Dr John Snow in dealing with the terrible cholera outbreak in 19th Century London.
    The author, ably assisted by his wife, health specialist Maggi Morris, endorses the demands of the independent SAGE committee. These include strengthening the social safety net for vulnerable groups, the establishment of a sustainable health and social care infrastructure system rooted in the community, and an integrated Health and Social Care System. Sadly, he makes little obvious reference to the ongoing privatisation of the NHS that has been taking place under successive neo-liberal governments.
    This book is an easy read and well worth reading as a useful source of information on the Government’s epic mishandling of the pandemic. It’s available from all high street bookshops and online booksellers.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Light at the end of the tunnel?

The first doses of the coronavirus vaccine have arrived from the Belgian laboratories to kick-start a mass Covid vaccination programme that has raising hopes of a return to some sort of normality by the spring of next year. The Government has secured 40 million doses of the vaccine, enough to treat 20 million people in the coming months. The PfizerBioNTech jab is likely to be speedily followed by the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine that may be approved for NHS use by Christmas.
Health Minister Matt Hancock tells us that a successful rollout would mean lockdown restrictions could end before March. He says he “can't wait” to scrap the three-tier system of coronavirus restrictions and “get back to living by mutual respect and personal responsibility, not laws set in parliament”.
    Well, we’ll wait and see. We’ve heard it all before from the Johnson government that gave us the shambolic “world-beating” track and trace system, the non-existent “oven-ready” Brexit deal with the European Union and the flawed “moon-shot” mass testing scheme that was supposed to reduce the need for social distancing.
    Johnson’s track and trace system failed because it was simply not fit for purpose. Outsourcing it to private contractors caused huge problems while its’ centralised design too often by-passed local public health teams. We cannot afford to repeat this folly with the new vaccines.
    The TUC is calling on the Government to take urgent steps to ensure the effective take up and delivery of the coronavirus vaccine. First of all local public health teams must be empowered to take the lead in co-ordination the vaccination programme. The supply chain must be improved through direct state intervention. The jabs must only be administered by trained health-care staff. National campaigns must be launched to encourage the public take up of the jab and build public confidence and trust in the anti-Covid operation.
    The TUC argues that a high level of engagement and compliance will be essential for the vaccination programme to be successful and that trust and confidence in the vaccination system is most likely to be maximised by a system designed and led by public health professionals.
    Meanwhile Richard Burgon, the secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, says: “After an incredibly bleak year, the coronavirus vaccines offer a ray of hope that 2021 can bring a return of something resembling normality. But it will be many months before the vaccines have been distributed widely. Until then, Labour needs to step up its opposition to force the government to adopt a new strategy. We can’t go on with months more of the government’s reckless approach. That has already led to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths and one of the deepest downturns of any major economy”.
    Inoculating virtually the entire population will, in any case, take us well into next year. At the moment the only way we can drive down the rate of infection is through the lockdowns and other public health measures that we’ve lived through for the best part of this year. If we want to avoid a dreaded winter “third wave” the emergency must continue and the Government must maintain and expand the furlough and business support schemes to stave of mass unemployment.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Tiers for Fears

The second national lockdown has ended with the news of a dramatic fall in the Covid-19 infection rate throughout the country and the start of a vaccination programme that will, hopefully, turn the tide in the battle against the coronavirus plague.
     But hundreds of people are still dying every day and lockdowns supported by the Government’s third-rate track and trace service will remain the only way to combat the plague until the vaccine gets out to the vast majority of the population
     The Health Minister, Matt Hancock, somewhat optimistically says Britain will be through Covid-19 "by spring" after the first people are given vaccines from Monday while Boris Johnson, with uncharacteristic caution warns us not to get our hopes up for getting the new coronavirus vaccine soon.
     The roll-out will start with the vulnerable care home staff and residents and then cover the rest of the population in stages starting with the over 80s. There’s talk within the corridors of power of a return to normality by next spring. That clearly depends on the efficacy of the vaccine.
     Whatever happens the “normality” of the post-coronavirus environment will largely depend on the strength of the labour movement. The unions have shown their willingness to work with the Government to protect health and jobs during the emergency. Whether this will continue clearly depends on the Johnson government’s willingness to continue the consultation process with organised labour.

tackling unemployment

Young workers have been hit hard by the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis. They have experienced the highest rates of redundancy, largest falls in employment, highest rates of furlough with reduced pay, largest falls in weekly pay, and the largest falls in hours worked. The lockdowns have also led to significant job losses in sectors like hospitality and leisure which employ many young workers.
     The Government’s Kickstart employment scheme has got off to a shaky start. Though supported, at least in principle, by the TUC, the scheme is just a rehash of old cheap labour work schemes like Labour’s Youth Opportunities Programme that began in the Wilson-Callaghan era of the 1970s and its successors like the Tory Youth Training Scheme in 1983 and the Blair’s New Deal “workfare” programme that began in 1998.
     The problem hasn’t been totally ignored by Labour. Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary recently said that: ““…latest figures show the Government’s Kickstart scheme is failing to deliver for young people, creating opportunities for just 3 per cent of the 600,000 young people unemployed. The Government must be much more ambitious if we are to prevent a generation scarred by long term unemployment. It is worrying that months into this jobs crisis we still have no plan from this Government to tackle rising unemployment and get Britain back to work”.
     But these days Labour’s alternative amounts to little more than claiming that they can run the economy on its existing lines more efficiently than the Conservatives. This was the mantra of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown during a boom that Brown thought would last forever. It’s a mantra that has been repeated by every successive leader of the Labour Party, apart from Jeremy Corbyn, despite the fact that we have not even recovered from the slump of 2007.
    But we are not, as the Tories and Blairites claim, all in it together nor do we have a stake in ensuring that capitalism survives. There’s no trickle‑down effect. All that workers get from the capitalist table is the crumbs, so while capitalism survives there will always be a fight to increase and defend the share that workers get from capitalism. But in the long term the only way to ensure that this share is maintained and improved, and not to have to defend it time and time again, is by fighting for working class state power, the dictatorship of the proletariat.
    It’s either them or us; the workers or the bosses. The alternative to working class state power is increasing exploitation, racial and communal strife, rapid growth in crime, drug trafficking, violence and conflict from local to international levels. The capitalists must not be allowed to destroy society. It is they who must be supplanted.

Axes to grind

by Ben Soton

Small Axe (2020). TV mini-series of five 60-minute episodes on BBC1, Sundays at 9pm; currently also available on BBC iPlayer. Series Director: Steve McQueen.

Small Axe, BBC1’s latest Sunday night drama, is a series of feature-length stories covering the struggles of the West Indian community in Britain. Obviously, a response to this summer’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, I can already hear those of a racist persuasion crying about the BBC getting on the bandwagon. This should be seen in a positive light however, namely would these programmes have been made had it not been for this year’s wave of protest?
The work of director Steve McQueen, the drama covers issues from police harassment to the West Indian music scene. The series successfully depicts the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, which is gradually fading from memory. The drama does not pull any punches about the West Indian community, in particular the issue of domestic violence towards women and the use of soft drugs.
    Episode I, Mangrove, covers the issue of police harassment of the black community. This episode centred around the Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill, which was subject to continuous police harassment by the Metropolitan Police. The restaurant was regularly raided on spurious grounds and issued with fines for minor infractions. Fed up with continuous harassment, members of Notting Hill’s black community marched on Notting Hill police station to protest. Those later arrested with riot and affray later became known as the Mangrove Nine.
     Episode II, Lovers Rock, depicts the story of a young black woman caught between white racists and over amorous men from her own community. This episode largely focusses on the West Indian music scene. With an almost entirely black cast, it depicts the tensions within as well as the customs of that community.
    Episode III, Red, White and Blue, on the other hand, covers the experience of a young black man who joins the Metropolitan Police.
     This series of films, along with the BLM protests, comes at a time when many of the gains made by the anti-racist campaigners are, albeit indirectly, coming under attack. This includes the Windrush scandal as well as the hostile environment created toward migrants with its inevitable effect on more established ethnic communities. It was not so long ago however, when the UK was the only state in Europe where an Interior Minister, in the name of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, was forced to resign for racist behaviour. Meanwhile, when far-right activists descended on London to defend (boarded up) statues one of their number was caught urinating on a memorial to a dead police officer. It’s not all doom and gloom but time to remain vigilant.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Blowing in the wind

Boris Johnson has clearly turned indecision into a fine art. He refuses to sack Priti Patel over the “bullying” scandal whilst at the same time letting his minions brief the media of his intention to downgrade her at the next Government reshuffle in the New Year. The Home Office scandal has already led to the resignation of the Government’s independent adviser, Sir Alex Allen, a retired civil service mandarin whose report concluded that Ms Patel's approach “amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying”.
There’s no doubt that Priti Patel did breach ministerial standards. She’s got form on this. Three years ago a former aide received a £25,000 pay-out from the government after claiming she was bullied by Priti Patel who was then employment minister. In February, Sir Philip Rutnam, the Home Office's most senior official, resigned alleging that Ms Patel's conduct towards staff included “swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands”.
Far from being an exclusively fascist virtue bullying is, in fact, a vital part of capitalist culture. Until the late 1960s it was the basis of discipline at school from the teachers down to the prefects and their class-room toadies. It remains the principle behind order in the armed forces throughout the bourgeois world. In factories and offices it’s called “Management’s right to manage”, which can only be mitigated by strong union organisation.
Whilst Johnson needs as many friends as he can get at the top table as his Government faces an uncertain future now that Trump’s gone, the question of bullying goes right to the heart of the psyche of the ruling class.

counting the days

 What has Sir Keir Starmer achieved since he won the Labour leadership contest in April? Absolutely nothing apart from getting away with the continued persecution of former leader Jeremy Corbyn and encouraging a wave of Blairite purges in the constituencies.
    Starmer said he would continue along Corbyn’s path. He said he would fight austerity and “unify” the party. Instead, he’s taken the bogus “anti-Semitism” campaign to new ludicrous heights to drive the Corbynistas out of the Labour party.     His “ten pledge” programme has long been forgotten. The only “unity” Starmer wants is with the ageing Blairites who still sit in the House of Commons, and the only fight Starmer’s led is against Jeremy Corbyn and those who backed him when he was at the helm.
    Though the Johnson government is useless and incompetent it still tops Labour in the opinion polls and barring a miracle Labour looks set for disaster at the local and regional elections next year.
    How long can Starmer last as Labour’s leader? Whilst the answer is clearly for as long as the membership is prepared to put up with him, his days must surely be numbered.

America’s back

US President-elect Joe Biden tells the world that “America is back, ready to lead the world”, but sadly it never went away in the first place. Sure Trump talked about “America First” and made some token troop withdrawals in Afghanistan and the Middle East, but the great “deal-maker” achieved nothing on the international arena apart from strengthening the position of Zionist Israel in the Middle East.
    Nor can we expect much from Biden. The popular vote that swept Biden into the White House may develop into a mass movement to halt American aggression in the future. We’ll see. Hopefully the new Biden team will put aside old dreams of regime change and world domination and focus on tackling the coronavirus plague that is sweeping through America unchecked at the moment. We can well do without the leadership of US imperialism, Trump-style or otherwise.

Monday, November 23, 2020

So long Dominic Cummings

As the Trump era ends in acrimony in Washington the waves of discontent ripple across the Atlantic. None of us will shed a tear at the departure of Dominic Cummings or his shadowy side-kick Lee Cain from the corridors of power. The loathsome Rasputin-like adviser who seemed pull all the strings in the Johnson government has now gone. Some say that this is largely down to disagreements with Boris Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds. Others suspect that the ousting of two of the most prominent Leavers in the Tory camp has more to do with Johnson’s need to appease the new Biden administration.
    Boris Johnson knows that Joe Biden’s victory means the end of his dream of trans-Atlantic free-trade deal to replace the Treaty of Rome. The Brexit transitional period ends at the end of the year and without an agreement with Brussels Johnson’s options, within the parameters set by the ruling class, are limited.
    A “no deal” Brexit would clear the decks for free trade agreements with People’s China, India and Russia that would easily off-set any losses sustained from departing from the European Union. But there’s little enthusiasm within the Establishment for anything that could jeopardise British imperialism’s existing relationships with American and Franco-German imperialism.
    Cummings, whose departure was welcomed by the Tory grandees, stood in the way of any reset of the British position toward the European Union. Now he can write his book…

Corbyn’s reinstatement

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party membership has been restored in return for an appeasing statement following efforts by Unite and some left social-democratic MPs to end the crisis. The Corbynistas say this is a climb-down by Sir Keir Starmer, Corbyn’s ineffectual successor, and a victory for the Labour left. But this “victory” came at a price and it was hardly decisive.
     Instead of challenging the reactionary nonsense of the Zionists and Blairites Corbyn plays into his enemies’ hands when he says that “concerns about anti-semitism [within the Labour Party] are neither ‘exaggerated’ nor ‘overstated’”. But even that isn’t enough for the Blairite bloc that want him and all his followers out of the Labour Party. Corbyn remains excluded from the Parliamentary Labour Party and the hate campaign will continue reaction unabated.
    At every step of the way, the left around Jeremy Corbyn have refused to challenge the basis of the accusations or defend the right to speak out for Palestine. Instead they have made concession after concession, and apology after apology.
    Rank and file opposition to the Blairites and Zionists inside the labour movement is the only way we can combat the lies and filth of the bourgeois media.
    Marxists have always repudiated the theory and practice of Zionism. In1903, Lenin himself said that the concept itself of a Jewish nation had become a “Zionist idea absolutely false and essentially reactionary”.
     The Bolshevik leader exposed the reactionary essence of Zionism, emphasising that its dogmas are reactionary, false and contrary to the interests of the Jewish proletariat. He criticised the Zionists’ theses concerning the unique nature of the Jewish people, the alleged absence of class differences amongst the Jews and the imaginary communality of their interests, explaining that such assertions aimed to distract the Jewish toiling masses from the proletariat’s common class struggle. Lenin was right then and he is right now!

Friday, November 20, 2020

A labour of love

 by Ben Soton

Love and Labour: Red-Button Years: Volume 1 by Ken Fuller. Independently published, 2020. Paperback: 580 pages; £15. ISBN-10: 1699092788, ISBN-13: 978-1699092781.Kindle: 930 pages; £5.99.

When this rather large novel (almost 600 pages in total) arrived on my doorstep I was admittedly not looking forward to reading it. As I read it, however, I was pleasantly surprised. What could be described as Ragged Trousered Philanthropists meets On the Buses, it begins in 1913 and takes us through the First World War, ending in 1917.
    Within the first few pages the author brings Late Edwardian England back to life. This was the world of Lyons’ Coffee Houses, stratified dress codes, a time when someone’s social position could be established by what they wore around their neck, and of course growing industrial militancy, which is a major feature of Love and Labour.
    The activities of the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers, also known as the Red Button Union, is the central to the novel. Although considerable space is taken up by accounts of union meetings, a lot can be learnt from the novel. For instance, bus drivers and conductors were licensed by the police at the time.
    A major feature of the book is the romance between Dorothy Bridgeman, a middle-class left-wing activist, and Mickey Rice, a bus driver also involved in socialist politics and trade unionism. Several historical figures appear in the novel, such as Sylvia Pankhurst and Theodore Rothstein. Older readers may remember the late Andrew Rothstein – a prominent Marxist theoretician and Theodore’s son, who briefly appears in the novel.
    As World War I approaches, the novel covers the differences within the Labour movement over the conflict. Both Rothstein, a leading member of British Socialist Party, and Sylvia Pankhurst, a leader of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, took an anti-war position. The main characters in the novel adhere to this line. Bridgeman, a supporter of female suffrage, becomes a close collaborator of Sylvia Pankhurst, who was expelled by her mother Emeline from the more reactionary Women’s Social and Political Union for taking a socialist direction.
    The author was a London bus driver for 11 years, following which he was a full-time officer in the old TGWU transport union for a further 20 years before retiring in 2003. Although rather long, Love and Labour is an easy read and a pleasant way to learn socialist history through the medium of a novel. It is Ken Fuller’s first historical novel and I hope it is not the last. With the festive season approaching, it could be a good stocking filler.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Ugly American

Donald Trump sits in the White House refusing to face reality as power ebbs away to Joe Biden, the victor in last week’s US presidential elections. Biden’s victory may not be a great advance for the American people – he is after-all a trusted pair of hands who can be relied on to do the bidding of the American establishment – but it certainly was a defeat for Trump.
    Implausibly depicting the Democrats as dangerous “reds” and playing the race card Trump pulled out all the stops in the last days of his campaign to get the Republican vote out. And though he succeeded in mobilising record numbers of supporters throughout the country the Republicans were overwhelmed by even larger numbers who hate Trump and all that he stands for.
    Trump’s apologists in Europe are mainly found amongst the ranks of the far-right along those deluded “left” poseurs who defend him on the grounds that he, unlike his predecessors, didn’t start any new wars during his four years in the White House. This is, in fact, true. What is equally true is that Trump did nothing to halt the conflicts he inherited from the Obama administration.
    American troops still occupy parts of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Trump tightened the blockade against the Islamic Republic of Iran and restored many of the sanctions that Barack Obama lifted when he established diplomatic relations with Cuba. His summit talks with Democratic Korean leader Kim Jong Un may have slightly reduced tension on the Korean peninsula but in the long term that achieved nothing because Trump was unwilling or unable to deliver on any of the steps towards normalisation that he promised to take at these high-level meetings.
     Trump sanctioned the assassination of General Soleimani, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander killed in a targeted US drone strike in January and threw his weight behind a bogus Middle East peace plan to allow Israel to illegally annex Arab Jerusalem and other parts of the occupied West Bank coveted by the Zionists.
     While no-one expects much from Biden we can expect some change of direction next year. Some fear that Biden will continue where Obama left off in Syria and Ukraine. But though the shadowy figures within the US that the Americans call the “deep state” will undoubtedly be clamouring for more “regime change” Biden’s first priority must be to tackle the coronavirus plague that is sweeping unchecked throughout the USA.
    The president-elect says another of his priorities will be to revive the Iran nuclear deal
and return to the other international treaties that Trump recklessly tore up during his term of office. If he does that will go some way to easing tension in the Middle East.
    No one is going to miss Trump in the region apart from Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli leader who was backed to the hilt by the Trump administration, and a handful of feudal Arab oil princes who will in any case do the bidding of US imperialism regardless of who sits in the Oval Office at any given time.
    But there may be trouble ahead for Boris Johnson. Biden’s already warned Johnson that he can kiss goodbye to his “Treaty of Washington” trade deal if Brexit undermines the Northern Ireland peace process and the Remainers are hoping to exploit the new situation to prolong the Brexit transition period or even replace Johnson with a more Europhile leader.
It doesn’t augur well for Johnson in the next few months.