Peter Manson reports on last weekend’s discussions on the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing witch-hunt in Labour Party
The May 9 online aggregate meeting of CPGB and Labour Party Marxists comrades discussed two central questions: first, the likely economic and political impact of the Covid-19 pandemic; and, secondly, the ongoing Labour Party witch-hunt following the election of Keir Starmer as leader.
First up was Mike Macnair of the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee on Covid-19, who pointed to the “total inadequacy” of resources initially allocated to combat the pandemic, particularly in Britain. The government had at first attempted to “spread the deaths over a longer period” in the hope that this would help disguise that lack of resources to some extent.
But the inadequacy of personal protective equipment and so on meant that hospitals had actually helped spread the virus, including into care homes. However, from the point of view of the bourgeoisie the high death rate amongst the elderly was beneficial: it would help ease the problem of funding social care and pensions. But overall, of course, the pandemic is having, and will continue to have, a hugely damaging impact. Several businesses - for example, airlines - are now “utterly unsustainable” and whole sectors will be operating within “extremely narrow margins”. We should expect to see unemployment soar still further.
Comrade Macnair said that the economic crash will necessarily mean a redistribution of assets: many firms were facing bankruptcy and wide numbers of individual borrowers would now be unable to repay their debts. In the midst of this, predators would continue to operate and it was clear that government action against them will be totally inadequate. Would it implement rent control measures? Very unlikely.
He described his conclusions about the probable long-term consequences as a “dark, but realistic picture”, in which we could expect the working class to be made “significantly worse off in advanced capitalist countries”. Added to which, the tendency towards overt nationalism has been exacerbated and we will see the breakdown of international relations in various forms - this is already happening, he said, but that tendency will be intensified. In fact an increase in hostility and even war between major powers was entirely possible. This drive towards conflict results in part from the business cycle itself, but it was undoubtedly being exacerbated in current circumstances.
There was no doubt that all this posed big challenges to the working class, comrade Macnair concluded, and made the need for political leadership a hugely important question.
First to speak from the floor was Sarah Stewart, who commented on the increased jingoism comrade Macnair had mentioned. This was all the more apparent on VE Day, but she also noted the different forms of nationalism being promoted in Scotland and Wales.
She was followed by Bob Paul, who pointed out how the initial policy of ‘herd immunity’ had meant a delay in the lockdown. But for this incompetence contact tracing could have begun much earlier. But we had seen “magnificent levels of cooperation amongst the working class”, although that was being used by our rulers for their own purposes.
Next up was Farzad Kamangar, who said that the state will surely come under enormous pressure, as workers’ discontent starts to rise. Europe had already faced huge problems as a result of immigration and in addition the United States could now be described as a “sick hegemonic power” - in that sense Covid-19 could turn out to be to China’s advantage. Comrade Kamangar agreed that general anger amongst the population would lead to increased xenophobia.
Phil Kent pointed to the “enormous pressure” on capital to restart production - something the state would be unable to resist. Perhaps there would have to be a second ‘Marshall Plan’, he said - which of necessity would be somewhat bigger than the original version.
He was followed by James Harvey, who also looked at the problems for capitalism. What would the crisis do in terms of finance capital? Would there now be a return to productive capital? Looking overseas, he pointed to the problems now faced by the European Union. In Hungary, for example, Viktor Orbán was now ruling by decree, but Hungary is still very much in the EU. Can the EU still act as a coherent bloc? He referred to the possibility of another “1945 moment” - with nostalgia not for the days of empire, but for the welfare state. In a sense welfarism might be linked to “popular patriotism”, he thought.
Next to speak was another PCC member, Jack Conrad, who was “not convinced” that the response to the crisis was in some way pre-planned, as he believed comrade Macnair might be implying. After all, Boris Johnson himself had been struck by the virus and it was a case of a “huge cock-up” - the UK and US in particular had handled it abominably. Clearly, though, the NHS has become a focus for national and even class pride. People express their solidarity with NHS workers. That makes it harder for the Tories to attack or undermine it. There is also the role of state power, as opposed to the market. It is state power that has delivered tests, extra hospitals, saved jobs, saved lives. The market could have done none of that. Coronasocialism shows that intractable problems such as rough sleeping and homelessness could be solved at a stroke. So the picture is not completely bleak, he said: there are “definite shafts of light”.
Gaby Rubin agreed: for a start she thought people would now see more clearly how essential, for instance, the NHS is and hopefully this would have political repercussions.
Replying to the debate, comrade Macnair made a clarification: he agreed that the crisis had not been pre-planned, but it was a case of “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste”: the Tories had been attempting to manage the news and work out how to make gains. In that sense the government’s delay in implementing the lockdown had been part of its “news management”: after all, it had not been in a position to implement the necessary measures. But now the easing of the lockdown would inevitably lead to a rise in deaths, which would be spread over a longer period.
He concluded by agreeing that, yes, there may be “daylight ahead” for the working class, but it was difficult to see at the moment what form a resurgence would actually take.
Introducing the second session, comrade Jack Conrad began by stating that the witch-hunt had always been far wider than just getting rid of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. It was mainly related to the central role of Israel in the Middle East from the US point of view and the need not only to rehabilitate Israel, but to disarm the anti-war movement in the context of Donald Trump’s ‘deal of the century’, which is intended to legitimise the annexation of Palestinian land.
Comrade Conrad reminded the meeting that all three candidates for the Labour leadership - including ‘leftwinger’ Rebecca Long-Bailey - had signed up to the “10 commandments”: ie, the ‘10 pledges’ which the Board of Deputies of British Jews demanded the Labour Party accept to “begin healing its relationship with the Jewish community”. This included the outsourcing of the party’s investigation into cases of alleged ‘anti-Semitism’ and the insistence that there must be no platform for members expelled or even suspended following such allegations. This meant the targeting of anti-war figures.
However, following the attack on Diane Abbott and Bell Ribeiro-Addy for speaking at an online meeting where two expelled Labour members were present, Labour Against the Witchhunt was completely wrong to call for “solidarity” with the MPs. They had, after all, defended themselves by stating they did not know who was in the meeting. A statement was issued on their behalf making it clear that they would not have taken part if they had known the two expelled comrades were present. This is to bow before, to legitimise, the witch-hunt.
Then there was the demand by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism for action to be taken against Salma Yaqoob - patron of the Stop the War Coalition and former leader of Respect, who is now on the Labour Party career ladder - for having agreed to share a platform with expelled member Tony Greenstein at an STWC local event. In its rush to defend Yaqoob, the STWC issued a statement which in effect joined in with the condemnation of comrade Greenstein.
There is a huge pressure to keep heads down, to gag oneself, to turn the victims of the witch-hunt into non-persons. The more people behave in that way, the easier it is for the witch-hunt to target and intimidate.
The attack on the two MPs happened under ‘left’ general secretary Jennie Formby, so, with the forthcoming appointment of her replacement, we can expect the witch-hunt to be intensified under Starmer. Comrade Conrad wondered whether John McDonnell would now turn up at the June 27 online conference of the Labour Representation Committee, of which he is president. After all, expelled Labour members such as Jackie Walker will be sure to attend.
I was the first to speak in the following discussion and pointed to the pathetic nature not only of the attack on the two MPs, but of their cowardly response. But this was typical of the Labour soft left. For example, in the recent leaked report on the party’s handling of anti-Semitism allegations under previous general secretary Iain McNicol, the leftwing authors accepted as a given the absurd claim that the party is rife with anti-Semites and tried to turn the tables on the right by alleging that under McNicol it had deliberately not done enough to root it out, sitting on various cases in order to discredit Jeremy Corbyn.
Comrade Rubin reminded comrades that the BoD does not “speak for all Jews” - in fact a large number of Labour’s Jewish members support the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Labour. Comrade Kamangar said that the Labour left had also played along with the right’s agenda by accusing the BoD of racism for its targeting of two black women MPs: this helped obscure what the campaign is all about.
Comrade Macnair said that, while the false ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign appeared to be the work of the likes of the BoD, in reality it was the British state itself which was behind it. He also questioned putting “resources” into the organisations likes of the Labour Left Alliance. The problem with the LLA is that it is a broad front. There is certainly the danger that comrades in the Labour Party might be tempted to “keep schtum” for the sake of maintaining unity instead of taking a principled stance.
James Harvey, however, gave the example of an LPM comrade who had recently spoken at an LLA meeting and had noted the lack of understanding of some when the comrade had referred to the Labour Party as a “site for struggle” and had opposed the automatic call for a Labour government. We should argue our case, he said: there was “room to work there”, even though there were not huge numbers likely to be influenced by us.
In response to this Stan Keable of LPM pointed out that at the LLA conference in February there had in fact been a large minority in favour of the constitution drafted by LPM. So the LLA should be considered as “fertile ground” - but we must insist on putting forward our own views, of course.
Responding to the debate, comrade Conrad was totally in favour of LPM “maintaining its intervention”. He saw “no problem” in using any available platform. But, of course, comrades must stand hard and fast on matters of principle.
He concluded by arguing that the likes of Stop the War were “scabbing on all of us”, not just Tony Greenstein. We must fight back against the witch-hunt and make no concessions to those driving it forward.