Empty classrooms, empty pockets

Behind the aircraft

The left is in danger of playing a conservative role over Covid-19. Our aim should be to set the agenda, argues Mike Macnair

Getting behind the aircraft: This pitfall can be caused by allowing events or the situation to control pilot actions. A constant state of surprise at what happens next may be exhibited when the pilot is getting behind the aircraft.

- US Federal Aviation Authority Pilot’s handbook of aeronautical knowledge

We are now moving into a situation where governments, including in the UK, are seeking to take society out of lockdown; and contemplating what should be done about the longer-term consequences of the economic crash they created through its implementation.

The far left’s agenda, however, is still dominated by hanging on to the lockdown; and in particular by the claim that reopening schools remains unsafe and that the solution is workers’ control, or teacher-parent control of reopening. Thus Socialist Worker, though this week dominated by the US uprising over the police killing of George Floyd, still finds space for ‘Defy Johnson’s reckless wider school reopening that will mean more deaths’ (June 2). The Socialist (May 28) under the front page headline, ‘Reckless lying cheats’, makes front-page demands for ‘No return to school and work unless safety guaranteed’ and ‘Workers’ and trade union control of workplace safety’. Solidarity (May 26) has as its main front-page headline, ‘Support the school workers’ and like The Socialist demands ‘workers’ control of reopenings’. Rob Owen of Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21) argued on May 30 “that the NEU has won a convincing, but not complete, victory over the government” - certainly an overstatement.1

It is not only the far left. Keir Starmer’s attack on Boris Johnson ‘winging it’ forms part of a related narrative - that lockdown should only be lifted in a highly controlled way.2

There is a real danger that this approach is a case of ‘getting behind the aircraft’. It is entirely possible that the far left is attempting to lead teachers - a group among which it has significant influence - into a confrontation which will end in a seriously demoralising defeat, which makes other, more potentially successful, forms of opposition to the government’s policies less likely to work.

I say this with some hesitation. Neither government, nor the local education authorities or schools, seem to have been ‘up for’ an immediate confrontation with teachers and other school workers on June 1. But they and the capitalist media have been working on shifting the mood towards one in which teacher resistance to reopening schools will appear as anti-social pursuit of excessive ‘safety-ism’. And in doing so, it is likely that they will be working with the tide of the general trend of evolution of ‘public opinion’ in relation to the lockdown.

The underlying point is one which goes back to Karl Marx’s famous letter to Ludwig Kugelmann in July 1868: “Every child knows a nation which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks, would perish. …”3 The concrete expression of this point in the present crisis is that there are important groups of workers who cannot avoid working in face-to-face conditions in spite of the infection risks. Health workers have been the most prominent case, ‘heroised’ by the mass media - until it became clear that there was a continuing shortage of personal protection equipment, caused (though recognition of this has been very partial) by privatisation and ‘just in time’ management. Once government responsibility for PPE shortages began to be recognised, the salutes for ‘NHS heroes’ started to be toned down.

But the point is equally true of a substantial number of other workers. The most obvious are those in food production, delivery and retail; and Matthew Lynn in The Daily Telegraph (June 2) has started the predictable offensive: “We’d have starved if the supermarkets behaved like schools.” That this is a predictable offensive does not mean that in this case the point is not true. The point is corroborated in a negative way by the episodic reports of Covid-19 clusters in the food production industry.4 The guys who keep the physical infrastructure running in electricity, gas, water, sewers and internet connections are another case of the same sort. And, while quite a lot of other material productive activities can be postponed, there are practical limits on how long they can be postponed.

The UK also has a complication, in that as a country we live to a considerable extent by selling services - especially financial and legal services - overseas: 47% of food consumed in the UK is imported.5 The balance of trade in material goods is usually very bad, though it improved dramatically in the quarter ending January 2020 due to a collapse in imports on machinery etc (ie, practically, in investment in material production), with the balance being offset by a surplus in services.6 While people in financial and legal services can to a considerable extent work from home using online tools, it is almost certain that there are significant productivity losses - especially affecting those who have school-age children at home with them.


Meanwhile, lockdown is also fraying for a different reason. And no, I do not mean Dominic Cummings’ demonstration - and Boris Johnson’s demonstration by backing him - that there is one law for the rich and their governmental-elite hangers-on and another law for the rest of us. The point is that the prolonged maintenance of lockdown is inconsistent with the fundamental social nature of the human species. The problem is by no means as acute as the notorious 19th century experiments with isolation as a means of reforming criminals, which actually produced insanity.7 But it is nonetheless true that holding people in lockdown runs up against the social character of the species, and as such will fray if the attempt is made to hold it for too long - people will just increasingly break the rules. And it can already be seen fraying.8

In this context, it is very unlikely that ‘Support the school workers’ is a slogan which will have much mass purchase. As long as the furlough scheme continued to cover full pay, no doubt a significant number of parents will be willing to stay home with their children. As the pressure increases to return to work and for lockdown lifting, so the pressure against school workers to accept school reopenings on the employers’ terms will continue to increase. If the National Education Union and other unions commit themselves to a fight over this issue, they will find themselves far more politically isolated than the miners were in 1984-85.

The focus of the far left on this - probably doomed - campaign against ending the lockdown takes away from addressing other issues which are far more sharply posed by it. The most transparent example of this is in Solidarity: ‘Support the school workers’ fills the front page; in addition, ‘Make the schools safe’ is a full-page editorial; one and a half column inches is given to the announcement of a new group, ‘Labour Tenants United’, which calls for the cancellation of rent liabilities. The Socialist does not mention the issue at all, while Socialist Worker mentions only student rent arrears.

A much better approach is that of Alan Struthers on the RS21 website, who draws out the fact that the consequences of Covid-19 and lockdown will leave many workers unable to pay rent and meet their basic needs. The chickens on this front will come dramatically home to roost, as the furlough scheme is wound down. Comrade Struthers focuses on the possibility of rent strikes, but the issue is one in which this sort of tactic can be readily combined with political agitation. The failure of government to cancel rent liabilities and mortgage interest for the duration of the lockdown is a very clear demonstration of the particular class character of the Tory Party as the landlords’ and bankers’ party (at the expense of employers, as well as of the workforce).

On the other hand, agitating and taking action on the rent and debt issues poses the question of a society run for human needs rather than for the interests of capital far more sharply than ‘workers’ control’ of the ending of school closures by school workers: because it amounts to a direct interference with the rights of property. This is, of course, precisely the reason that the Tory Party fought a prolonged and devious battle between 1951 and the 1980s to get rid of rent control and to make council housing a ‘less eligibility’ provision only for the paups.

What will happen more generally to the economy after lockdown is lifted? The capitalist media is certainly talking about this, and so is the government. We are in the midst of ferocious lobbying operations in the press (and probably in private) by the aviation and tourist industry against quarantine measures (the government seems to have decided to go ahead, but allowing itself various get-out loopholes), and by these industries and the ‘hospitality industry’ to reduce the recommended ‘social distance’ from two metres to one. In both cases the problem is (as I pointed out in my previous article on the consequences of the outbreak9) that the business models current before lockdown were dependent on high levels of crowding and ‘through-put’. They were, hence, responsible for the spread of the virus at a speed which made it uncontrollable.

More generally, ‘Zack Muddle’ in Solidarity calls for ‘No return to “full CO2 spewing”!’ In doing so, he places himself in line behind 200 ‘UK business leaders’ who have issued a call for a ‘green coronavirus recovery plan’,10 and behind chancellor Rishi Sunak, who has similarly (albeit probably with weasel words) “mentioned carbon capture and storage and offshore wind as industries he wanted to support”.11 But at that, ‘Zack Muddle’ is nearer to being on the political ball than Socialist Worker and The Socialist, whose coverage is completely silent on the issue. What is the far left going to put forward as solutions to the spectacular economic crash which will become increasingly visible as the lockdown is lifted? We do not know - but if what has been argued for the last 10 years is anything to go by, it will be something in the nature of the Keynesian economic stimulus policies which Sunak has told the Financial Times he proposes to adopt.

Setting the agenda

In all of these cases, what happens in politics as a result of ‘getting behind the aircraft’ is to lose the initiative, with the result that the group’s or paper’s actual proposals have decreasing political purchase.

Why has the far left got itself so far ‘behind the aircraft’ on Covid-19? The answer is given by the claims variously described as the ‘transitional method’ or as ‘moderate demands, militant action’. The idea is - as interpreted by modern far-left practice - to mobilise people on the basis of their existing ideas; once they are mobilised, they will then become radicalised (because the practice of collective direct action produces radicalisation). The situation in relation to fears of an early end to lockdown looked, exactly, like a policy which could have mass support (because sections of the media - and Labour leader Keir Starmer - were complaining about it); and one which could be fought through strike action or local workers’ control initiatives, without immediately posing the question of government, and the issue of economic policy after the lockdown.

There is a sense in which this is a leftwing version of Clintonista/Blairite ‘triangulation’: through triangulation the party endeavours to win voter support on the basis of existing ideas; this will enable the party, by forming a government, to introduce by stealth redistributive measures and reforms. In both cases there is no effort to set the agenda of debate; and the result is that that agenda is set by the capitalist media. Hence “events or the situation” control the actions of Labour (via triangulation), and of SWP, SPEW, AWL, etc, etc (via ‘transitional method’ or ‘meeting people where they are’), and politics becomes a succession of unpleasant surprises at what happens next.

What is needed is to have a clear sense of where we want to get to which is not merely the ‘mass strike’ and ‘workers’ councils’ (soviets). With that framework, we can attempt to insert into the political debate the relationship of the elements of our programme to immediate needs and concerns, and to what is in process of developing, but has not yet become obvious.

This approach does not guarantee avoiding becoming ‘behind the aircraft’: this paper (myself included) were pretty clearly caught short in this way by the turn to Hungarian-style rightwing nationalist-populism in the UK and US expressed in the Brexit vote and the Trump victory in the 2016 presidential election. But we at least have a chance of avoiding the problem some of the time.


  1. rs21.org.uk/2020/05/30/johnsons-1-june-plans-in-tatters-how-do-we-build-our-strength.↩︎

  2. ‘Keir Starmer warns PM: get a grip or risk second coronavirus wave’ The Guardian June 3.↩︎

  3. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1868/letters/68_07_11-abs.htm.↩︎

  4. just-food.com/news/coronavirus-live-news-covid-19-and-the-global-food-sector-wednesday-3-june-free-to-read_id143295.aspx.↩︎

  5. gov.uk/government/publications/food-statistics-pocketbook/food-statistics-in-your-pocket-global-and-uk-supply.↩︎

  6. ons.gov.uk/economy/nationalaccounts/balanceofpayments/bulletins/uktrade/january2020. The March figures show a widening of the deficit but come with a ‘health warning’ due to the lockdown impacting ONS’s ability to collect figures: ons.gov.uk/economy/nationalaccounts/balanceofpayments/bulletins/uktrade/march2020.↩︎

  7. H Marland, ‘“Close confinement tells very much upon a man”: prison memoirs, insanity and the late 19th and early 20th century prison’ Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences Vol74, 2019, pp267-91 is a recent discussion of the issue.↩︎

  8. See, for example, R Clark, ‘It is absurd to blame Dominic Cummings for the fact that lockdown is fraying: Many people can see that the rules have served their purpose, while Europe has already begun to reopen’ The Daily Telegraph May 28. Also an aside in R Partington, ‘UK economy faces longer and slower recovery from Covid’ The Guardian May 27: “Illustrating how Britain has reached a crossroads in the crisis after more than two months of harsh government restrictions, data combed from iPhone users’ searches on Apple Maps now points to the lockdown fraying at the edges.”↩︎

  9. ‘Crisis and consequences’, April 23.↩︎

  10. Financial Times June 1; also ‘Top business leaders call on Boris Johnson to set out green recovery plan’ The Guardian June 1.↩︎

  11. ‘Rishi Sunak looks to rebuild economy with plans for big job creation scheme’ Financial Times May 29.↩︎