The United Kingdom (UK) has become a major COVID-19 hotspot due to the initial complacency and negligence shown by the Tory government in the country with the lack of necessary precautions. As a result, the UK has been seriously impacted by the pandemic. By May 23, over 266,590 people contracted the disease in the UK and more than 37,130 died. Peoples Dispatch spoke to Rob Griffiths, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Britain, about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the British working class, the government’s response to the crisis, as well as the CPB’s initiatives and opinion on the advancement of working-class politics in the country.
Peoples Dispatch: How has COVID-19 impacted the UK? In your opinion, how effective has been the Tory government’s intervention in tackling the crisis?
Robert Griffiths: Britain has the third-highest death rate per head of population in the world and is also in the worst ten when it comes to infection and recovery rates, which cannot be explained wholly or even mainly in terms of significant factors such as population density and age profile. Being an international passenger travel hub with many foreign visitors has also been a factor. But. above all, the late and inadequate measures of the British government to take account of these factors have made our infection, recovery, and death rates much worse. Travel bans, quarantine, and lock-down measures should have been put in place weeks earlier and even now the levels of testing are hopelessly inadequate while the tracing system remains non-existent. Ultimately, these shocking failures and inadequacies are rooted in a system dominated by capitalist ownership, the profit-motive and market forces in place of an economy based on public ownership, economic planning, and social need.
PD: How coherent is the National Health Service (NHS) in the fight against COVID-19? Is there enough backing by the government to the NHS?
RG: Our National Health Service staff have responded with selfless dedication and courage to the pandemic. But from the beginning they did not have the personal protective equipment (PPE), the intensive care beds, or the ventilators required to cope with the outbreak. Successive Tory governments refused to learn the lessons from previous pandemic emergency exercises such as Cygnus (2016) by investing in these areas. The longer-term turn of the British economy away from manufacturing meant that there was not the capacity at the start of the current outbreak to ensure the production of respiratory masks, ventilators, testing kits and the like on the huge scale necessary. Government underfunding and the privatization of social care for the elderly meant that the rapid spread of the pandemic through care homes was ignored, even after the care workers had sounded the first alarm. We will see how sincere the government’s current proclamations of support for the NHS are when they publish their new plans for pay and other expenditure and investment in the service.
PD: What has been the impact of COVID-19 on the British working class? What are the policies initiated by the government on this front?
RG: The government’s decisions from mid-March to close many types of workplace and subsidize the incomes of laid-off workers and the self-employed have been late, unclear, fragmentary, and incomplete. Companies have been offered generous subsidies to maintain employment levels, but now we are seeing some big employers using this pandemic to rationalize their operations and sack hundreds of thousands of workers. Of course, they will expect their surviving workforce to work even harder for lower wages, longer hours, and worse pension plans when the economy really begins to pick up again.
In the meantime, there is growing pressure on workers from the Tory government and big business to work in unsafe conditions or to return to ‘normal’ employment patterns at the earliest possible time. Unions are right to resist this, and the Communist Party’s Open Letter to All Working People is urging workers to collectively stop the job where employers are trying to impose working practices made unsafe by the current emergency.
PD: What is your take on the recent leadership change in the Labour Party? In your opinion, what are the major reasons for the defeat of the Labour party in the UK general elections of December 2019?
RG: There can be no doubt about the negative impact on public opinion of the remorseless attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership not only from the right-wing press in Britain but also in the so-called ‘liberal’ media such as the BBC, Channel Four News and – as viciously as anywhere else – the Guardian newspaper. This was predictable, given his record as a socialist and anti-imperialist MP. But even he did not expect such large-scale and persistent treachery by so many anti-socialist, pro-imperialist, pro-nuclear weapons, pro-NATO and pro-EU Labour MPs.
In the face of this onslaught, some of his closest allies weakened, and the Labour Party failed to stick to its 2017 General Election pledge to honor the EU referendum result by implementing the voters’ decision to leave the pro-big business, pro-NATO EU. The actions of many Labour MPs to frustrate Brexit in the Westminster parliament, followed by the party’s new policy for a Labour government to negotiate a fresh exit deal with the EU – and then campaign against it in a second referendum – helped drive away millions of working-class Labour voters in 2019. Labour lost 54 seats to the Tories in last December’s General Election, many of them marginal, some previously Labour strongholds – but 52 of them were also seats where the majority of voters had opposed EU membership in the 2016 referendum.
PD: The CPB has supported the left-wing in the Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Now onwards, is there any scope in supporting such parties or is it time for the British left to reconfigure radically on a different path?
RG: The change of Labour Party leadership undoubtedly represents a significant turn to the right in that party and a defeat for the left in the labour movement. Yet Labour remains by far the main electoral vehicle for that movement and – except in Scotland for the time being – for working-class electors.
The political battle between left and right in the working-class movement is reflected in the Labour Party. That is why there is no point in wishing – against the Communist Party’s 100 years experience of political class struggle – that the Labour Party would go away, or imagining that its position in elections, government and the political arena at every level and in every nation of Britain will collapse anytime soon.
However, recent experience has also demonstrated once again the limits of social-democracy and how difficult if not impossible it is to transform the Labour Party into a vehicle for socialism. Changing the composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party, for a start, would be an enormous task requiring a massive and durable upsurge in an extra-parliamentary struggle in which the leading role of a much bigger and more influential Communist Party would be essential. That is the CPB’s message today, projected in the new edition of our program Britain’s Road to Socialism, which is now helping to produce the highest level of recruitment since the mass popular campaign against the Iraq War. That’s why this weekend we are holding ten online classes for new and prospective members in England, Scotland, and Wales. The programmatic consistency and growth of the Communist Party contrast with the inconsistency, confusion, and division within almost every other political formation on the left in Britain at the moment.
PD: What is your preliminary appraisal of Britain out of the EU? What has been its initial impact on society and what is the CPB’s plan of action for interventions in this post-EU British society?
RG: Backed by powerful sections of the big business, state, and political establishment in Britain, EU supporters who reject the democratic verdict of 2016 have continued to predict catastrophe as a result of the Brexit result. Their forecasts of an immediate slump, mass unemployment, destitution, food shortages, racial violence, and cultural isolation had all failed to materialize before the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Now they are trying to blame Brexit for the government failures in the coronavirus crisis and the extent of the damage it is doing to the British economy. They would better serve the working class by putting pressure on the Tory government and the EU to negotiate future relations that respect and implement a real Brexit. That would mean restoring full sovereignty over policy-making to the Westminster parliament and government – much of which could then be devolved to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments as planned – while establishing future economic, trading, social and cultural relations between Britain and the EU that are mutually beneficial for all our peoples. But any new arrangements must not impede the plans of future British governments to pursue progressive and anti-capitalist policies at home and an independent foreign and defense policy based on solidarity and mutual respect between peoples around the world.
More urgently, the Communist Party is urging left, labor movement, progressive and community organizations to unite and prepare to resist the inevitable ruling-class offensive to make the working class pay the cost of the emergency anti-COVID measures that are currently quadrupling British government borrowing on the capitalist bond markets. By building this mass movement along with the trade unions and the People’s Assembly, we will also create the basis for going on the offensive and bringing down this reactionary, anti-people, anti-working class regime we have in Britain at the moment.