Shomporko Desk:- I sat shocked on my sofa as Boris Johnson spoke to the country. Workers who can’t work from home were encouraged to go back to work – but given no guidance on how to stay safe.
Millions of jobs are impossible to do while 2 metres apart. Millions of us have been given no protective equipment. But Tanvir, we don’t have to sit on our sofas and take this. When I was not a faculty member, just a student and was on a zero-hour contract, I joined a trade union.
With my union, alongside my workmates, I always had a craving for better working conditions. I will always fight for workers’ interests, and you can do the same by joining a union. Are you not a trade union member? (I wasn’t expecting Trump or Bezos to read this manifesto.) This crisis has proved the strength of workers when we unite – whether you’re a construction worker or a caregiver.
It’s proved the power of having a trade union membership card in your pocket. As part of working with the UCU(University and College Union), I witnessed firsthand how Trade unions fought for and won the furlough scheme. It’s trade unions who are making sure thousands of workers don’t get laid off during this crisis. Not only just the tertiary education but in retail, healthcare, catering, construction and beyond, union representatives are sorting safety measures like protective equipment, hand washing facilities and enough space to social distance.
But we can’t rest until every worker does their job in safe and fair conditions. We are beginning to see the shape of things to come. It is increasingly clear that the Tory government is desperate to drive people back to work, long before Covid-19 infection rates have fallen to a level that could make it a safe thing to do. This is an administration that puts private profit before public health. We can see this in the failures on PPE, testing and tracing. We can see it in the way Boris Johnson misled the Commons after Labour leader Keir Starmer asked about the government’s coronavirus guidance on care homes, where thousands of our elderly have died prematurely.
We can see it in leaks to the press that suggest the key workers we have applauded every Thursday could be rewarded with a pay freeze, something that would be a cynical betrayal of their heroic efforts during the crisis. So, I’m getting increasingly concerned about the longer-term implications of what might lazily be termed the “Diana-fiction” of the NHS – a mass outpouring of sentimental expression, and a sudden, rather revisionist clutching to the national bosom, as exemplified by large-scale charity fund-raising and public (social media) expressions of “support”.
The first problem with this: the NHS is not a charity. It’s a national organization (the clue is very much in the name, here) which is and should be publicly funded via taxation. Treating it as the subject of seasonal/event-driven fundraising efforts undermines the long-standing, democratically-expressed consensus that the NHS is something that everyone should take their fair share of responsibility for funding – not something that you sometimes choose to give money to when you’re feeling particularly soppy about nurses. Second problem: the trend for public “celebration” brings with it an increasingly prevalent portrayal of NHS staff as smiling, benevolent “heroes”.
They do heroic things, but they’re not happy amateurs who put on a uniform when they feel like playing superheroes: they’re highly trained professionals performing a range of difficult, stressful, and sometimes boring tasks in a variety of clinical and non-clinical roles. A sentimentalized portrayal of NHS workers risks undermining their professionalism.(Aside: as others wittier and more articulate than me have pointed out, the Thursday evening “support” events have quickly taken on a grandiose, almost aggressive edge, in much the same way as wearing a poppy in November was once a quietly respectful commemoration of sacrifice but is now a “my poppy’s bigger than yours so I care more about dead soldiers than you do” competition.
The public gestures of support have quickly escalated from being a nice thing to do, into something that people are expected to do – to the point where those who don’t join in are on the verge of being portrayed as granite-faced malcontents who want to see all nurses locked in a cage full of snakes and lions and poo, despite the fact that those people might be sleeping off a hospital nightshift or putting young kids to bed at 8 pm on a Thursday). Why does any of this matter? some might ask. Where’s the harm in a public upsurge of support for a vital, life-saving group of public servants? Why it matters, I think, is because movements of this kind are, by their nature, transitory.
They capture the public mood at a particular moment in time, and then that moment passes, and people move on to something else. And we are still going to need the NHS once this is all over. (Which, by the way, it won’t be, for ages).More than that: all this love-bombing gives the NHS and its staff a halo – a halo with a lustre that will inevitably fade. And that is dangerous. This is Britain. There will be a Newtonian response to all of this.
A backlash. (It’s probably already started in some quarters). So, once all of the coronavirus-driven disruptions start to fade, and the NHS is crying out for funding in more ‘normal’ times, there will be those – and there will be many of them – whose instinctive reaction will be that the NHS has had their day in the spotlight, and should go back to being undervalued and disrespected. “What? Them again? I gave £10 to Captain Tom and now you want me to pay more National Insurance? Fuck that.
I’m voting Tory”.Perhaps most importantly of all, throwing charity and applause at the NHS lets the government off the hook. It leaves people thinking that, individually and collectively, we have all “done our bit”, because we gave them a few extra quid when we were feeling totes emosh, and banged a saucepan on a Thursday evening. Whereas the more prosaic (but much less Instagrammable) truth is that the parlous state of the NHS is entirely attributable to a government which has spent the last decade running it into a state of deliberate neglect to the point where its only possible salvation is to be sold off, bit by bit, to the likes of Richard Branson. Nationalize the risk, privatize the profit. As ever.
But, because the likes of Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson can publicly associate themselves with a time and a movement in which EVERYONE LOVED THE NHS, they dodge culpability for their systematic dismantling of it. So, you know. Show some socially distant love on a Thursday evening if you want to. But remember that you can do far more for the NHS at the ballot box than you ever can from your window or your social media accounts.”Finally, we can see it in the vicious response by sections of the media, led by the Daily Mail, attacking the teaching unions for protecting children, families and staff. It is to the credit of Liverpool City Council, the Mayor and councillors that our city is resisting the campaign to force schools to reopen before there is definitive proof that this can be done safely at this moment in time.
It is good to see them standing shoulder to shoulder with the teaching unions who have played an exemplary role. We will have to organize as never before whenever we emerge from this crisis. We will have to organize alongside our trade union colleagues in solidarity with workers facing job losses and attacks on their conditions. We will have to organize in solidarity with renters facing evictions and long-term indebtedness. We will have to organize in solidarity with people struggling to survive, just as I have been doing in cooperation with organizations such as Fans Supporting Food Banks, the L6 Centre, the Citron Close Foodbank, the Walton Vale Community Hub, the Fazakerley Federation, the Bridge Community Centre and others.
We will have to organize in solidarity with Black and Minority Ethnic people targeted by the government’s Immigration Bill. Finally, we will have to enter this new normality, a time of both dangers and opportunities, armed with socialist ideas.
Today’s progressive level of our civilization was founded when working people came together to win. As one movement, workers won a 5 day week, equal pay for women and a minimum wage. Suddenly I fell like Bolsheviks: Together, we will win again.