Nurse, Unite activist and socialist Mark Boothroyd spoke to Sacha Ismail.
What are the most important things for the left to argue and fight for in this crisis? How does the dominant labour movement response measure up?
The labour movement needs to campaign for more extensive economic support, to expand the furlough and self-employed schemes, extend them to those not covered and so on. People need to be able to stay home and sustain themselves. Clearly sick pay and the right to self-isolate on fully pay are essential. The level of statutory sick pay is utterly scandalous, it needs to be raised dramatically.
The government has clearly conceived the furlough scheme as a corporate subsidy, making no demands on employers and only raising that now as a way of administering the slashing back of the scheme.
There’s a strong case for a Universal Basic Income, because it cuts through the bureaucracy and means you can get money to people more easily. We also need to campaign for policies like rent freezes and cancellation of rent during the emergency.
The problem now is that we are seeing a fairly dramatic easing of the lockdown when we haven’t had a major drop in infections. We’ve passed the peak but are still at a high level, higher than when we entered lockdown. The government is trying to get the economy growing for the capitalists but it isn’t safe or nearly safe enough. I think we will definitely see an increase in infections which will mean a second lockdown, damaging the NHS and society more broadly.
A lot of what the government has done is Potemkin village stuff, creating things for show which haven’t played much role – like the Nightingale hospital in London which has only treated fifty people. Part of this is cynically wanting to be seen to be acting, part of it is panic. But also, for instance, they are reluctant to create extra capacity at existing hospitals because they don’t want to bolster the NHS.
In terms of the new tracking and tracing system, for sure there’s an issue of it being Serco, with low wages, minimal training and so on. More broadly this decision means that the system is not plugged into existing public health infrastructure. You could have had Public Health England working with councils, for instance, but they didn’t want to do that. There should have been much more labour movement criticism of this problem. Unite for instance has a lot of members in labs, who’ve been by-passed for testing work, creating big private superlabs which have sucked expertise and equipment from elsewhere. The public sector has strong relationships which could have been built on – linking GPs with NHS trusts with councils with tracking teams – but instead we have a new, largely private system being built separately.
What's your assessment of Labour's direction and approach under Starmer?
My assessment is that the Labour Party now has a soft left leadership. Starmer is clear less radical than Corbyn and he’s surrounded himself with a real mixed bag of a ministerial team. Clearly many left-wing criticism of Starmer are valid, but some of them are misfiring – I don’t think he’s going to be Blair Mark 2. Of course I may have to eat those words!
For instance, the policy on proposing a repayment of rent in two years is real weak. We should strongly criticise it, but it’s not so much Blair as more akin to Ed Miliband.
I guess part of my hesitation is that some of the people denouncing Starmer would never criticise Corbyn at all, even though he was far from radical a lot of the time. A culture developed where it was about supporting his leadership rather than transforming the party and the labour movement in any strategic way.
The point for the serious left now is that we need much more organised pressure on the leadership. That is true however exactly you assess him so far. We need to say to the people denouncing Starmer that’s what necessary, and the same to the much bigger group of people who are sort of leftie but probably quite happy with Starmer. That’s partly why criticism needs to be strong but nuanced.
You've supported the call to halt Brexit by extending the transition period. Why is that something the left and labour movement should support? Why do you think there is reticence about this, including from the anti-Brexit left?
The pandemic hasn’t halted the Brexit process, and we still face the same timescales and event horizon as we did before, namely the June deadline for extension, and a No Deal Brexit at the end of the year if no extension is granted. A No Deal Brexit was always going to be an unmitigated disaster, and a no deal Brexit in the context of Covid-19 will be many times worse. Whatever economic and social recovery may be taking place at that time will be smashed to pieces by the disruption to trade and vital supply chains and more general economic damage.
The disruption to the NHS will be just as, if not more severe. We are just about coping with the present crisis due to phenomenal efforts by staff. If we face a second surge over winter and are again forced to undergo an emergency reorganisation of the health system, as well as dealing with the effects of Brexit, it would be immensely damaging, and compromise our ability to provide good care for patients. More deaths will ensue, and more health workers lives will be potentially put at risk due to lack of PPE resulting from a no deal Brexits impact on our supply chains.
Obviously the pro-Brexit left is not likely to raise this, while the anti-Brexit left probably sympathise with Starmer and will expect him to be making these arguments. The fact he isn’t may be confusing them, or they may be silent out of a misplaced loyalty. There is also the risk that people think the government couldn’t possibly consider carrying out a No Deal Brexit after the devastating effects of the pandemic. However our experience should tell us this government is completely capable of carrying out these irrational and self destructive actions for ideological reasons. For this reason, the anti-Brexit left should be pressuring Starmer and the wider Labour Party to call for an extension, which is vital to the coronavirus response and preventing more harm to the working class.
The leadership’s apparent idea you can just keep quiet and let the Tories collapse has already been proved bankrupt. Back in 2018, the party thought, this will be too hard for the Tories, they’ll collapse and we’ll take over. Look how it worked out. You need a positive and pro-active position; if we’d had that anti-Brexit position, we could have taken the offensive. It’s harder now because the Tories have a majority but on the other hand the demand of extending is in some way an easier one. If we win it, things could open up further.
The coronavirus crisis demonstrates clearly the need for international cooperation, but the hard right are trying to push in the opposite direction. It is criminal or deeply foolish for the left not to fight back, giving the hard right what they want and creating a much more difficult situation for ourselves.
NHS workers have organised relatively small, socially distanced protests. How would respond to the criticism that this is not a good idea in the lockdown?
If anyone should be able to protest it should be health workers. Social distancing is aimed at the public to stop people who are not infected being exposed to the virus. Us health workers are being exposed every day. There is no technical benefit for us to social distancing – in the wards it’s almost impossible, except in very specific circumstances. We have vastly more chance of contracting the virus at work. Meanwhile there is a glaring need to protest, because we are under attack, which also undermines our ability to contribute fully to the fight against the virus.
By the way I’m not saying other groups of workers shouldn’t protest – there is a general need for action to win rights and safety. People should take the necessary measures, with limited numbers, control over who comes, social distancing and so on. That’s certainly what we’ve done with our protests.
I was going to say we’re obeying the letter of the law but breaking its spirit – but actually you could put it the other way round. It depends if you think the law is primarily intended for public safety or public control. We’re taking safety very seriously but simultaneously trying to defy control because that is also necessary in order to fight for safety.
I should say we’ve had absolutely resounding support from other healthworkers, who of course take the issues of safety and public health very seriously.
Could you something about nurses’ union organisation?
The RCN [Royal College of Nursing] is by far the dominant organisation. It probably has over 400,000 members, versus maybe 10,000 in Unite and some tens of thousands in Unison. RCN is incredibly conservative and sectionalist – as we saw with its general secretary refusing to call for the wider migrant health surcharge to be scrapped. More broadly, they don’t want to rock the boat with the government, so we’re in a situation where quite a few of their members have died but they’ve said essentially nothing. RCN is apparently the biggest nursing union in the world, but its impact is negligible. The other unions also tend to cite RCN as a roadblock and an excuse. In 2017 membership pressure pushed it into campaigning against the pay freeze and it quickly drew the other unions in and did have some impact. There was real potential – it was limited by the union officials’ reluctance to move towards action – but you could see the potential if RCN was different.