Diane Abbott writes: The global coronavirus pandemic is the most serious crisis for everyone alive today, and it has enormous consequences for the whole of society as well as the economy and people’s livelihoods.
Because of these consequences the entire crisis is intensely political.Only government can command the resources necessary and only government has the authority, including legal authority, to direct the resources of others as necessary.
Those of us who are critical of the government’s handling of the crisis — and there is every reason to be critical — are often accused of “politicising” Covid-19. Sometimes World War II is invoked, with claims that when the nation pulled together under threat of fascist invasion there was no dissent from government policy.
This fails basic history as well as being politically dangerous. After war broke out the Chamberlain-led Tory government was under constant criticism and finally fell in 1940 because that crescendo of criticism peaked after the debacle of the Norway campaign. Genuine patriotism requires a relentless focus on the interests of the people of this country, and to understand how these interests are connected to the global community.
Genuine concern for the well-being of the people of this country has nothing in common with empty jingoism, or still less providing a blank cheque to an incompetent Tory government which is leading people to unnecessary deaths. Strangely, a variant on this argument that criticising this woeful government is “politicising” the crisis now comes from the political chattering classes in the media themselves.
They say they are “too busy,” or are pursuing loftier matters and are certainly not going to interest themselves in the grubby internal machinations of the Labour Party. The same journalists who gleefully reported every piece of tittle-tattle if it was useful in undermining the Corbyn leadership now claim to be too busy to report on the leaked Labour Party document.
Reporters who led the news with false claims that a Labour activist had assaulted a Tory staffer are now too busy to report the evidence showing that the most senior Labour apparatchiks did not want Labour to win the 2017 general election. Yet, remarkably, they do have time to offer their sage advice to Labour’s new leader that he should not criticise the government and that he should get rid of the Labour left.
The truth is that the coronavirus crisis and the government’s abject response to it are connected to the leaked Labour document and the role of opposition. The title afforded the largest non-government party is “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.”
Unfortunately, throughout Labour’s history there are those who have placed far too great an emphasis on the adjectives rather than the noun. When not in government we are supposed to provide genuine opposition, to ask questions, to probe, to raise concerns and, ultimately, to say loudly and clearly when we believe the government is going down completely the wrong path.
This is a crisis where the official death toll in this country — which is understated by not recording deaths in care homes and the community — is more than three times that of Germany, which has a larger population. The government’s claims that it has “made all the right decisions at the right time” is absurdly and ghoulishly false.
An extra 7,300 have died in this country, even on the official data compared with Germany. And Germany is not even a global leader in managing the crisis. You have to look to east, including South Korea, Vietnam, New Zealand and China to see best practice in tackling the coronavirus spread.
Former WHO director of maternal, child and adolescent health and former Lancet Commission chair Anthony Costello describes it as: “The UK strategy that led to potentially 30-40,000 preventable deaths.” The truth is ministers have lied — about our preparedness, about availability of PPE and ventilators, about co-operation with the EU, about testing, about “herd immunity,” about contacts with supermarkets, about contacts with manufacturers, about protecting the vulnerable.
And people have died where deaths were avoidable. Now is absolutely the time to raise these issues and provide real opposition, not just leaving it to beleaguered essential workers and their unions. Some in the labour movement are shocked that there are many senior people in the movement and the Labour Party who do not want to oppose Tory governments when they are failing so spectacularly — the same senior people who struggled every day to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and who clearly preferred a Tory election victory to a victory led by the Labour left.
Yet these people have always been with us. We on the left are dismissed because we are proposing “opposition for opposition’s sake.” Anecdotally, I can recall being subject to a tirade in 2019 from one of our “highly respected“ backbenchers who claimed that I was indulging in “opposition for opposition’s sake.”
He has since gone off to work for the Tory government via a brief detour at one of the forgotten Labour splinters from the last parliament. My crime? Upholding the principle that we do not facilitate extradition to the US where people might face the death penalty.
I was actually “opposing the death penalty under all circumstances,” which happens to be the law of this country. Tony Benn used to argue that MPs should always uphold Labour Party conference policy.
He also argued that MPs should vote in the way their conscience and their principles dictated. These seemingly contradictory positions are resolved by a further proposition — that MPs should also be accountable to their constituency members.
Accountability must include replaceability, otherwise it becomes a dead letter. If Labour MPs, if Labour Party appointees, or if trade-union appointees or secondments to the Labour Party are not acting in line with the members’ stated polices, if they refuse to call out this rotten government, or if they even actively work to undermine the prospects of a Labour government, they must be held to account.
This is a vital matter for the health of the Labour Party and for our entire politics.
Currently it is a life-and-death matter for our own citizens.
Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington
This article was originally published here