Organising to fight the Coronavirus: the Labour Party and mutual aid groups


Shaun Dey opens a discussion on the left

While the Government has continued to pursue a horrific policy in dealing with the coronavirus of prioritising the economy over the people (and ending up protecting neither), I’ve also seen a lot of criticism of the Labour Party over the past few weeks, with many people saying they should be doing much, much more. I’ve also seen other people asking what the Labour Party can realistically do given that they’re not the Government. So this is just a few thoughts to start a discussion – I’m not a member of the Labour party by the way.

Looking at the how the Government has responded, they seem to have embarked on a strategy, then either realise it’s not working or that they’re being pressurised into being seen to do more, and then have a kneejerk reaction of announcing more measures – but without a plan, and without caring about the impact it’s going to have on working-class people. We’ve seen thousands of workers being laid off this week without any pay, chaos around the school closures, health workers left without the equipment to be able to look after patients or themselves properly – the list is endless.

So maybe, as well as making far more rigourous demands on the Government, what the Labour party could do is start to do that planning. There’s loads of things Labour councils could do at a local level.

They could plan the closures of schools properly, including ensuring and distributing free school meals to children at home; ensuring that all staff are paid full pay while the schools are shut; work with trade unions to turn closed schools into community hubs with proper social distancing and santisation procedures in place to look after children of key workers etc.

They could send all non-essential council workers home on full pay and give them the opportunity of redeploying into essential work sectors where there’s not enough workers – obviously the NHS is the prime example. They could also bring all agency workers back in house to guarantee them full pay too.

They could take unused and closed down council properties and look into the possibilities of turning them into field hospitals with beds.

They could suspend council rent payments immediately and any other charges and bills they’re responsible for collecting. I’m sure there’s loads of other measures that could be taken.

On a city level, there’s a load more measures that could be taken immediately. Sadiq Khan could concentrate on how to shut down the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, under direction from workers and communities through the amazing network of mutual aid groups that have sprung up over the past week. So for example this could look into things like how to use the public transport system just to get essential workers around while making it easy for everyone else to stay at home, and in conjunction with the mutual aid groups seeing what people would need to be able to stay at home.

On a national level, Corbyn and all the candidates for the Labour leadership could put out a united call for all Labour councils and mayors to start this sort of planning immediately – and to demand any extra funds needed from the Government to put measures in place. Meanwhile they could take on the national planning that the Government isn’t doing.

They could demand that the Government calls an actual shutdown of all public buildings, pubs, venues, restaurants etc, so that the owners can claim insurance and be able to pay their workers.

They could demand answers to why people – particularly health workers – aren’t being tested, find out how to get hold of testing kits and start talking to whoever produces them to come up with a plan to start testing as many people as possible immediately. They could come up with plans with health professionals to monitor how the virus is spreading, where, and how to minimise the epicentres. They could see what the hold up is with health workers getting the PPE and other equipment they desperately need and go to talk to the manufacturers and distributors themselves to get the stuff out quickly.

They could demand that the Government announce proper social distancing measures, particularly standing 2 metres away from each other – which incredibly is not in the Government guidelines at the moment. They could visibly stand 2 metres away from each other themselves to set an example when they hold press conferences but ideally hold them online, as the rest of us are doing in our mutual aid groups. Might seem like a small thing but when Johnson stands right next to his medical experts while saying people should be practising social distancing, it’s not surprising if people don’t do it when they see him not doing it.

They could go directly to arms manufacturers and work with the unions to immediately switch production to respirators and other essential equipment – and start negotiations to switch from that to building the renewable energy infrastructure to combat climate change when the coronavirus crisis is over.

However, one thing is already happening in the Labour party. Loads of grassroots members are joining there local mutual aid groups and helping to organise their communities. I don’t know about other groups, but in just six days our local group in Hackney has shifted from initially just checking on neighbours to see if they need anything, to starting to organise collectively around a whole range of needs – fighting (and starting to win) full pay or at least partial pay for workers who shouldn’t be working, particularly workers on zero hours contracts, working with members of London Renters Union to help people with housing and rent issues, organising support for disabled people, migrant workers and other key groups, solidarity and support for health workers, and so on, as well as political organising and campaigning to force the Government into concessions. Obviously there are dangers of well-meaning actions resulting in infection spread through lack of coordinated advice from the Government, but mutual aid groups are taking a lead in establishing best practice for safeguarding procedures. (In Wuhan, they have contained the virus through using trained teams, hygiene, sanitation and extreme distancing so food and other deliveries were completely safe).

And maybe this is the key. The mutual aid groups could become a network of groups that works towards a planned shutdown to contain and eliminate the virus under worker and community control, while simultaneously making demands on the existing political structures and parties as to what we need in order to do that. And if we can manage that, we could maintain the network to bring about a just transition away from fossil fuels under worker and community control to combat climate change.

What do people think?


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