In a year packed with tragedies of various sizes, an example at the lower end of the scale is to have allowed lockdown and other measures aimed at containing the coronavirus to have become yet another weapon in the interminable culture wars.
Not content with dragging statues, the countryside, gardens and haircuts into the identitarian milieux, support for, or opposition to, lockdown measures are now deemed accurate indicators of where you stand on the political spectrum. On one level, this is merely another occasion for eye-rolling. On another, it’s a worrying and potentially damaging development because it encourages us to abandon the facts in favour of politics. Worse, it allows us to overlook some of the more disastrous consequences of some anti-Covid measures by encouraging the dismissal of concerns as emanating from a Right wing or libertarian viewpoint.
All of which forces us – as in every other aspect of the culture wars – to take a side when the more sensible, sober approach would be to take a step back.
A narrow political analysis would regard the current standoff between Tory MPs who oppose lockdown measures and supporters of Government measures to restrict our freedoms to try to contain the virus as a “civil war”, with all sorts of implications for the future of Boris Johnson’s leadership. But at least they’re actually having a debate. In a situation where, especially in the run-up to Christmas, families are being prevented from meeting each other and we cannot legally visit pubs, restaurants and shops, shouldn’t there be a healthy and vigorous debate about how all this plays out and what the implications are for individual civil liberties?
Contrast with the Labour Party, where the divide seems to be between those who think Johnson’s restrictions don’t go far enough and those who think they should go much further for much longer. That Sir Keir Starmer’s front bench continues to support, more or less, ministers’ decisions, provides a reassuring sense of consensus in a national crisis. But this instinctive and unchallenged (at least within Labour) assumption that lockdown measures are, without doubt, A Good Thing, stands in stark contrast to the party’s historic traditions.
In the Eighties, you could hardly move in a Labour Party meeting without bumping into someone who would decry Margaret Thatcher’s government for introducing a “police state”, usually based wholly on the decision by various home secretaries to mobilise local police forces. The Left’s antennae were always on the lookout for the first signs of authoritarian diktats, so convinced were they that Thatcher yearned to emulate the example of General Pinochet in Chile. It’s amusing to imagine their reaction had a Thatcher government imposed the conditions now being implemented by a Tory government and supported so enthusiastically by the Labour Party.
It was a Labour council in London that was the first to seek to defy the government’s instructions to keep schools open in the face of the pandemic (it has now climbed down). It was the teaching unions – a primary source of Labour Party activists, office bearers and candidates – who were first in line to demand that children be sent home earlier and for longer.
Yet it is working class children, those from families Labour has historically sought to represent, who we know suffer far more from being absent from school than their better off counterparts. Catastrophic achievement gaps in educational achievement have excluded poorer children from university or further education across all previous generations; lockdown measures that take them out of their classes can only exacerbate that effect. Yet Labour politicians continue to give the impression that they consider all of this a zero sum game: if you keep children at school, you increase the risk of infection and, therefore, increase the pressure on the NHS. And if the choice is between children’s future opportunities and protecting the NHS (it’s not, incidentally), then the NHS will always win. Our national religion, against which no criticism (or blasphemy) will be tolerated, is the trump card dealt to win any argument.
But even there, Labour’s attitude is perplexing. NHS funding has increased significantly in the last two decades because the economy has (on the whole) been growing, generating revenue for the Treasury through people’s hard work and even harder tax demands. In due course, the disastrous fall in economic activity in 2020 will impose its own pressure on the NHS as ministers make difficult decisions about where else to cut in order to protect the health budget. And all those cuts, you may rest assured, will be resisted by the same Labour MPs who demanded the closure of schools and businesses.
Even if Starmer supports the measures proposed by the Government thus far, the time has surely come for him to acknowledge the human cost of Covid-19; not just the victims of the illness itself, but the collateral damage done to the life opportunities of millions of children, and the potentially fatal consequences of a cliff-edge economic decline for the NHS and other public services in the near future.
These are – or should be, or have been – priorities for the Labour movement. Instead of slotting people into boxes marked “Right wing” and “Left wing” based on their attitude to Covid restrictions, we need politicians, now more than ever, to consider the long-term consequences of their policies, especially for the less well off and for public services. If Labour won’t, then who will?