land of the terminal dimwits

UK Labour and Tory politicians support herd immunity in Greater Manchester feud
Thomas Scripps, WSWS, Oct 21 2020

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham speaks to the media outside Bridgewater Hall on Tuesday,
following last-ditch talks with the prime minister (Photo: Jon Super/AP)

Greater Manchester, home to some 2.8m people, has been placed under Tier 3 public health restrictions, requiring the closure of pubs and bars not serving substantial meals, betting shops, casinos, bingo halls and children’s soft play areas and banning household mixing from this Friday. Manchester joins Liverpool and Lancashire in this highest tier. The restrictions had to be forcibly imposed by Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, for the first time, because no agreement could be reached with local leaders. For 10 days, a bitter political conflict has been fought between government ministers and a cross-party alliance of mayors, councillors and MPs based in the North of England. This alliance has been fronted by Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, who has advanced himself as a defender of local businesses and workers. In the end, this feud resolved itself into a game of brinkmanship between Burnham and Johnson over how big a compensation package should be offered to Greater Manchester businesses during the partial lockdown. £5m separated the two when negotiations fell through yesterday afternoon, after Burnham moved from an original demand for £95m to £65m. Johnson would offer no more than £60m.

In an effort to smooth over the conflict the government announced after a few hours prevarication that the £60m was still on the table, even though the talks had collapsed, and the Tier 3 restrictions had been imposed unilaterally. Enormous political confusion has been sown by the Johnson government’s imposition of public health measures that are simultaneously ineffective at preventing the spread of the virus and punitive on large sections of workers. Tier 3 measures provide just two-thirds of the wages of people whose workplaces are shut down by the restrictions. Workers in the affected sectors are some of the lowest paid in the country and will be forced into poverty, if they are not made unemployed anyway. Burnham has been able to tap into popular outrage against this policy, saying that workers “can’t choose to pay two-thirds of their rent or two-thirds of their bills.” He originally called for a return of the furlough scheme used during the spring lockdown, guaranteeing 80% of wages paid by government. By the time he reached one-on-one talks with Johnson yesterday, however, this demand had been dropped.

What is animating Burnham’s opposition to the government are tactical differences and conflicting interests between different groups of capitalists, rather than any consideration of principle. He and Johnson agree that there can be no serious effort to suppress the virus, for fear of damaging the economy. Burnham has made a few nods to the idea of a “circuit breaker” national lockdown, itself a partial measure, but this has had no practical impact on his campaign against the government. His real objective is to defend the interests of capital in the Manchester region, while catapulting himself into a national role as the proponent of an alternative strategy for big business in opposing measures to suppress COVID-19. Johnson’s government has embarked on a strategy of partial local lockdowns in regions where the virus is spreading most rapidly, mainly in the north of England, in order to avoid a national lockdown of whatever character, which would harm business interests in the rest of the country. The Tories are prepared to sacrifice smaller business interests in the north to safeguard national capital—in particular, the finance capital of the city of London, at the heart of British imperialism.

Burnham has accused Johnson of engaging in a “deliberate act of levelling-down” the Northern regions and cities, and of using them as “canaries in the coalmine.” This regionalist populism is employed to disguise the fact that there is no common cause between workers and their employers. Extra support for businesses will not prevent massive restructuring programmes, including thousands of lay-offs and attacks on conditions. The full reactionary implications of Burnham’s pro-capitalist position are made clear by the fact that he took part in a 10 day squabble over the spoils of government handouts to business during an increasingly catastrophic resurgence of the pandemic. The UK recorded 21,331 cases yesterday, up more than 20% on the same day the week before and overtaking France as Europe’s hotspot, and 241 deaths, compared to 143 a week ago. Manchester’s hospitals are more than 80% full, ahead of the main winter season. The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 has roughly doubled over the last two weeks. Infection rates among over 60s are climbing rapidly. As part of his haggling with Johnson, Burnham downplayed this escalating crisis. Disputing Johnson’s cynical warning that the situation in Manchester is “grave,” the Labour Mayor said:

I think it was an exaggeration of the position that we’re in. The figures have been falling in Manchester itself in the last few days.

Burnham and his Labour supporters have made clear during this sordid affair that they have in fact accepted the policy of “herd immunity.” Their Northern allies include several Tory MPs set on tearing up public health restrictions to allow big business to return to unimpeded profit-making. The leading figure in this group is Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers. Sir Richard Leese, the Labour leader of Manchester City Council, spoke for them all this week when he stated:

Most people who test positive for the virus are not getting particularly ill. They are not the problem. If this is the evidence, wouldn’t it be much better to have an effective shielding programme for those most at risk, rather than have a blanket business closure policy of dubious efficacy?

Yesterday, he repeated his previous argument that pubs, bars, and restaurants “are not major sources of transmission” and should stay open. This is policy taken in its entirety from the Great Barrington Declaration, a pseudo-scientific justification for a “herd immunity” policy with targeted shielding of the most vulnerable, championed by the free-market libertarian American Institute for Economic Research and embraced by Trump. The claims made in this short document have been blown apart by serious scientists, who point out that shielding the huge numbers of vulnerable people in society is impossible, that immunity is not even assured, and that such a policy would lead to countless additional deaths. Now a group of Labour politicians have united with Tories in advancing this murderous policy for the UK. The Daily Telegraph, Johnson’s former employer and the voice of the most reactionary elements of the British elite, is hailing Burnham and his associates as the saviours of British politics. In a comment titled “Left-wing calls for a shielding strategy are a political breakthrough,” Tom Harris congratulated Leese for his “public service” in adding to the “national debate” over coronavirus. Patrick O’Flynn was beside himself in praising Burnham and his fellow Labourites, correctly stating:

Leese and Burnham are merely paying lip-service to Starmer’s ‘circuit-breaker’ while in fact finding themselves following the path of logic towards the realisation that the time has come for an economy-saving pivot towards shielding the vulnerable. To have senior Labour figures, people who cannot easily be caricatured as heartless materialists, making this case is political gold-dust for Tory MPs. They have given political cover for ministers who privately doubt the merit of general lockdown measures.

There is no section of capitalist politics that can claim to speak in the interests of any section of workers without the words turning to ashes in their mouth. The only solution to the pandemic crisis which secures workers lives and livelihoods is one which begins with a frontal assault on social inequality and the obscene wealth monopolised by the financial and corporate oligarchs, Britain’s 151 billionaires, including several in Manchester, who are collectively worth some £770b, and whose fortunes neither Johnson nor Burnham will mention. Only the independent action of the working class, under the leadership of the SEP, can secure democratic control of these resources to pour billions into the NHS, Test-and-Trace, the development and roll-out of a vaccine, and the provision of liveable wages and social, educational and medical support during a national lockdown of all but essential production.

UK government steps up attacks on asylum-seekers and refugees
Julia Callaghan, WSWS, Oct 20 2020

The new refugee camp on Lesbos, Sep 17 2020. (Photo: Panagiotis Balaskas/AP)

The Johnson government is escalating its attacks on the democratic rights of refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing military, environmental, and economic devastation. Coordination with Europe on “processing” asylum-seekers will almost certainly cease when Brexit takes effect at the end of this year. Currently, the EU’s Dublin Regulation allows Britain to return migrants to the European country they are deemed to have first arrived in. Without this agreement, under international law, whoever arrives in Britain has a right to stay until their asylum claim is processed. The Conservative government has no intention of upholding the fundamental “right to asylum” section of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in the aftermath of WW2. The Tories are busy putting together plans to deport migrant people as soon as they arrive. Proposals being considered include detaining them on disused ferries, disused North Sea oil platforms, or on remote islands thousands of miles away. All options are being carefully costed and the implications assessed, with the Guardian reporting that a government source said new policies would be rolled out “to ‘discourage’ and ‘deter’ migrants from entering the UK illegally.” Legal advice to the government seen by the Guardian notes:

The proposals would require disapplying sections 77 and 78 of the Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 so that asylum-seekers can be removed from the UK while their claim or appeal is pending.

At the end of September the government stepped up its drive to deport asylum-seekers, with many receiving a letter declaring that as a “failed asylum-seeker” they would be evicted from the hotel accommodation they had been provided with during the pandemic. The letter from the Home Office stated that any support they received would end on Oct 7 and they had to take “all reasonable steps to leave the UK. If you do not take reasonable steps to leave you face action to enforce your departure.” Thousands of asylum-seekers were provided with hotel accommodation during the pandemic, with the Home Office reviewing up to 3k cases for possible eviction. Due to the “hostile environment” already established by Tory-led governments over the last 10 years, in 2019 the UK offered protection in the form of asylum, humanitarian protection, alternative forms of leave and resettlement to just 20,703 people. Per head of population, the UK came 19th in the number of asylum claims in the EU. Many already kicked out of hotels are being sent into even worse accommodation, threatening their well-being, safety and health. Last week, at least one asylum-seeker housed in the former Napier army Barracks near Folkestone in Kent tested positive for coronavirus. More than 400 asylum-seekers are being detained there. Referring to comments of a charity worker, the Guardian reported:

There were about 32 men in each dormitory, 16 on each side of the room in close quarters. Screens had only recently been fitted between the beds, they said.

On Sep 7, a man with a large knife entered a London law firm whose name has not been made public and launched what was described as a “violent, racist attack,” injuring a member of staff. The person allegedly had in the bag on his person a confederate flag and far-right literature. The Law Society informed Home Secretary Priti Patel that they believed her diatribe against “activist lawyers” who defend the rights of asylum seekers, made only days before the attack, was a main factor behind the attack. A document, including witness statement on the attack noted:

Responsibility and accountability for this attack, in the eyes of this firm, lies squarely at the feet of Priti Patel.

The law firm wrote to the Law Society saying that Patel must end her “deliberately inflammatory rhetoric” before, “innocent lives are taken and irreparable damage done to those who work in this field.” Patel responded by doubling down on her rhetoric at the Tory party conference, denouncing “do-gooders” and “lefty lawyers” who are “defending the indefensible.” Boris Johnson followed up by saying the criminal justice system was “being hamstrung by lefty human rights lawyers.” These statements have strong echoes of Trump’s method of “dog-whistling” to call his fascist base to action, and are a chilling warning of the direction of travel in the ongoing assault on democratic rights. Stoking up animosity to asylum-seekers is taking place across the political divide. Earlier this month Labour peer Lord West, aka Baron West of Spithead, a retired Royal Navy admiral, said of asylum-seekers during a BBC radio interview:

We can arrest as many as we like. Until we resolve the way we deal with them in this country and get agreement from France and other European nations to take them back, then we’re stuck with them, and we need to actually deal with them in a concentrated place, whether it’s a camp or whatever.

Many of these desperate, destitute people have had their homes demolished and lives destroyed by wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan in which Lord West played a prominent role as head of the Royal Navy at the time. Following his period as First Sea Lord, West was appointed Parliamentary Under-Sec State for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office in Gordon Brown’s Labour government. West’s call for the building of concentration camps went unchallenged by the interviewer, compounding the outrage expressed by many on social media. One tweet read:

Horrendous broadcasting this morning as Admiral Lord Alan West of Spithead proposed in all seriousness Concentration Camps for Channel migrants prior to deportation without any challenge whatsoever. This was utterly despicable.

Another said:

How wicked to use this phrase that stirs up memories of atrocities, and to even make the suggestion. Vile, disgusting, evil.

As well as referencing the horrors of the 20th century, others pointed to atrocities taking place today. One wrote:

There are concentration camps right now in the USA, where thousands of children have died from preventable diseases due to neglect, poor treatment and lack of medical care. That’s what Lord West is calling for, because that’s what these camps always result in.

Making a half-apology, West said later:

I was trying to get across the point that working with other EU nations will help resolve this.

European leaders agree with Lord West’s thinking of how to “deal with” the refugees they are “stuck with.” The Moria Reception and Identification Centre in Lesbos, Greece was built to house 2.8k people. By the time it burned to the ground last month it housed 13k in inhumane conditions, nearly five times its capacity. Jean Ziegler of the committee of experts advising the UNHRC described Moria last year as “the recreation of a concentration camp on European soil.” The newly built “Moria 2.0” is just as unbearable, with residents say they are living “worse than animals.” With poor sanitation and little access to water, residents are forced to wash their bodies and clothes in the sea. Queues for food and provisions stretch endlessly. Tents offer barely any protection from the weather. Those designed for one family are shared by several, and single men, often victims of torture, are packed inside large 200-capacity tents. Live ammunition lies on the ground of the camp, a former shooting range, easily found by the vulnerable children who live there. Reflecting on the abysmal conditions, Carmen Dupont from Lesbos Solidarity, a charity working on the island, said:

There seems to be a very clear agenda linked to the migration pact and the European Union’s direction, which is of containment. Keeping people trapped and locked in inhumane camps in hellish conditions and at the same time, erasing and closing the dignified shelters that exist.

In the UK and every country, immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers are been used as scapegoats to shift the blame for the social ills of the failing capitalist system and to divide the working class. Workers in Britain must come to the defense of refugees and asylum-seekers. The only way to end wars, environmental destruction and economic ruin that threatens entire populations and forces millions from their homes is though the struggle for socialism, encompassing all sections of the international working class.

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