When I started this column in 2016 the initial idea was to write a traditional politics column but from an anarchist perspective. I wanted to write an anarchist account of how British politics was developing to keep it charted in a way that hadn’t really been attempted before. I thought at the time that we’d witnessed in the 2008 financial crisis and the resulting austerity a generation-defining political event. I imagined that each monthly column would be about different events as British politics progressed in a rather boring and dull manner, as it has tended to for decades, punctuated with the odd scandal here and there. I thought there might be a political backlash against austerity at some point and had Corbyn ever won an election maybe that would have materialised, once the various community fightbacks seemed to fade. What I didn’t realise was that we would almost immediately face another defining moment via the Brexit referendum result followed by a monumental crisis caused by the coronavirus.
Business as usual politics have been put on hold for almost the entirety of my time writing this column. I think it’s fair to say though that Covid 19 makes the 2008 financial crisis and Brexit seem rather small scale. It is true to say of course that both those developments have resulted in horrific situations for many people. Comparing the devastation of the virus does not diminish that suffering. Nothing can do that. During the election campaign (the 2019 general election now seems so long ago) I wrote about the estimated 130,000 deaths due to austerity. That was because of government cuts in health funding. The deaths of those who were disabled were not included in that figure. I’m not sure we should be drawn into comparisons on the figures in any case. This is not a competition but the virus has focused our attention and it has affected us all in some way because of the speed of the spread.
Austerity wasn’t just nasty it was also one of the biggest ineptitudes of the Cameron-Clegg coalition. For ideological reasons they decided to treat a banking crisis as if it was a crisis in public services. They slashed public services and yet rewarded the banks with bailouts. It was economically ludicrous and showed a passion for advancing neoliberalism regardless of the facts. We could well see history repeat itself but such a repeat would be a tragedy on steroids. The way that the Conservatives have mishandled the virus response also smacks of ineptitude. Top-down government is a terrible thing only made worse by particularly bad top-down government.
As a dyslexic I find I benefit from seeing things differently on account of my condition. I misread things or have to check things several times. I make little mistakes or perhaps Bob Ross style happy accidents as I try to interpret information. How odd then when reading a recent article about Covid 19 that upon reading the word ‘coronavirus’ my brain, at first, changed it to ‘conservative’. I don’t mean that I read the word conservative in it’s place, I mean that it took the physical form of the word conservative, with the letters literally changing shape as I was reading. This sort of thing happens often and normally I just moved on but this time I paused to think about it. Clearly, I see the virus and the Tories in a similar light. Whereas the virus will likely pass, the Tories seem to be ever-present, always destructive and forever dangerous.
The recent economic measures made by the government include levels of state funding for business never before contemplated. Just months after the Tories won a general election in part because people thought Labour’s spending plans were impossible, we see the Tories pumping many times more money into the economy to keep businesses afloat. Some have seen this as a leftwards swing by the Tories and some have even called it socialism. Such comments are premature but it’s easy to see why people do so. Things are moving apace. We need to stand back though just as I stood back and thought about my dyslexic moment. We need to resist the urge to comment about every passing breaking news story as if it is an endpoint. We need to think these developments through as we are only partway through something profoundly different from before.
The best we can say is that a realignment of British politics has just begun, the like of which we have never seen. All the elements that make up politics have been thrown in the air and they haven’t yet landed. Kier Starmer was elected Labour leader less than two weeks ago. In ordinary circumstances, that event in itself would be worthy of a political column. We could discuss the shift to the right, his past as a prosecutor and his election as someone party members see as electable. But that’s all irrelevant right now. We simply don’t yet know what Starmer’s election will bring to British politics as it’s one of the things that are up in the air waiting to land. He inherits a set of policies that are as far left as the party has held in decades. He comes to his position when it could be argued that on economic policy his party is now, bizarrely, to the right of the Tories. Talk of him moving away from Corbynomics is not superseded by events. Even a simple rightwards shift in Labour leader isn’t all that it appears.
Meanwhile, will the Tories stay where they are as the UK emerges from the crisis? Not a chance. There is already plenty of evidence to suggest they are ready for a fresh wave of austerity. They might choose a different word. If they’re clever they’ll use something that people can believe in, like ‘recovery’. A series of recovery policies that allow their rich friends to stay rich and keep us in our places, relying on the rich for jobs. I could perhaps make money by selling political strategy, seeing as I’m not making money doing anything else right now.
Anybody saying they know what is going to happen in the next few months is making it up. We could end up with a spirit akin to 1945 and demands for social democracy. Certainly, Tory ministers at the terrible daily news briefings are suggesting they never realised that low paid workers actually did anything useful before. When a virus strikes down thousands of people in a few weeks, you might need nurses. In lockdown, you might suddenly value delivery drivers and shop assistants. Maybe, just maybe the Tories can grow a collective heart and start to redistribute wealth? Or else they could throw a victory parade, get us all to organise street parties, hand out some medals and hope that keeps people quiet. I don’t have high expectations.
What is useful right now is that we are everywhere. We have been able to get ahead of the state in terms of reaching out to people in our communities. Anarchists are well placed to spread radical ideas for what happens next in our communities regardless of what realignment in politics occurs. It’s going to take some time to know for sure how this will all play out. The British public were hoodwinked by austerity enough to vote for Tory governments in 2015, 2017 and 2019. Will they be hoodwinked again and back a long period of suffering after the virus? We have to hope not. We have to demand more. We might not win but in demanding more we can hope to shift the great realignment in British politics in a more radical direction. This has only just begun, where it ends is still to be determined.
Photo: Guy Smallman