Stuart Jordan: "Social measures require government action. A lockdown by contrast can be imposed by workers’ direct action"
Martin Thomas argues that although we know that a range of actions over the past few months have brought down the rate of infection, it is not clear what specific measures were effective, what made no difference and what caused more harm than good. A few countries had less severe lockdowns than the UK (notably Sweden kept more children in schools) and had fewer deaths. Moreover everyone, including the epidemiologists, were caught by surprise by the surge in deaths in early to mid March. The government panicked implementing a relatively severe lockdown. We now have more knowledge of the pandemic and if there are future outbreaks the scientists can develop sharper and less disruptive strategies to limit the spread, such as local lockdowns. There is a body of emerging evidence that infected children are not infectious, which suggests it might be worth risking whether schools could be reopened. Put together it appears unlikely that another general lockdown, including school closures, will be necessary. The workers' movement need not prepare for a scenario where the government bungles a second spike. Instead we should focus on winning some real social gains that we know will slow the spread of the virus such as nationalising the track and trace system or winning isolation pay for all.
Here Martin makes two rather large assumptions. First that the scientists will have developed effective precision strategies in time to prevent the next spike. Second, that Johnson’s government will implement these strategies in a competent and timely manner. There remain many unknowns. The governments own advisors are not so confident. The recent Academy of Medical Sciences report suggests a second spike this winter could result in 119,000 deaths. The evidence that infected children are not infectious is insufficient for this Tory government: lockdown in Leicester has resulted in reversing the limited school reopenings. Matt Hancock has said there is evidence of outbreaks in schools. Although we all hope to avoid a second spike or the need for further general lockdown it is far from clear that this will not be necessary in the future. Most importantly we have no faith in the government to implement the safest strategy. There is a clear contradiction between the needs of the capitalist economy and the health and safety of the working-class. This is foundational to our politics but especially apparent at the current time. The government may delay a general lockdown or implement it in an ineffective way in order to protect the incomes and profits of the rich. The move from 2 m to 1 m distancing came from lobbying from pub and restaurant owners rather than from sound science. We have no interest in leaving the when and how of the next lockdown in the hands of Johnson’s government.
The failure to grasp this point is apparent in Martin’s 22nd July article where he claims: “The government seems not to have read the report on pandemic prospects for winter 2020-1 published on 14 July, and commissioned by the government's Chief Scientific Officer.” Presumably this is tongue-in-cheek but it misdirects the readers' attention. The problem here is not the competency of the Johnson administration to read official documents but the contradiction between the imperatives of capitalism and effective pandemic response.
The range of actions available to a government are fundamentally different from the range of actions available to the workers' movement. It may emerge that Sweden had a smaller death count, not because of its looser lockdown, but because it has a more robust social security safety net and other social factors such as less inequality. Even if research into these areas existed (I don’t know of any) and we were confident that these social factors helped slow the spread of the virus, we cannot guarantee that the workers' movement in the UK will have secured these measures in time for a second wave. Both these social measures and the precision strategies Martin hopes for require government action. A lockdown by contrast can be imposed by workers’ direct action. There is an organisational obstacle to this in the form of the union bureaucracy. There is a legal obstacle in the form of the antiunion laws. But the organisational obstacles can be overcome by an effective agitation mobilising rank and file workers. If that agitation is effective it will be because the mass membership have been convinced of a strategy that gets around the legal obstacle: a preemptive ballot now in anticipation of and as an insurance policy against government bungling in the future.
The biggest dispute since the start of the pandemic has been between the government and the NEU on the timing of schools reopening. The NEU leadership did not attempt to organise mass refusal to reopen schools but the strength of their argument meant that they won the support of many local authorities and headteachers. Their lobbying operation, a cross class initiative, has thwarted the government’s plans but not in a way that strengthens the union or builds workers’ confidence. The NEU strategy was successful because of widespread lack of confidence in the government‘s approach and the need for alternative leadership. In this case the alternative leadership was provided by management. We do not trust management to keep us safe and are interested in working-class organisations providing that leadership. The dispute demonstrated the will of workers to contest the when and how of lockdown measures.
Martin and others have argued that to focus attention on control over lockdown timing might distract from other more important strategies. However the main problem facing the workers' movement is not that we have masses of easily distractable militants. The problem is a general lack of engagement with the trade unions. To solve this problem requires direct action, strategies that impel workers to stand together and realise our collective strength. A propaganda campaign to nationalise TTI might attract a few individuals interested in writing letters to MPs, getting signatures on petitions, writing blogposts - necessary work but not the stuff of a mass mobilisation. Some have argued that campaigning for national strike ballots might distract from mobilising workers to refuse work on health and safety grounds. However there is no evidence that teachers or job centre staff have used this right, despite being given information about “section 44” by their union leadership. You may conclude from the experience in schools and DWP that there is no mood to refuse the return to work. But you cannot argue that these workers returned to work because they were distracted by promises of a national ballot.
Martin seems to think there are people who are positively in favour of lockdowns, indefinite lockdowns or lockdowns which last for years. I am not aware of anyone who makes that argument. However there is also no objective need for people to return to work anytime soon, beyond the needs imposed by capitalism. Lockdown has shown that a high standard of living can be maintained by relatively few workers - no-one had to go without the internet, electricity, food, shelter because of the lockdown. In fact, social solidarity and government action through the lockdown has made it easier to access these essentials for the very poor and homeless. There are a list of non-essential services that as socialists we are positively in favour of reopening quickly: a full NHS service, schools, colleges, universities, dentists, opticians etc. Beyond that we welcome a return of workers in the arts, sport, social spaces, hairdressers etc. But many jobs are positively harmful and should be abolished with people's energies put towards tackling the multiple crises we face in the near future: climate change, food sustainability, mental health. We cannot make that happen through an act of will but we should say clearly that we think workers who build weapons, extract fossil fuels, staff airports or work in innumerable bullshit jobs should be given a basic income and options to retrain and do something better. That workers suffer hardship when they are out of work is a political decision. Many of those workers will continue to suffer hardship beyond lockdown due to a mass jobs cull. Lockdown easing does not help the 6.5 million workers at risk of their jobs in the next few months. The capitalist class is clearly very much opposed to lockdown. Our attitude to lockdown should be guided by the political economy of the working-class - the health and life of our class comes before the imperatives of the capitalist economy and we are in favour of defending that position with all the weapons at our disposal including very blunt and imprecise weapons.
I have proposed an agitation for unions to ballot now in order to gain a six month live strike mandate that would allow the workers' movement to impose a general lockdown in response to rapidly changing events. Martin has argued this strategy has no “grip”. I suspect that is now true. Lockdown easing so far has not resulted in a big increase in the rate of infection and it looks like this situation may continue for weeks to come. However, it did not appear this way in May when the NEU was holding mass meetings with record attendance in opposition to school reopenings.
The NEU agitation against school reopenings was primarily based on the general rate of infection in the country. The six weeks balloting period imposed by the anti-union laws prevented the NEU from organising a national refusal to return to schools. An energetic campaign at this point for a national ballot may have had much more “grip” and formed the basis for a rank and file movement within that union that was actively discussing and organising on this basis. That agitation may not have been sufficient to push the NEU leadership in May, but the objective circumstances called for nationally coordinated action: it would have exposed the weakness of the NEU leadership. An energetic campaign for national action (which recognised and discussed the legal obstacles etc) could have gained significant support among rank and file members. Such a movement could have expected to have gained significant support and push the leadership into action at the first sign of a second spike. Instead, Solidarity repeatedly praised the NEU for their “clear” strategy of lobbying head teachers and local authorities whilst busying NEU reps with a 20 page risk assessment. It dismissed talk of a national ballot as a distraction. In the event no schoolworkers refused to work on health and safety grounds (except possibly some Unison members at a school in Tower Hamlets). It is not clear that any of our agitation during this time had a grip; some of it was plain dishonest.
I have argued throughout this period that Workers' Liberty might have taken a bolder and more decisive line in the NEU in May if it had not been for our largely unarticulated anti-lockdown position.
Whether the idea of circumventing the antiunion laws by a preemptive ballot has a grip in the future will depend on the shape of the pandemic and the government’s response. What is clear is that the workers' movement has no strategy for dealing with a spike in infections except following government instructions or individual and atomised action: absenteeism, section 44 walkouts.
This discussion although focussed on the issue of national ballots is actually about different perspectives and responses to the current crisis. Martin’s argument appears to me to be an attempt to justify the earlier opposition to school closures in March by an appeal to some more recent epidemiological research: research that is far from conclusive. In fact Workers’ Liberty were taken by surprise by the school closures. Since this time our position has not been dissimilar to the NEU leadership: some verbal opposition to lockdown easing but no effective direct action strategy or even discussion of this strategy. Whenever such strategy discussion is proposed, we get general arguments against lockdowns and school closures.
My concern that Workers' Liberty has become fixated on an early mistake of opposing school closures, a policy that was dropped the moment the Tories closed schools. The attempt to defend that mistake, leaves us with a selective reading of the science and means we are unprepared for all the possible scenarios that this crisis might throw up.
We can expect that this crisis will have significant socio-political consequences. It is at moments like this that mighty organisations are broken and new forces rise up. Our advantage in this crisis is that we might be able to see more clearly than anyone else and may even with our limited forces, with our limited toehold in the mass organisations, have opportunities for shaping events. That requires not only that we remain open to thinking through the dynamics of the pandemic but also that we take initiatives with a bold energy. We should approach the coming period with a confidence that we have a greater grip on events than our political opponents. During discussion in late May Mark Osborn argued “Campaigning for a national ballot, now, would isolate us.” Unfortunately we are isolated and have been for many decades. If only we had more to lose! But opportunities to become less isolated will be thrown up by this crisis. We should attempt to understand the course of the pandemic objectively, not by highly subjective assessments about what we think will “grip” the energy and enthusiasm of workers. The ultimate test of whether our perspectives and strategies is have a grip is by testing them in argument and agitation. Bringing Martin’s anti-lockdown position into view, will aid is in the pursuit of objectivity and may allow us to seize the opportunities ahead with more conviction.
Martin Thomas: "When workers rise up to take control of government policy, it will not be to overrule the bourgeois experts… and disperse ourselves to our homes"
A story in the memoirs of Lenin's widow Nadezhda Krupskaya is instructive for our socialist attitude to issues of public administration where we lack expertise.
In exile, Krupskaya and Lenin usually rented a room in the house of a working-class or middle-class family with some spare space. Often their hosts were uninterested in politics or even right-wing.
In 1916 in Zürich, however, they chanced on the Kammerers, "a workers' family [whose] outlook was a revolutionary one and… condemned the imperialist war".
Wartime Switzerland had difficulties with imports. At one point the government responded by asking everyone to abstain from certain valued foods two days a week.
Unaware, Krupskaya bought the valued food on one of those days. In the kitchen, Mrs Kammerer explained why there was no police enforcement of the abstention:
"Once it has been published in the papers that there are difficulties, what working person will eat meat on meatless days? Only a bourgeois would do that!"
To understand the point, the reader who has a vegetarian or vegan diet as I do must step back from the specific "meat" question. For "meat" substitute any other particularly valued food, fresh fruit maybe.
Noticing that Krupskaya was embarrassed, Mrs Kammerer was conciliatory: "This doesn't apply to foreigners".
Switzerland figured as a more advanced bourgeois democracy at the time, but Mrs Kammerer, with her revolutionary outlook, didn't trust the government. Accepting that there were shortages, she also accepted that there should be rules to deal with them. The government was the only body in a position to formulate such rules. She couldn't tell whether they were the best rules, but out of solidarity with others she wanted to abide by them rather than find a loophole for herself. And that, even though she took it for granted that the bourgeois would find loopholes.
"Ilyich [Lenin]", writes Krupskaya, "was quite captivated by this intelligent proletarian outlook".
A more humdrum example in the same area is an argument we used in the late 1960s when the SWP [then called IS] proclaimed "opposition to all ruling-class policies" as one of the four basic planks for socialist politics.
So, we would retort, we're in favour of ignoring all red traffic lights?
Of course we didn't trust the government on its regulation of traffic. That wasn't a trivial matter. Road deaths ran around 6,000 to 7,000 a year from the 1930s to the 1990s, some 400,000 in total over those decades. The deaths were mostly young or middle-aged people, or children, so road-traffic accidents probably killed almost as many under-70s each year as Covid-19 has so far in Britain. And over decades, apparently without end. Many tens of thousands more were seriously injured, often seriously impaired for the rest of their lives.
(Avoiding lives being cut short in childhood or youth is an especially urgent priority. That doesn't mean that I consider deaths at my own age, 71, from Covid or otherwise, to be inconsequential).
The left campaigned on "social" issues like better public transport, as we campaign for better wages to enable everyone to eat well, and for isolation pay, public-health test-and-tracing, requisitioning of health supplies...
We had no grand alternative scheme for the technical issues of traffic lights and road markings. To this day I don't think the left has a considered view on Monderman's alternative on that question, developed from the 1980s and used a fair bit in the Netherlands but scarcely in Britain.
A workers' government will have to develop detailed policies on traffic lights, road markings, and so on. When a revolutionary labour movement is strong enough to take power, we will also be strong enough to draw on the resources of bourgeois expertise on those questions.
For the moment, however, we just don't know enough. There are plenty of urgent questions which we do know enough about, and we work on those.
Through considerations of that sort, I think, the revolutionary left (much stronger then than now) said nothing about the bourgeois measures against the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-20 (different sorts of lockdowns, face-masks, vaccines thought at the time to have been effective but now known not to have been...)
The pandemic was at its height in Berlin at exactly the same time as Germany's November revolution of 1918, but Rosa Luxemburg's Die Rote Fahne wrote nothing about it. The pandemic, I suppose they thought, was essentially another aspect of the murderous effects of the war and poverty. They knew they had answers to war and poverty, and focused on those.
The epidemiologist George Davey Smith, interviewed in Solidarity recently, argued that the exceptional flu epidemic of 1968-9 (which had a big second wave in 1969-70) should be reckoned as more destructive than the current Covid-19 spread. Some schools were closed, but only patchily. The death statistics were a bit lower, but they would have been much higher if back in those years Britain had had anything like the number of frail elderly people we had in March 2020. It didn't only because back then the vast majority of those who now survive to frail old age died before they could become frail.
I was only beginning to become active in the revolutionary left in 1968-9, but I would have noticed if the left had had a distinctive agitation about the public-health measures to be taken, or not taken, against the flu. It hadn't. As in 1918, we felt that we had many social and political issues we did know about and on which big struggles were underway, and we focused on those.
We can't translate that approach mechanically to today. The internet, much-expanded household delivery systems, and, on average, less-crowded and better-resourced housing, have made longer lockdowns, with "working from home", practicable. We can and must formulate ideas on, for example, workplace precautions (though we can do it only by tapping the best of bourgeois expertise, not by having some special "Marxist hygienics").
There will be "grey areas" between social agitation around the anti-pandemic measures, and comment on the "epidemiological" choices.
The basic truth still holds: with our resources, to attempt to figure as "alternative Chief Medical Officers" is false and can only harm the social agitation on which we are "experts".
Despite what Stuart writes, I have no confidence at all in the government to manage coming "spikes" or "surges" well. But I also have no confidence in myself to give instructions on how to manage it. I try to follow the debates and nuances among the bourgeois experts, but I don't have a "workers' lockdown" to counterpose to their policy variants.
When the SWP (IS) proclaimed "opposition to all ruling-class policies" as their principle, that soon became their stated foundation for agitating against Britain joining the EU, and then for withdrawal. Being in the EU was a ruling-class policy, wasn't it? So we had to oppose it…
That led them into supporting the old, discarded (for then: sadly, now revived) ruling-class policy (keep high borders round Britain) as against the new and more rational ruling-class policy.
Stuart ends up in the same plight. He denounces the Tories - but in the name of their 16 March lockdown policy. His answer to the virus is "workers' action to impose lockdown", or workers' action to impose the Tory policy that the Tories are too irresolute about.
The varying versions of March-type lockdowns were designed, advocated, and implemented by bourgeois experts, not by the labour movement or the left. None of those experts argued that the lockdowns were a good long-term policy. Their reasoning was that the virus was spreading so fast, and so little detected, that hospital systems would probably be swamped, as in northern Italy. Short-term, they had to "throw everything at it", not knowing what would work and what wouldn't, in order to buy time and develop more sustainable and evidence-based ways of controlling the pandemic.
Governments then added pointless "security theatre", like spraying the streets in Iran with disinfectant. If you look across Europe, often stricter lockdowns correlated with worse outcomes. I don't think that is because stricter lockdowns actually caused worse outcomes, but because the more overwhelmed governments felt more pressure to "throw in everything" and to be seen to do that.
It's not the case that more right-wing governments had weaker and shorter lockdowns, and more left-ish ones, more under the influence of labour movements, had stronger and longer ones. It's difficult to see a clear pattern, but many right-wing governments have had severe and long lockdowns.
All the bourgeois experts now reckon that with more testing and a bit more knowledge about how the virus spreads, they have more calibrated options than the shut-everything lockdowns of March (including localised and partial lockdowns). None of them gives guarantees than the less-blunderbuss options will work in all cases. But those options have worked in a number of countries (including many of those which have "done well" in the pandemic so far, and haven't had general lockdowns). They should be tried first.
But, no, for Stuart, our job should be to lever the labour movement into somehow reimposing the Tories' 16 March policy.
How? I think he agrees that the government's reopening of pubs, cafés, and tourism is dangerous, but he would also agree with me that a slogan of general strike (by whom? pub workers?) to compel everyone to stay home and stop seeing their friends, won't work.
Stuart knows as well as I do that mobilising the working class not to take control of the means of production, but to abandon the means of production, leave the streets to the cops, and disperse itself to its homes (and doing that from a startpoint of many workers being already dispersed) is wildly unrealistic. If workers were strong enough to do that, then we would take over society rather than just press the Tories to go back to their old policy and then disperse, leaving it to the cops to enforce our "workers'" policy on the streets. We can certainly win "social measures" long before the workers' movement is strong enough to "lock down" society (or, in real terms, to force the bourgeois cops to "lock down" society even when they don't want to).
Workers can and will accept lockdown measures if scientists explain the evidence and the reasoning, even if we can't really check it, as we accept traffic lights and the rest; but when militant workers rise up to take control of government policy, it will not be to overrule the bourgeois experts… and disperse ourselves to our homes, leaving the streets to the cops and the means of production to the bosses and compliant workers.
Stuart takes "lockdown" as a simple and well-defined choice, the one and only answer. In fact it's not. Lockdowns come in many shapes. There's the early-2020 lockdown in Wuhan where your family might never see you again if you went out of your house. There's the early-2020 regime in Finland, described by some as "not really a lockdown". Or Norway's official lockdown, described by Norway's public-health chief as "not really very different" from Sweden's official not-lockdown, except that the schools were closed (something the Norwegian government has now said was a mistake).
We have to assume that Stuart wants workers to "impose by direct action" the British March variant, stricter than most but not as strict as Wuhan.
Or at least the best approximation he can get. Stuart campaigns not for a strike by pub workers to close the pubs, or a general strike to ban workers from taking August holidays or meeting friends, but for a strike by school workers to shut the schools. School closure is not lockdown in its "ideal" form, but it is the best available approximation.
There is a certain logic here. Schools are more highly unionised than other shutdown sectors. It is administratively easy for bourgeois governments to shut schools, and, unlike with other sectors, the short-term costs to the government and the capitalists are very small.
In a number of countries in and around March, the first response to the spread of infection was to shut schools, and a general lockdown came later (or not at all).
So, if the principle is just to get as much lockdown as possible, at least up to 16 March British levels, then it makes sense to push on schools as the easiest area to get results.
Despite what Stuart says, I am not "anti-lockdown" in any general way. But equally I am not "pro-lockdown". I accepted the lockdown advocated by bourgeois experts (as a tactic to gain time) because I couldn't second-guess it. Not as the great and general long-term answer. I do not think that more lockdown is always better than less lockdown. I didn't campaign for Britain's lockdown to be made more like Wuhan's, or even France's, and neither did Stuart.
The basic objection about school closures is one that Stuart actually recognises in his article: even though the short-term costs to the government and the capitalists of closing schools are small, the costs to the working class are great.
As Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard and a vehement critic of the US pandemic policy, puts it: "primary schools should be recognised as essential services - and school personnel as essential workers… primary schools are essential - more like grocery stores, doctors' offices, and food manufacturers than like retail establishments, movie theatres, and bars".
In extreme circumstances, an emergency apply-the-brake operation may include closing schools. As it may, for example, halt non-emergency medical care for a while. At the height of the lockdown, much mental-health provision was shut down. But that is a short-term emergency expedient, not an "answer".
Though many governments shut schools first, and some have reopened schools later than places like pubs and cafés, now the pressure of democratic and scientific opinion (and working-class opinion too, I'd venture to say) has pushed many governments to recognise schools as among the last (not first) places to shut. That is progress rather than regression.
The social considerations could be overridden, at least for short periods, if scientists found that schools were top transmission sites for SARS-Cov-2 infection, as they actually are, for example, for flu.
But the solid evidence is that children and teenagers suffer much less from SARS-Cov-2 than older people. The record so far (possibly deceptive but it's what we have to go on) is that having schools open (as throughout in Taiwan and Sweden, and in most European countries, bit by bit, since mid-April), brings no higher rate of infection to adult school workers than to the general population. Where SARS-Cov-2 cluster sites have been identified, few of them have been in schools.
No-one argues that school children and teenagers are "not infectious". The balance of evidence so far (we can say no more) is that they are less infectious than older people.
So if anything can be opened beyond emergency medical care and food supplies, then the bourgeois experts are right to say that (on we can tell so far) schools should be high on the list. Above pubs and tourism, anyway.
We may get a big rather than small second surge in winter. The evidence so far on schools (as on most things about the virus) is patchy. We may find they originate more transmission than most experts currently think. We are for precautions according to the best scientific advice, and workers' control to keep short-sighted, boorish, lazy, or cost-cutting managers up to the mark.
Indefinitely-long full lockdowns are unsustainable even with a full police state. Even if they were "the answer" in principle, they are not in practice. Even China continued its lockdown in Wuhan for only 11 weeks, from 23 January to 8 April.
We have to live with those facts. We can't want the Tories to gain super-police-state powers, or imagine that (through a ballot under the terms of the Tory anti-union laws!) we can mobilise the working class to impose a Red Terror, not to win a civil war, but to force the recalcitrant members of our class to stay indoors for indefinite months.
Stuart describes full lockdown as bringing few costs to the working class. "A high standard of living can be maintained", he says, in the lockdown.
Most people have had adequate food; have been able to communicate with others electronically; and have had emergency medical care.
No education (other than a bit online). No socialising outside our immediate households. No sex ditto. No culture (beyond Netflix, Zoom meetings, etc.) No live performance art. No libraries. No non-emergency medical care, no routine dentistry or optician care. No new housing. No travel. No in-person political life. Little possibility of workplace action, because so many workforces are dispersed.
To signal to the working class that we consider food plus emergency medical care plus Netflix a high enough standard of living for them, and all else is bourgeois frippery, is not to combat the virus well, but to trip ourselves up. The lockdown has its costs too, and, as with the pandemic, those weigh most on the worse-off.
It is not the case that the lockdowns have narrowed life down to the "good" stuff, and eliminated only "bad" stuff. Finance, advertising, the military, etc. have continued while schools are shut down.
A few factories in Italy were shut down in March by working-class action, and a lot more workplaces (including in Britain) had better safety imposed by workers' action. The only case I know of, worldwide, of a whole industry being shut by workers' action was the closure of schools in Queensland, Australia, by the teachers' union threatening an (entirely illegal) strike. (No ballot. The union there is much stronger than the NEU in Britain. Unlike the NEU, it could certainly have closed almost all schools by striking).
But that wasn't the "lockdown… imposed by workers' direct action" which Stuart recommends. Other lockdown-type measures (which never became as strict as in Britain) had already been introduced under a state of emergency ("bourgeois direct action", so to speak) declared a full two months before the schools were closed. The school closures were the last lockdown measure, rather than the first.
The teachers supported schools still providing for vulnerable children and children of key workers (and those attended in much bigger numbers than under the similar dispensation in England). The teachers were clear that they proposed an emergency short-term measure (in the first place, just to start the next school holiday a bit earlier), not a school shutdown to continue for many months or years until Covid-19 disappeared.
They raised no objection when the state government reopened schools after eight weeks, though some other "lockdown" measures continued in Queensland. University libraries didn't even start reopening until three weeks later. Three and a half months after the schools reopened, universities are still mostly operating on-line only, some courts are still shut, and the state borders are still more or less closed...
If I'd been in a Queensland school at the time, I'd have supported the strike move, because we couldn't know the calculus of risks, and if the majority of workers feared for their and their students' health, better to shut down until they could win some reassurance.
It doesn't follow at all that the Queensland strike threat was the socialist answer to the virus. With hindsight, and observing the experience of Taiwan and Sweden, it might well have been better to keep the schools open, except maybe for the older (16 and 17 year old) students.
Stuart thinks we were wrong not to campaign for closing schools back in March (or February, maybe). I think that's another "we wish we'd started from somewhere else" argument.
We know now that by early or mid-March the British public health authorities had lost track of infections. (Retrospective estimate: maybe 30,000 new infections a day in mid-March, when the authorities were detecting a hundred or so of them). Possibly, if the public-health authorities had been able to track things better, and Britain had imposed a lockdown and strict quarantine for everyone entering the country in early or mid February, infections could have been kept very limited.
But there was no base for "workers' action to impose a lockdown" in February. We, the left, knew even less about the spread of the virus than the public authorities did.
As late as 8 March, we, the left, did not campaign for International Women's Day street activities to be shut down. On the contrary, we mobilised for them.
The left was still preparing to run a big street (anti-racist) demonstration on 21 March. We ourselves were preparing a "No Borders" bloc on that march.
I commented privately to comrades that a broader slogan like "Free Movement" would be better than "No Borders", because we might soon have to support big quarantine measures at the borders. I mooted doing a number of small covid-distanced protests instead of a single crowded march. Wrongly, I kept my comments private. No-one else seemed convinced.
Neil Ferguson and his team from Imperial College produced their report on 16 March (based on, as they said, information got from Italy in "the last few days"). The government moved to a comprehensive lockdown. We accepted that we couldn't second-guess Ferguson (though, with hindsight, it seems to me, he got some things wrong, and with damaging results). We accepted the lockdown. We were critical of it, and opposed some provisions, but we were no more "anti-lockdown" than Mrs Kammerer was "anti" the rules on food or we are "anti" traffic lights. Being as comprehensive as it was ("almost everyone stay at home"), the lockdown was bound to include school closures, and we accepted that.
Would it have been better if we had agitated for school closures, or strikes to force school closures, from mid-February, say? A few schools which identified Covid-19 cases were shut by head teachers, locally and for short periods, in February.
A formal ballot, with its long timescale, could not have helped. At the best, it would leave school workers in "waiting" mode until the ballot result.
Maybe we could have gone for wildcat illegal strikes, as the Australian teachers nearly did? I can't see that would have "worked". But if it had? We might have won something like, say, Poland, where schools were closed from 10 March but the full lockdown didn't come until 31 March. We might have got something like the July picture of schools closed and pubs open, but at the beginning of the first-half-2020 virus surge rather than the end.
That would have been no great gain, either socially or from the point of view of combatting the virus.
We are for strikes, but not because workplaces being idled and workers dispersed to their homes for long periods is our ideal. Generally, we are for strikes so that workers can return to their workplaces on better conditions and strengthen rather than weaken the ties of comradeship among themselves.
Stuart says that in May we should have campaigned for an NEU ballot in May to stop more students returning to school on 1 June. School workers, reasonably enough, were worried because general infection levels were running higher than in other European countries when they reopened their schools.
In the first place, even if the ballot had been held, its result could not have come through until long after 1 June. It couldn't possibly stop the extra students returning.
In the second place, the people aligned with us on the NEU Executive had supported a ballot, but had been in a tiny minority. With the union's democratic channels largely shut down, there was no way the Executive majority could be overturned before 1 June. At the very best, campaigning for a ballot would have been agitation on the lines: "We wish we could start from somewhere else".
In the third place, the arguments of the NEU leadership against a ballot had weight. With the membership largely dispersed, and the ballot being for many members on a choice between staying home and being paid and staying home and not being paid, the probability of a legally adequate turnout was slim.
In the fourth place, running the ballot would have given the employers powerful legal levers against the action actually feasible without a ballot and before a ballot result: using laws like Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 to refuse unsafe working.
In the fifth place, workplace-level agitation in some schools, combined with the wish of head teachers and local authorities to avoid trouble, actually got about as much result in keeping students at home ("locking down") as a ballot and a couple of one-day strikes could have got. More important, it also got some progress, in patches, on organising school workers to control their workplace safety conditions. Keeping students at home is not necessarily a big gain (socialist teachers actually wanted more vulnerable and key-worker kids to come into school, not fewer: less lockdown, not more). It is certainly of much less importance than the development of in-workplace organisation.
Possibly an NEU ballot now, maybe disaggregated, which can be organised for with school workers back in their workplaces, can be an asset in helping school workers to be prepared for the multiple possibilities of the coming months. That's a different matter.