There are a number of points of agreement that may help clarify the debate.
First we agree that it is important to listen to scientific experts and be guided by their advice. We don’t believe there is a left wing version of science. Where we differ is that Martin does not appear to have considered the possibility that Johnson’s administration might ignore the scientific advice or be slow to act on that advice in a crisis situation. I think it is very clear that the Tories prioritise the profits and viability of capitalist businesses over the lives of working-class people and this means they cannot be trusted to act according to the science when that advice threatens the economy.
We agree in a general demand to “open the books”. We demand full disclosure of the SAGE advice in real time. Making the SAGE advice public in real time would not only allow the workers' movement important information to judge Johnson’s administration but would also open up public debate among scientists and democratise this debate. Whatever the professional ethics of the individual members of SAGE they are under considerable political pressure. We should be skeptical about the objectivity of a committee that operates in secret and includes Dominic Cummings among its members. The committee may also lack some basic expertise: it includes no molecular virologists and no ICU specialists. But whatever the real or imagined shortcomings of the SAGE committee, we agree to the basic democratic demand for transparency. I suspect Martin will also agree that this demand for transparency should extend not just to the scientific advice but also to other aspects of pandemic response such as the production and distribution of PPE. We should be able to scrutinise the government's plans for a second wave.
In line with the scientific advice, we agree that a lockdown similar to the lockdown imposed in March 2020 is a last resort. I suspect we also agree that certain sectors, such as construction, should be closed before schools and other services that are important for human welfare. Where we differ is that Martin appears convinced that it is unlikely that another lockdown will be necessary, or if it is necessary then we can trust Johnson’s government to implement it in a timely manner and we need not prepare for it. I have argued that it is likely that we will again see escalating infection rates and there is a strong possibility that a further lockdown will be necessary. I do not trust the government to implement it in a timely manner and I think the workers movement should prepare.
We agree that March 2020 style lockdown is not a long term answer. I certainly do not think it is the “one and only answer” and have never argued in favour of a lockdown now or for an “indefinitely long lockdown”! It is an emergency measure when all else has failed. But that emergency might come and it will turn lockdown from an unpopular choice (as it is now with low infection rates) to a necessary measure to save lives. Where we differ is that I think there will be considerable clamour for a lockdown in the event of soaring infection rates. Martin thinks that lockdowns can only be imposed by “bourgeois cops” (despite the evidence of spring 2020).
Martin also seems convinced that school closures will be unnecessary in a further lockdown and has collated a number of scientific papers to support this view. Here I think Martin drifts into dangerous ground of selecting the scientific advice to suit his own political position. It is noteworthy that the Tory government thought it necessary to close schools as recently as July in response to local outbreaks in Leicester. If the Conservative government with all their secret scientific advice are not convinced that it is safe to keep schools open as infection rates rise, then we should not second guess the hegemonic view of the scientific community. Of course the evidence might change and there does appear to be emerging consensus that primary school aged children are low risk as spreaders of the virus. However this view is currently a minority position within the scientific community.
We agree that the closure of schools is particularly bad for working-class children who are unlikely to suffer badly if they get the virus. This is another way of stating that school closures are a last resort. Where we differ is in acknowledging the strategic importance of school workers who can impose a rough and ready form of lockdown against government orders. If school workers refuse to work then parents of school-aged children have to take time off to care for children. This in turn would be a signal for other groups of workers to refuse to attend work. It is possible to envisage a very rapid escalation that would pose the question of power.
Martin and I agree to a programme of demands that would undoubtedly improve the pandemic response and save lives: full isolation pay, public ownership and democratic control of social care, release of prisoners etc. However there is no way of winning these demands without something approximating a general strike. The Labour Party under Keir Starmer has shown itself utterly unwilling to pose a political challenge to the government, even a extremely mild social democratic challenge such as demanding full sick pay. Instead all criticism is made on grounds of “competency”. Of course we should fight within Labour to assert some basic working-class politics, but even in more favourable times sharp argument in parliament is never as powerful as mass workers action. We agree that general strike as a slogan is ridiculous posturing, but we are in favour of general strikes and seek ways to generalise and politicise even the smallest trade union disputes.
In this case there is no need to raise the slogan of a general strike. School workers could argue that it is likely that there will be a second wave and the government will fail to lockdown quickly enough. This could lead to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, including deaths of union members. To prevent such an eventuality we cannot rely on the government, or management to keep us safe. We need a legal right to collectively refuse work. Due to the anti-union laws, it is illegal for workers to collectively refuse work without jumping through an elaborate balloting process that can take around six weeks. The antiunion laws make it impossible for unionised workers to respond to an escalating crisis with legal strike action. However, school worker unions could use this lull in the pandemic to win a successful ballot for strikes in the event of escalating rate of infection. A successful ballot would mean a legal right to collectively refuse work for six months from the ballot result. This would then raise the question: when, if ever, should schoolworkers exercise their right to strike and who decides?
I am not in favour of schoolworkers strikes because it is administratively simple and low cost measure for bourgeois government. I am in favour of it because schoolworkers have already shown their willingness to fight the government on this terrain and because school closures are a real and symbolic
If schoolworkers were currently sitting on a national strike mandate then the obvious next step would be to set up a democratic body of frontline workers who would decide when to call a strike. They could demand the programme of social measures we know will limit the spread of the virus: all workers need the right to full sick pay (as exists in Germany), nationalise track and trace, open the books, homes for all, alternative state funded accommodation for those who need to isolate in overcrowded housing etc. They could refuse to return in September until this was organised arguing that children’s education was too important to risk a second wave. As infection rates rise they could demand other sectors are locked down: pubs, construction with a generous furlough package. Again emphasising that children’s right to education should be prioritised. Finally if we reach a similar position to where we were in March 2020 then they could shut the schools.
Others have argued that this is a “million miles from where schoolworkers are at” and maybe that is true. But schoolworkers might travel that million miles if the vaccine remains elusive and there is further bungling of the third and fourth waves. If a second wave is particularly bad then workers might conclude that we need to prepare for future. The strategy I propose would give the trade union movement considerable power. Martin’s arguments point in a different direction.
The lesson Martin draws from the story of Krupskaya snaffling up some meat during the Swiss meat shortages is that “it is instructive of socialist attitudes to issues of public administration when we lack expertise”. It seems to me to be a very odd reading. The issue here is not that the Swiss proletariat lack “expertise” nor that Krupskaya was proposing an alternative policy to voluntary rationing of meat. Krupskaya was admonished by her proletarian host who abided by the voluntary meat rationing despite being aware that many bourgeois households would be feasting on meat during the meat-free days. The moral of the story is that the ruling class often set rules that they then break for their own individualistic gains. But for most workers the principle of basic social solidarity overrides any desire to ape the ruling class’ hypocritical behaviour. Krupskaya in contrast acted like a latter day toilet roll hoarder or Barnard Castle day tripper: someone who puts their own individualistic needs above basic principle of social solidarity.
The moral Martin draws from this story is that sometimes, when we do not have enough information to make a judgement, we have to follow bourgeois orders. In light of this debate about whether workers should attempt to gain levers of control over pandemic response and lockdown measures, this amounts to instructing workers to continue to attend work until the government gives the order to lockdown. We may advise workers to refuse work on health and safety grounds if there is a specific workplace issue (lack of hand sanitiser?) but if the national infection rate is soaring and intensive care units are overflowing then Martin counsels workers to await further instruction from Boris Johnson.
Martin continues this line of thought by suggesting that a movement that was attempting workers’ control of lockdown would have fallen into the mindless position adopted by the SWP in the 1960s: “opposition to all bourgeois policies”. Any workers' movement that felt it had the expertise to second guess the government on when to lockdown during the next wave of the pandemic, is somehow akin to a socialist organisation proposing alternative road traffic regulations.
Martin draws another historical analogy: Rosa Luxemburg did not challenge the German government’s handling of the Spanish Flu. To turn the post-WW1 revolutionary left’s disinterest in the Spanish flu pandemic into a rule for how socialists should respond to the Coronavirus pandemic smacks of a vulgar paint-by-numbers “Marxism” that bears little resemblance to the tradition developed by Martin and the AWL. Martin is surely right that Luxembourg’s approach was a reflection of the general lack of interest in the Spanish flu by the people who survived World War One. It also seems likely that advances in medical science, communications technology etc mean there is now an expectation that pandemics can be managed effectively in a way that was not true for the people of 1918-20. We might also consider that Luxemburg and her comrades operated in completely different political terrain (a time of unprecedented class conflict) that demanded different political priorities. The Coronavirus pandemic by contrast has dominated and disrupted the lives of most people on earth on a scale and in a way that is unprecedented. The government’s mishandling of the pandemic dominates political debate and it is possible to see the political ground shifting very rapidly through the crisis.
It is worth remembering that in May-June this year the NEU posed a direct challenge to Johnson’s government on the issue of when and how to reopen schools. This action prompted right wing demagogue Richard Littlejohn to write “I thought I’d been transported back to the eighties.” (Who runs Britain? RIchard Littlejohn asks as teaching firebrands are exposed for holding ministers to ransom, Daily Mail, 22 May 2020). Although there was no workers' action as such, the school workers' resistance to schools reopening was perhaps the greatest display of trade union power in the UK since the miners’ strike. School workers did not worry that they lacked expertise to challenge the government's easing of lockdown. Despite the weakness of the NEU leadership’s industrial strategy, the opposition to school reopening was very clear and compelling, winning over parents, bosses and local authorities. On this basis the union mobilised members to huge meetings and recruited thousands of school workers and even with their lobbying strategy they were able to significantly thwart the government's plans for schools reopenings. When was the last time a union posed such a challenge to government?
My suggestion is that merely that next time round the union prepares so that it can back up its verbal opposition to schools being open with direct action. If the NEU took this path it would potentially open up the prospect of large scale class conflict on a scale unseen in generations: something approximating a general strike. Martin’s opposition to this is not that it is unrealistic. For Martin the NEU has no business challenging the government on this terrain.
Lastly on school closures in March. In early March there was considerable agitation for school closures among schoolworkers, including schoolworker supporters of AWL. But the majority position within the AWL was active opposition to school closures. Leading AWL schoolworkers argued vociferously against school closures without proposing any positive alternative. This opposition was quietly dropped at the moment when the government announced school closures. But the zombie policy (which is at odds with our commitment to bourgeois science) has continued to influence our responses since.