The Politics of Uncertainty

The government’s educational omnishambles is stealing all the headlines at the moment. It pushes political incompetence to new limits. But behind the debacle lies a bigger crime. Boris Johnson is killing parliamentary democracy faster than the pandemic is killing people.

And though Labour is immeasurably more virtuous, the Party struggles to lay a glove on him.

Keir Starmer’s forensic integrity initially came as a welcome relief. But Johnson has merely shrugged his shoulders and buffoons along relentlessly. The sanitised nature of today’s parliament allowed him do so. Safe separation distances has depleted parliamentary scrutiny faster than it has emptied the Green benches. Prime Minister’s Questions passed from rigour to rigor mortis in mere moments. There is no Labour strategy for derailing Johnson’s dash into post-democratic politics.

For £50,000, Tory donors can get a private meeting with the Prime Minister or his Cabinet Colleagues. It is hard to measure the benefits they obtain because huge slices of government contracting now take place without any competitive tendering or public scrutiny. Virtually all departmental spending policies should have red flashing lights over them; none more so than housing.

Some £11m of donations to the Tories from the property industry have coincided with a raft of policy shifts in their favour. Changes in Planning Law will not make eco-housing standards the new norm. Instead, they will ease the way for unwanted speculative developments, in areas developers can make most money out of. Then tax changes – suspending Stamp Duty charges on house purchases – turn out primarily to benefit buy-to-let investors not first-time buyers. A mini-boom in house prices (in the South) may last the year, before collapsing employment overtakes it. No matter. It will be time enough for some to make a financial killing.

It is no better in health. Faced with the same pandemic, President Macron concluded that France needed to ‘re-shore’ it’s supply of PPE equipment and contracts for Covid testing. In contrast, Britain left 44 NHS laboratories underused. Instead, government contracts were splashed out to companies with no track record of delivering anything beyond personal gain.

The key strategy used by Johnson’s government to get away with all this is ‘confusion’; not as an accident, not as incompetence, but as a calculated act of policy. Often the incoherence is so bad you could laugh at it.

Cabinet Ministers can’t agree how many people it is safe to meet; whether this should kept to family members…or whether that’s worse; why shielding is ending just as lockdowns return; why you can go to a pub but not to a funeral; or even where the boundaries of a lockdown area begin and end. So what chance does the public have of understanding anything?

More coherent strategic messages, from medics like Edinburgh’s Professor Devi Sridhar[1] simply get buried in the welter of political confusion. The most sinister aspect is that Boris Johnson is using Covid-19 to dismantle democracy at a rate that is genuinely scary.

Test, track and isolate

Until there is a vaccine, test-track-and-isolate seems the one intervention strategy that works. On this, Britain’s record has been woeful. Multi-million pound contracts, handed out to Serco and other private companies, failed to deliver results even vaguely in line with Ministerial promises. ‘World class services’ turned out to be world class fibs.

One third of those contacted failed to provide details of those they’d been in touch with. Only 40% of people in the same household have even been contacted. And only 10% of the total number of infected cases have been identified. Delays in test-feedback times compound the problem, producing long (and disappearing) contact trails.

When Britain’s local authorities were finally drawn into the process they were asked to work with inadequate local data and insufficient funding. My own local authority in Nottingham probably typifies the national picture. Nottingham’s Covid-19 response costs have come to £88 million. The government contribution has been £23.5 million. To make up the difference, local services are having to be cut by £65 million. So, instead of strengthening the local safety net, it is being weakened.

Cynically/stupidly Britain ignored the lessons from other countries, where radically decentralised systems, running localised test-track-and-trace programmes, have proved more accountable and effective. Only belatedly has Britain grasped this.

Who divides, wins

Permanent insecurity changes a nation’s politics. People who don’t know if they can plan a holiday, book a wedding, visit relatives or go out for a meal, come to accept that short-term thinking is the best they can manage. Uncertainty breeds insecurity. And insecurity opens the door to rumour, false news and social division. Thus it is that communities divide into pro-mask and anti-mask camps, lockdown and anti-lockdown groups, and supporters of track-and-trace or its diehard opponents.

This isn’t accidental. Johnson is using insecurity and unaccountability to drag Britain into a patronage politics we’ve not seen since Boris Yeltsin’s looting of the Soviet Union.

Britain’s Boris assiduously courts the same oligarchs and corporate fiefdoms that Yeltsin did. Political support is rewarded with contracts or enoblement. Then, strategically, the creators of doubt, division and uncertainty are lined up to become the government’s next cheerleaders. At a time when both Houses of Parliament struggle to hold anyone to account for anything, there is an urgent need for a societal uprising that confronts this descent into kleptocracy. Even One-Nation Conservatives are beginning to see this.

Lords of the Dunce

Look, for example, at Johnson’s latest nominees for the House of Lords. Of course the Lords need root and branch reform but, in the face of successive Labour and Tory government attempts to centralise power, the Lords frequently became the nation’s defenders of democratic rights and public accountability. Not any more.

Much of the criticism levelled at Johnson’s Honours List focussed on the enoblement of his brother Joe. ‘Nepotism!’ cried the tabloids, chasing the distraction they were offered. Joe Johnson may, however, be the most progressive of those Boris is sending to the House of Lords. At least Joe had the guts to distance himself from his brother’s politics. What slipped by was a more forensic critique of the rest of the Tory nominations.

Apart from Ken Clarke, ‘One Nation’ Tories were conspicuously absent from Boris’ list. He was happy to put a Russian oligarch into the Lords, but not anti-Brexit Tories. He blocked Labour’s nomination of the former Speaker, but happily threw in a cluster of the most malignant ex-Labour MPs; rewarded for their unending hostility towards Jeremy Corbyn’s Leadership. The most troubling warnings, however, come in Johnson’s embrace of more extreme libertarians that the Tory Party traditionally had little time for. There is no better example than the nomination of Claire Fox.

Notionally from the Institute of Ideas, Fox began her journey of disruption as part of the Revolutionary Communist Party in the 1970’s. The RCP (and its Living Marxism magazine) must have laughed their socks off about their original titles. The RCP are as close to communism as fish are to becoming astronauts. All RCP activities were directed towards involvement in socially progressive campaigns…in order to undermine them. Once rumbled, they rebranded themselves under ever more innocuous headings. Back in 2003, George Monbiot wrote an excoriating article documenting the rise of the RCP as storm troopers for the corporate Right.[2] Today they’re back, openly championing neo-liberalism, deregulation and “confidant individualism”; none of which I can recall Marx being particularly fond of.

The rise of the misinformers

Claire Fox won’t be on her own in pushing this agenda. When Tory Ministers return to Parliament with a proposed trade deal with the USA, expect to see Fox (and other ex-RCP cheerleaders) re-launching the case for Britain to be flooded with American GM crops, and for unrestricted gene-editing. None of this has anything to do with safe food or safe science. It is entirely about corporate ownership of the food chain.

Instead of raising the incomes of the poor – to promote healthier food cultures – the Government will seek to flood the country with crap food, in markets entirely dominated by agro-chemical giants. Safe food, local production and British farming will all be hung out to dry. Look closely at those Johnson calls on or elevates to sell you this swindle. Most will already have sold their souls to corporate fiefdoms.

This pandemic has thrown all of market economics up into the air. But don’t for one moment think that what follows will naturally be more democratic, sustainable and accountable. If Johnson gets his way, the next stage will be less democratic than the last.

Britain is heading into an autumn of spiralling unemployment and diminishing financial support for the poor. Those who can barely afford to eat will take no notice of calls to self-isolate. Across the planet, the poor will risk Covid-19 in exchange for a day’s wage. As incomes fall, death rates will rise.

Ministers will wring their hands. Government lackeys will shrug and bemoan the limitations of the magic money tree. Someone must then remind them that the money tree is still in full fruit … but only for the rich.

Reporting on a study of 36 of the top FTSE100 companies, Professor Prem Sikka explained[3] that less than half had cut the basic salaries of their CEO’s during the lockdown. All, however, had accepted government handouts – as business rates holidays, pay for furloughed staff and government-backed loans. None ended their long-term bonus and incentive schemes that can double a CEO’s pay. The chasm this opens up is enormous.

Sikka offered the example of Ocado, where the median pay for a full-time worker is £25,000, while its CEO collects 2,000x that amount. Ocado isn’t alone (and is far from the worst). But it serves as an example of how the terrain of debate has to be shifted.

When parliament returns, the defence of meaningful democracy is going to be Labour’s biggest challenge. The question is, can Labour come up with a vision that will rapidly cut carbon and waste, redistribute wealth and ‘security’, and deliver inclusion and accountability?

Democracy or kleptocracy? It’s how the battle lines are already drawn.

Alan Simpson

22 August 2020

  1. Professor Devi Sridhar, , World Economic Forum
  2. George Monbiot – Invasion of the entryists
  3. Prem Sikka


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