A truce has been agreed in the virus-driven revival of the struggle between labour and capital.
The Government’s new sectoral health and safety guidelines, published yesterday, were greeted by the TUC as a “step in the right direction”, following talks between the Government, the CBI and the unions. Alok Sharma, Nadhim Zahawi and other Ministers who worked to get agreement will breathe a sign of relief.
But though a truce can last for a long time, it’s not to be confused with a peace settlement. And Keir Starmer, with the unions alongside him, is signalling hostilities.
Significantly, the Labour leader led on “safety in the workforce” in construction and manufacturing in his response to Boris Johnson’s statement yesterday. At first glance, his questions may have looked like an exercise in lawyerly detail-mongering. But the more one follows what he said, the more one comes to see that he was painting a bigger picture.
Starmer is manoeuvering to put the Government on the defensive over a return to the workplace and the safety of workers.
In effect, he was asking: “are those who can’t work from home safe to go back to work”? As he well knew, this is a question that Ministers can’t answer definitively. Which gives him opportunities to press them further on specifics, such as social distancing arrangements in offices, factories, schools and on public transport.
This exercise marked the latest shift in Labour’s approach to the pandemic. When the economic contraction began, Jonathan Ashworth was a model of constructive opposition.
The party’s position has slowly shifted. Consider Matt Hancock’s recent tangle with Rosena Allin-Khan.
And now we have Starmer’s upping of the ante. The risk for him is that he comes to be seen as a mere opportunist, willing to jettison an instrinic interest of workers – namely, getting the whole economy going again – so that he can score cheap political points in alliance with narrow trade union objectives.
However, the potential downside for Ministers is that they are forced into the position of seeming to be the friends of rapacious capitalists who are willing to see their employees die of the virus in order to make a fast buck.
(That business owners have no interest in risking the lives of their workers – indeed, that they have a big stake in keeping them healthy – needn’t detain us for the moment.)
Starmer is working off the back of the caculation that most manual workers can’t work from home, can’t furlough, are likely to be relatively poor, more likely to live in flats without gardens than office workers, and so are disproportionately more at risk from the virus.
Furthermore, they will contain large numbers not just of ethnic minority members and of Labour’s residual voters, but of people in Northern, Midlands and Red Wall seats.
That most of those who have lost their lives to date are over 65, and thus unlikely to be active in the labour market, is beside the campaigning point here. Which is that the Coronavirus is giving old-fashioned class politics a new lease of life.
Boris Johnson will be well aware of this – and will be more concerned about heading Starmer off, and this threat from the left, than about the restive Tory press, and complaints from the right about the extent of the lockdown.