Argument

In Pandemic Policy Response, the Left Has a Leg Up

Leftists in Britain and the United States say their ideas aren’t just relevant, but crucial to addressing the coronavirus-caused economic disruption.

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders take part in a Democratic Party presidential debate in Washington, D.C., on March 15. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

A week before he was replaced by Keir Starmer as leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn gave an interview to the BBC. The coronavirus pandemic has discredited a decade of Conservative Party-imposed austerity, Corbyn claimed, and vindicated the case for the kind of expansive public spending he had called for during the 2019 U.K. general election. In an article for the Guardian published on May 2, less than a month after suspending his campaign for the presidency, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, writing with U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal,  echoed Corbyn’s sentiments.

Corbyn’s crushing defeat at the hands of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the general election on Dec. 12, and Sanders’ subsequent inability to consolidate control of the U.S. Democratic Party primary race, might have marked the end of the democratic socialist movements that have emerged in Britain and the United States over the past five years. Instead, as the coronavirus crisis has deepened, forcing more and more people out of work and onto the benefits system, leftists on both sides of the Atlantic see radical political space opening up in front of them.

COVID-19 has uncovered wide-ranging problems in Britain and the United States’ deregulated labor markets and underfunded public services, erstwhile supporters of Corbyn and Sanders argue, pushing voters in both countries to embrace a suite of transformative left-wing policies. The question, however, is whether the transatlantic left, now sidelined inside the U.K. Labour Party and marginalized inside the U.S. Democratic Party, can seize on this renewed sense of urgency to achieve tangible political gains—or if the populist right will ultimately benefit from the electorate’s rising appetite for state intervention.

Leftists on both sides of the Atlantic see radical political space opening up in front of them.

Joe Guinan, vice president of the Democracy Collaborative, a progressive policy institute in Washington that has helped build ties between leftists in Britain and the United States, thinks the response of incumbent right-wing leaders to the coronavirus has legitimized concepts long advanced by the left. The historic fiscal stimulus packages enacted by both Johnson and U.S. President Donald Trump show that big government has come “roaring back” into public life, he told me, placing questions of economic ownership and redistribution at the heart of policymaking in London and Washington.

According to Guinan, the pandemic has demonstrated the necessity of public utilities such as Britain’s National Health Service and highlighted the key role of government in sustaining living standards through a welfare state. It has also revealed what does and does not constitute “essential work”: “We can live without the hedge funds, but we still need our bins emptied and our food stores stacked,” Guinan said.

James Meadway, a former advisor to Corbyn’s shadow chancellor of the exchequer, John McDonnell, agrees. Not only has the private sector suddenly become dependent on the state for its survival—the U.K. government is currently paying the wages of 8.4 million private-sector staff as part of its coronavirus furlough scheme—but workers in traditionally low-paid occupations such as transport and distribution are beginning to realize how valuable they are, he told me. In fact, since the coronavirus lockdown, which saw an unprecedented demobilization of labor, the balance of power in the workplace may have started to tilt in favor of employees—a trend illustrated by the spate of recent Amazon warehouse strikes in northern ItalyMichigan, and New York. The apparent surge in worker activism could help arrest or reverse decades of trade union decline, bolstering organized labor—a key political base for the left—and strengthening demands for higher pay and better workplace protections. “If you say people are essential, that makes them powerful,” Meadway said.

There’s evidence that public opinion in Britain and the United States is increasingly sympathetic to the left’s cause. Research published by YouGov in April found that 72 percent of Britons supported the introduction of a jobs guarantee—which would see the government provide work for anyone who needed it—and 51 percent backed the idea of a universal basic income paid by the state, to every eligible citizen, without means testing or employment requirements. Meanwhile, in the United States, one recent survey indicated that 40 percent of voters were more likely to support single-payer health care as a result of the pandemic. The United States’ unique experience of the disease—it currently has by far the highest coronavirus-related death toll of any country—is driving popular demand for health care reform, the data company Morning Consult noted on April 1: “As the domestic COVID-19 caseload spirals and economists predict a historic surge in unemployment, millions of Americans are bracing for potentially untenable health care costs and lapses in coverage, reviving questions about the viability of a health system that relies on binding insurance to employment.” By June, more than 40 million Americans had been made redundant and as many as 43 million were estimated to be at risk of losing their private health care coverage.

An ideological shift toward redistribution and higher public spending has been acknowledged by some of the most staunchly pro-business sections of the Western media. “Radical reforms … will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities,” an editorial in the Financial Times stated on April 3, as the scale of the pandemic was becoming clear. “Much of today’s new government activism will recede along with the virus,” the journalists Gerald F. Seib and John McCormick wrote in the Wall Street Journal on April 27. “Yet conversations with a broad cross-section of political figures suggest there is little reason to expect a return to what had been the status quo on federal spending, or the prevailing attitude toward the proper role of government.”

Left-wing activists have no shortage of policy initiatives to draw on as they seek to turn the energy and excitement inspired by Corbyn and Sanders into concrete legislative action.

Miriam Brett, the director of research and advocacy at the London-based think tank Common Wealth, argues that major corporations—airlines, for instance—that are struggling to stay afloat in the face of global recession should only receive government support if they agree to strict bailout conditions. Brett proposes that dividends and share buybacks should be suspended, the rights of workers and trade unions significantly expanded, and net-zero carbon targets integrated into corporate investment plans. The goal of these reforms would be to reduce inequality, give employees more direct control over the firms they work for, and make the economy at large more resistant to future shocks—whether generated by climate change, financial mismanagement, or another international health emergency. Even in the absence of Corbyn as a galvanizing figurehead for the British left, Brett hopes her proposals will work their way into the mainstream of U.K. politics as the outbreak unfolds. “How political leaders respond to this crisis will be a test of their willingness to hardwire sustainability into everyday life,” she said.

Such political efforts may already be paying off. On May 15, North Ayrshire Council, a municipal political authority on the west coast of Scotland, announced plans to adopt a “radical” economic response to COVID-19 based on ideas advanced by campaigners such as Guinan and Brett. As part of a wider “community wealth building” strategy, financial support would be provided to firms that promote employee ownership and public land would be utilized to tackle climate change, said councilor Joe Cullinane, a Labour Party politician. “As we emerge from COVID-19, we need to build an economy that is resilient and fair,” he stated.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Sanders supporters have been pushing for a “green stimulus” bill”—not dissimilar to the senator’s Green New Deal—that would graft far-reaching environmental measures onto the federal government’s economic recovery plan. On March 22, an open letter to Congress signed by hundreds of grassroots campaigners from across the county called for $2 trillion of investment in environmentally friendly infrastructure jobs. By channeling huge sums of public money into renewables, the letter argued, lawmakers could help speed up “a just transition off fossil fuels” and make U.S. society “stronger and more resilient” in the years to come. The letter was strategic, said one of the letter’s co-authors, Thea Riofrancos—an attempt to influence the ongoing rounds of stimulus funding being negotiated in Congress and equip progressive legislators with the “institutional capacity” necessary to implement “shovel-ready projects” once the lockdown has been lifted. “We need to start laying the political groundwork for when the pandemic is over,” Riofrancos said.

There is a sense that former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, is vulnerable to pressure from the left, particularly on green issues. On April 25, Biden appeared to endorse the idea of a green stimulus bill and attacked the Trump administration’s bailout program for prioritizing big business over ordinary Americans. Federal funds should be used to support “environmental things that create good-paying jobs,” Biden told Politico, not to shore up Wall Street and the financial industry. Three weeks later, Biden teamed up with Sanders to announce the creation of six Unity Task Forces designed—ostensibly—to shape Biden’s policy platform ahead of the November general election. Rep. Jayapal, a key ally of Sanders in the House of Representatives and long-time advocate of “Medicare for All,” was named co-chair of the health care task force, while Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another high-profile Sanders supporter, and Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the left-wing Sunrise Movement, would both serve on the climate change task force. “I believe in our movement’s ability to begin winning a Green New Deal under a President Biden,” Prakash wrote on May 13.

As Corbyn’s remarks in March suggest, the Anglo-American left clearly feels vindicated by the coronavirus crisis—or rather, by what it sees as the failure of neoliberal governments and markets to manage the social and economic effects of the pandemic. But leftists aren’t uniformly optimistic about how the politics of this moment are likely to play out. Some activists are worried that the right will use the crisis to consolidate its political authority, for example by imposing stricter border controls or by taking advantage of contact tracing apps to expand government surveillance.

The right could also capitalize on the huge increases in public spending that Johnson and Trump have overseen. Even before the pandemic, Johnson was keen to reconfigure his party as a champion of government investment—with the aim of permanently capturing the “red wall” seats in northern England that Labour lost to the Conservatives six months ago. During the 2019 U.K. general election, Johnson promised an end to the austerity imposed by previous Tory governments and to start “leveling up” Britain’s core national infrastructure. Now, as the pandemic rages and the National Health Service becomes the focal point of British political life, Johnson may be tempted to intensify this approach. The left has much to fear from the Tories shedding free-market orthodoxy and “draping themselves in the NHS,” the socialist academic Leo Panitch, who has written extensively about politics in the U.K., told me. Likewise, in the United States, Republican demands for deep cuts to public expenditure may be more muted in the coming months than they were in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, clearing the way for Trump to present himself as the architect of a stimulus-led economic rebound before Americans go to the polls in November.

After a period of ascendancy, in its current post-Corbyn, post-Sanders predicament, the Anglo-American left finds itself once again relegated to the electoral margins, even as the policies it popularized—a fully funded health service, a state-backed income, and stronger labor market protections—have moved decisively into the political mainstream. The result is a degree of strategic confusion: Campaigners loyal to Corbyn are debating whether or not to remain inside the Labour Party in the hope of pushing the comparatively moderate leadership of Starmer in a more radical direction; Sanders supporters are weighing up the pros and cons of voting for Biden this fall or abstaining from the presidential election altogether. Nonetheless, leftists in Britain and the United States remain convinced their ideas aren’t just relevant to the disruption caused by COVID-19, but crucial to resolving it.

Jamie Maxwell is a political journalist and writer based in Edinburgh.
 Twitter: @jamiedmaxwell

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