That we are living through strange times has become the cliché of our day. Across much of the world, whole nations are in lockdown in an attempt to stop the spread of Coronavirus. This represents a total transformation in the circumstances we began the 2020s on just a few months ago, and there is increasing recognition that we cannot return to the way things were. But for the most part, this has focused much more on politically trivial, if culturally significant, post-crisis changes like the end of the handshake or more regular handwashing.
However, politics will not be immune from the death of the pre-crisis order. Looking to the past, we can see that crises on the scale of the one we are living through today cannot fail to bring about wide-ranging transformations. After the enormous collective sacrifice of the Second World War, the Labour government was able to foster a new political order, with the foundation of the National Health Service, National Insurance and the building of one million new homes. Equally, the crisis Margaret Thatcher was able to create over industrial unrest in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ paved the way for her neoliberal political order of privatisation and attacks on trade unions.
Although these two cases had polar opposite aims, their leaders both understood the utility of a crisis. As the political scientist Colin Hay has noted, crises become moments of “decisive intervention”, whereby the bankruptcy of the status quo becomes so evident that major changes must be made. In short, these sweeping changes happened not in spite of the emergencies that preceded them, but because they were preceded by such events. That is the truth that Attlee and Thatcher recognised, and the one that leaders on the left must recognise if they want to build a better world out of this crisis.
But the ways in which this crisis will be transformative are far from inevitable. Indeed, all over the world the right is seeking to use the current conditions to further their political objectives. In America, the Trump administration is exploiting the crisis as a way to build popular hostility and xenophobia towards China. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has already used COVID-19 to further escalate his authoritarian rule by gaining the power to rule the country by decree. And in our own case in Britain, the popularity of Boris Johnson and the Tories has soared remarkably, meaning this crisis could become a personal political triumph for the Prime Minister.
However, there is one fundamental weakness in these uses of the crisis. They simply do not chime with the way it has actually been experienced by the majority. The way people have responded to the Coronavirus has not been defined by xenophobia or the worshipping heroic leaders. It has been about solidarity, about looking out for one another, about recognising that we are a community of people who depend upon each other, not the individualistic vision that neoliberalism has tried to mould society into.
We have also seen a re-evaluation of who matters in society. The care workers classified as ‘low-skilled’ workers by Home Secretary Priti Patel at the start of the year have suddenly become essential to the functioning of the nation. The nurses that have had their bursaries taken away and pay squeezed are now the heroes heralded from homes around the world. The supermarket workers that have faced poor wages and social derision are now vital to making sure we all have the supplies we need.
The inequalities of our society have also been exposed by our current predicament. Whilst the rich have been able to enjoy isolation in luxury, many have been forced to spend their lockdown in cramped conditions with worries over rent and evictions hanging over them. As celebrities and ministers have been getting tests even before they develop symptoms, those on the frontline of the crisis have had to beg for testing and PPE. And the glaring racial disparities in the numbers of critical cases- with 33.6% of those registered on March 10th coming from BAME communities, compared to their 14% of the population– have highlighted how these communities are always more at risk at times of social disaster.
Out of this, there is an opportunity to build something better. Now that there is wider recognition of problems that have existed in society for a long time, there is the political imperative to do something about it. As much as the recent treatment of the NHS as a charity is problematic, people’s willingness to embrace it shows that the public sentiment for a properly funded service is there. We as the left have the chance to say that our nurses, care workers and supermarket workers are essential, and a badge will not cut it. They must be treated with the respect and pay that their work demands. We can say that our welfare state has been left totally unfit for purpose after decades of being undermined, that it must be rebuilt so that it cares for all those that need it. We can say that we will no longer tolerate staggering inequality, and rather than being bailed out, the rich and corporations will make their contribution to society through paying their taxes.
That is the case that must be made. The leaders who look set to lead the main left-of-centre parties in Britain and the U.S. have often been timid about presenting the case for such a transformation, with Labour leader Keir Starmer promising not to provide “opposition for opposition’s sake” and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden pledging that “nothing will fundamentally change” back in 2019. That coyness must be dispensed with in our current moment. Whether they like it or not, things will change after such a disrupting crisis. If they want it to be for the better, they have to, like Attlee and Thatcher, be bold and make the argument for it.