- Interview by
- David Broder
The COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t just demand a public health care response, but also action to support incomes during the economic slowdown. On Friday March 20, British chancellor Rishi Sunak claimed to do just this, announcing that the government would guarantee 80 percent of workers’ salaries, up to £2,500 a month. The largest state intervention in the private sector since World War II, the total £350 billion package was all the more striking in that it came from a Tory chancellor.
Faced with the coronavirus-induced panic, today even right-wing outlets are vaunting the merits of “Corbynite economics,” and “nationalizing the economy.” Clearly, the economic argument has changed even since December’s general election. But there are also major limits to the government’s plans — it has rejected calls to increase Statutory Sick Pay above the current £94.25 a week, and the situation of freelancers, the informally employed, and many private renters, remains unclear.
Navendu Mishra is the Labour MP for Stockport. Two weeks after his maiden speech to Parliament, he spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about the government response to COVID-19, the extra pressures on working people in this crisis situation, and how the incoming Labour leadership can stand up for socialist values.
Two weeks ago, you made your maiden speech in Parliament, where MPs often talk about their own constituency. Citing Friedrich Engels’s unflattering comments about Stockport you emphasized how it has changed since the days of “smoke-belching chimneys.” Yet you added that there’s still haves and have-nots in Stockport— and a recent record of spending cuts. Can you tell us what kind of effect this has in a time of coronavirus?
There’s no hospital in my own constituency, but the four constituencies in the Stockport Metropolitan Borough are served by Stepping Hill hospital. Three weeks ago, Stockport Unison health branch members told me that over the last ten years there’s been a lot of cuts — they claim they’re being underfunded by £170 million a year. As well as hospitals, local schools have had an £8 million shortfall and the council £100 million — that’s a lot of money. So, many argue that the state is so diminished by austerity that the response to coronavirus isn’t as good as it could have been.
There’s a major issue of staff shortages in hospitals, with tens of thousands of unfilled vacancies. In the Stockport Express I wrote about the health care assistants’ campaign. They’re having to do jobs that nurses should be doing — but they’re paid a lot less and they’re campaigning for fair pay. Sadly, the Accident and Emergency (A&E) here is one of the worst performing in England in terms of waiting times, which is a real concern. That’s not the fault of the staff, whether doctors and nurses, admin personnel or cleaners. But long-term cuts have had a lasting impact on A&E as well as other parts of the hospital.
There are really good local organizations, from before this crisis, like the Wellspring center, which supports the homeless, to Smart Works, a national charity with an office in Stockport which helps unemployed women. In the last two weeks lots of organizations have popped up on social media, or via WhatsApp groups, to support people who can’t go shopping for themselves — including health workers on the front line. My office put together a Google form to signpost people to these organizations and we’ve also written to food banks and schools offering support.
This is, indeed a quite mixed constituency with some more affluent areas like Heatons South and others like Brinnington where life expectancy is up to ten years lower. The underlying issue is poverty and the worse services in poorer areas. That’s not at all about criticizing people in more middle-class areas but insisting the services for less affluent parts need levelling up.
In a question to the Health Secretary in Parliament on Tuesday you highlighted the particular problem facing care staff. What kind of help do these workers need?
When I was working as an organizer for Unison, I used to work a lot with the care sector — so I have some experience speaking with (and standing outside street not being allowed to speak with) these workers. There’s this idea that the sector must pay well and have good hours — but it’s not true.
Lots of these workers are on zero-hours contracts, working for multiple employers, i.e., private companies. Often, they’ll struggle to prove that they’re eligible for statutory sick pay — forcing even the ill to go into work, despite the coronavirus risk.
The whole sector today is designed for private firms to maximize their profits and provide the service at the lowest cost. The workers are mostly women — a lot of them from abroad — and they tend to get exploited.
On Tuesday I thought it was a good opportunity to ask Health Secretary Matt Hancock about this issue. He said the budget would address this, which wasn’t much of an answer. The government statement on Friday was a step in the right direction, but what’s missing is all the detail. I appreciate the government is trying to act quickly, but it looks like it doesn’t have a good understanding of the situation for the self-employed and indeed the bogus self-employed.
You’ve backed a call for an emergency Universal Basic Income (UBI) — why do you think this is needed?
I’ll start by saying that I don’t think that UBI is a solution to all our problems. Lots of people with right-wing politics think UBI is an alternative to the state providing libraries, health care. and education — even the Trump administration is talking about sending checks to households. I don’t at all believe that you can give people money in exchange for withdrawing public services — the current crisis shows how much we need strong health care, and the same goes for other public services.
But we could support UBI as an emergency measure, on a fixed-term timeline. Labour MP Alex Sobel wrote a letter backing such a policy, and I along with MPs from seven parties signed it. It’s a start — it could help people who are self-employed or on zero-hours contracts, particularly as these types of workers risk falling through the cracks of measures designed to channel money to workers via their employers.
How much have trade unions informed what you’re doing in Parliament?
It’s essential. On Wednesday, I raised the case of the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) offering postal workers as an extra emergency service to deal with the fallout of coronavirus, and the GMB are also providing useful briefings on the collapse of the airline Flybe during this crisis. As well as the ties I have with the CWU in my constituency I’m a member of the Unite and RMT parliamentary groups.
There’s a lot of concerns among MPs among several different parties that there need to be more social-distancing measures. London has the highest number of cases, and here people are living in smaller accommodation, closer together, and heavily relying on public transport. That’s a concern raised by the RMT as well as other unions, as transport staff are being exposed to people from all over the world on a daily basis.
Of course, another big issue is what this means for renters and especially private tenants — on Twitter, lots of people are reporting threats from their landlords that they need to put paying the rent first.
We should be fair in our criticisms, so I’ll say I think the government directive on banning section 21 evictions (i.e., a short-notice eviction without reason) is a positive step. But there’s also lots of people in London who share apartments or don’t legally have a contract, who are paying cash-in-hand — and the government measures don’t protect these people.
The government needs to recognize that housing is a massive issue — indeed, it was even before this crisis. Some research says since 2010 homelessness has doubled, and there’s a lot of hidden homeless who don’t show up in the statistics, like people couch-surfing or staying in hostels, and don’t have a home of their own.
As well as the hidden homeless, in the big cities it’s painful to see how many people are literally sleeping out in the cold. In my own constituency I’ve written to Stockport Homes, to the local council and homeless charities about providing support for those currently facing eviction proceedings. The government needs to be bolder on support for private tenants in particular, because those who are self-employed, on zero hours contracts or not on stable income will struggle to pay the rent and the bills.
That’s also about making us of the capacity that’s available, for health care as well as for housing. Other EU countries are requisitioning beds from hotels and private hospitals — for instance, Spain did so, and instructed medical suppliers to pitch in. It’s not right that the National Health Service (NHS) should pay £2.4 billion a day for private hospital beds.
Right-wing outlets like the Spectator and the Telegraph have been calling Rishi Sunak’s interventions a kind of Corbynism, some say even the end of neoliberalism. Of course, we could question whether this is, really, more a state bailout of private business — but it seems that the Tories are trying to lock down their claim to represent workers. How do you think Labour, and especially the incoming leadership, can assert the kind of principles that were in the last manifesto?
It’s difficult, because when there’s a global viral crisis it’s a problem to be seen as scoring “party-political” points. But when it comes to briefs like the Shadow Health or Education secretaries, there’s a lot Labour can do. A lot of what the government is putting forward is not well-thought-through or needs scrutiny — or even coming too slowly.
If we look at measures that have been taken regarding things like rights for tenants, raising a collective voice for care-workers, or helping workers deal with potential wage loss, those are things that have come from the Labour benches.
But that also relates to a problem in Parliament. Some staff who aren’t paid so well are in self-isolation — and there’s also MPs in self-isolation who can’t vote, or ones with conditions worrying that Parliament hasn’t been shut down yet. Of course, there are some people who want to uphold the tradition of going into the lobbies, but it’s perfectly possible to have online debates and votes — after all, we can sign Early Day Motions online. All this mustn’t be an excuse for Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings to steamroll Parliament.
As for the Labour leadership, for now the campaigns are suspended. People should be realistic about the fact that a lot of the policies we outlined previously are now being replicated by the Tories. But it’s important that whenever the next election comes, we do build on the last manifesto. Of course, it will need updating for then, but as in this crisis we’ll need to uphold the same principles of public ownership and democratic control. For now, we’re faced with a raft of emergency legislation, but we have to be asking the important and difficult questions.