Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Save lives first - deal with the economic consequences later (by social change if necessary)


A time of crisis appears to be one in which academics will publish articles before they have been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication. Philip Thomas, Professor of Risk Management in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bristol has released an interesting article which relies upon the “J value” (which is a new approach to cost benefit analysis intended “objectively” to give a value to years of human life saved by safety measures in industry).

The point which the media have picked up on in this article isn’t really about the merits (or otherwise) of the “J value” but about the following observation;

“This implies that a recession resulting in a general fall in economic output of 6.4% per person over a prolonged period would cost more life than would be restored by Option 4 [early 12 month lockdown with widespread vaccination at the end of the lockdown period using a newly developed vaccine]. The theory behind the calculation assumes quasi-steady conditions and it is not expected that a temporary fall of 6.4% followed by an immediate recovery would lead to this drop. However a prolonged recession of this magnitude would be expected to have such an effect.

For comparison, in the economic recession of 2007 – 2009, the real-terms GDP per head fell by 6% between 2007 and 2009 (see Figure 7), and did not recover to its 2007 figure until 2015. The effect of the recession on life expectancy is seen in Figure 8, where the life expectancy at age 42 is displayed as an approximate proxy for population-average life expectancy. The effect of the reduction in GDP per head appears about 3 years after the severe dip of 2008 – 2009 occurs, when the clear upward trends for both men and women are markedly reduced. Flat-lining is apparent after 2014.”

The flaw in this line of argument seems to me that “a prolonged recession of this magnitude would be expected to have such an effect” because it has done in the past. In other words, this would happen if the way we responded to a recession was no different in the future than it was in the past.

Yet, if the experience of coronavirus has shown anything, it is that it is quite possible to do things which seemed impossible yesterday. The Government have effectively nationalised the railways (for the time being) whilst offering unprecedented wage subsidies (now extended to the self-employed).

If – instead of just allowing a recession to diminish our economy as if it were as much a force of nature as the coronavirus – the Government were to respond to any recession with a fiscal stimulus and redistributive taxation to improve the living standards of the poorest (not to mention a Green New Deal) then there would be nothing whatsoever inevitable about a reduction in life expectancy (because there would be nothing inevitable about a reduction in per capita GDP).

We must demand that the Government takes whatever course of action will save the most lives from this coronavirus – and if that then means we need further social change to deal with the economic consequences of those public health measures then let’s bring that on.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Welcome to my world of retirement - now what do we do?


Just as I am getting used to the idea of not having to go to work, having been made redundant after 33 years of local government service on 31 December, suddenly everyone else is doing the same thing!

All our thoughts must of course be with those workers who need to keep working (including particularly those who need to keep working outside their own home) – and that isn’t just the obvious categories, such as the health workers who will save thousands of lives, or the care workers in my father’s nursing home – today trading standards and environmental health officers (who comprised the first Lambeth Directorate I worked in all those years ago) have the job of enforcing business closures.

Faced with this pandemic the old slogan “think globally, act locally” has never seemed more apposite. The pandemic clearly expresses a warning from Mother Earth to her human children that we are testing the limits of our only planet (not so much by our numbers as by the misallocation of resources caused by the capitalist mode of production). This is a global crisis like no other.

The appropriate response to the sheer enormity of this global crisis is exemplified by the proliferation of mutual aid groups growing from the grassroots up. All credit to the anarchists whose practice is informed by Kropotkin’s concept of mutual aid, and who inspired this widespread and admirable response. Whilst Governments flounder in the face of a challenge which requires them radically to depart from the received wisdoms of orthodox economics, ordinary working-class people organise spontaneously to support each other.

It is now for the official organisations of our movement, our Labour Party and trade unions, to catch up with the rank and file.

Friday, March 13, 2020

If we should stop Labour Party meetings why should we not close schools and stop large public gatherings?


I am not entirely clear on the definition of a pandemic – but once an infectious agent has led to advice to call off all Labour Party meetings you know things have got serious. As the Chair of a Constituency Labour Party (CLP) who will now be deprived - even if only temporarily – of the sheer unalloyed joy of chairing meetings, this has obviously got me thinking.

The first thing I think is that the robust advice issued by the General Secretary of the Labour Party stands in stark contrast to the failure of Her Majesty’s Opposition seriously to hold to account our Government over their inadequate response to the current public health crisis (to be clear, asking Johnson to explain more clearly why he wants to let old people die too soon does not amount to holding him to account).

If we think that the best way to protect the health and safety of Labour Party members (and to make a positive contribution to the health of the wider community) is to stop our members from gathering together (even in relatively small numbers) then why hold back from attacking the Government for their failure to act to stop mass gatherings, or to close schools (particularly given the compelling evidence that this would be effective)?

The second thing I think is that, if there are other Party members who feel, as I do, that Labour should be more vigorous in its opposition to the Government over its lackadaisical attitude to thousands of untimely deaths, the decision to suspend all Party meetings prevents us from finding a democratic way to give voice to that opinion within the Party’s structures. In decades of activity in our movement I have never been reassured by any circumstances which limit the ability of the rank and file to criticise and hold to account the leadership and the paid officials – and I am reassured least of all in current circumstances.

This leads me to the third thing I think, which is that the definition of a “General Meeting” in Chapter Seven of the Labour Party Rule Book does not in fact specify that a meeting must take place in a single geographical location. It is (at least) arguable that the Rules permit us to arrange meetings over the internet (using the technologies that are now available to enable this). The General Secretary’s advice that we stop meeting, and stop campaigning, is plainly (given its context) advice that we should stop meeting in person and stop campaigning on the doorstep and in the streets.

No one thinks we should stop campaigning online (although there would always be much to be said for greater restraint on Facebook and Twitter) as you cannot catch COVID 19 online. Nor is there any reason why Labour Party members should cease communicating electronically – from which it follows that, if we can organise electronic meetings in a way that guarantees the democratic rights of Party members (since nothing in the Labour Party Rule Book precludes electronic meetings) we can, in fact, meet (online).

We can then express (if we wish) the opinion that our Party, in Parliament, should be holding Johnson’s Government to account more effectively and – where we hold any power in devolved administrations or local government should be promoting more effective preventative measures than those being advocated by our Government of the privileged by the privileged for the privileged.