Anyone who has read 1984 by George Orwell will be watching Big Boris this winter, as he attempts to memory hole his mistakes if Covid-19 causes a high number of deaths among the old and vulnerable again. Already, we are hearing murmurs that the “irreversible” relaxations of rules may not be so irreversible after all. But if the Prime Minister tries to impose another lockdown, another Orwell text will become a must-read: The Road To Wigan Pier.
“I am a degenerate modern semi-intellectual who would die if I did not get my early morning cup of tea and my New Statesman every Friday,” Orwell wrote in his 1937 sociological investigation into the living conditions of the British working class. “Clearly I do not, in a sense, ‘want’ to return to a simpler, harder, probably agricultural way of life. In the same sense I don’t ‘want’ to cut down on my drinking, to pay my debts, to take enough exercise, to be faithful to my wife, etc. etc. But in another and more permanent sense I do want these things, and perhaps in the same sense I want a civilization in which ‘progress’ is not definable as making the world safe for little fat men.”
Replace “probably agricultural” with “virus-ridden” and “little fat men” with “the Tory front bench”, and this is unfortunately where we are. Some contributing factors as to why Boris Johnson ended up in hospital with Covid-19 might have been because he is in his late-fifties, male and overweight. The prospects of the young, fit and healthy were sacrificed when public health advice could have been more clear about which lives were, in fact, at risk.
Covid has sown more class division than almost any other social challenge this century, and the chattering classes do not appear to have noticed. Lockdown may have felt like a better way to live if you had a secure income, house, garden and family to spend a lot more time at home with. But the truth is millions of people in this country weren’t ever “locked down” – because they had to fix the broadband, stock the supermarket shelves, and clear away the rubbish. They just lost all their rights to have a pint at the end of the day and hug their own relatives.
If the Labour party hopes to return from electoral oblivion, it needs to ask what the British working-class – specifically – thinks about the prospect of lockdown now. If we all formulated our views purely from reading Twitter, it’s clear the face-mask mandate would not be lifted – perhaps ever. But I wonder if those who would be forced to wear face masks, day in day out, for eight hours a day for the rest of their lives, would agree if anyone went to the trouble of asking them.
If the results of pretty much every election that has taken place in Britain since 2016 were anything to go by, Labour struggles to read the minds of the many in this country who earn less than the median £31,461 a year and never attended a university.
But that used to be the Labour party’s core vote – so Keir Starmer needs to get to know this crucial information.
Even with the furlough scheme, the lockdowns we have already had have been ruinous to the long-term prospects of the under-35s. The number of young people in employment has fallen by 329,000 since the start of the pandemic – no wonder, when the sectors that have been shut down (hospitality, tourism, events) are the ones that tend to employ young, casual and low-paid workers. The picture is even worse among ethnic minorities: in April 2021, unemployment among young black youth was 40 per cent – a similar level to that during the Brixton riots. Renters in houseshares have endured what is essentially house arrest with a reduced amount of personal space. Ministers in million pound homes have no concept of the financial insecurity and mental turmoil they are inflicting on the poorest in society.
Orwell was an Old Etonian – similar to the Prime Minister – but he cared about what was going on in the society he lived in. Starmer could do with spending a bit more time in Wigan – or talk to his MP there: Lisa Nandy. “[Boris Johnson] doesn’t seem to have grasped the scale of anger about people who make the rules, but think they’re above them,” Nandy told the Evening Standard in June. “We can’t have any more lockdowns.”
If the Prime Minister wants to declare another one to bring down rising cases this autumn or winter, London may agree with him, but he’ll likely lose Hartlepool forever – because it will destroy whatever remains of its hospitality industry as surely as Margaret Thatcher did for the mines. “All people with small, insecure incomes… ought to be fighting on the same side,” Orwell argued. “Poverty is poverty, whether the tool you work with is a pick-axe or a fountain pen.” The old and vulnerable must be protected this winter, but thanks to the vaccine roll-out there are ways to achieve that which don’t involve risking millions of jobs just to make the comfortable classes – who will never bear the brunt of lockdown – feel a bit safer.
It is Labour’s core constituency who have most to lose from another lockdown. And Starmer should find his voice and stand up for them.