The Left Berlin News & Comment

This is the archive template

One year of coronavirus ‘lockdowns’

One year after Wuhan, the British government’s Covid-19 strategy is in tatters. It didn’t have to be like this


January 23rd 2021 marks the first anniversary of the Wuhan lockdown. It is now ten months from when the UK first introduced restrictions on people’s movement in order to decrease the spread of the virus. In this brief overview, I want to look at where we are now and what the Westminster government has or has not learnt.

The current numbers

On January 1st this year we recorded a record peak of 69,000 new cases in one day. The Whittington Hospital in North London currently has 66% of its beds occupied by patients with Covid-19; and it is one of 11 trusts with over 50% beds of its’ beds are occupied by this disease. There are 32,000 infected hospital inpatients, a figure 70% more than in the first peak. Of these 4,600 patients are receiving critical care, 75% of whom are less than 70 years of age. This shows that it is not just the very elderly who are becoming sick.

Huge pressure is being put on NHS staff, and the absence level from a combination of sickness and contact self-isolation is around 14%. There is an enormous amount of psychological stress being caused by current working conditions and through not being able to deliver best quality care. This will take its toll on the mental health of care workers for years to come.

The government still claims to be leading the fight against Covid-19 and to have done everything correctly and at the right time. Yet after 10 months of fighting the pandemic, how can we still be in this situation? With a death toll in proportion to population even higher than that resulting from the chaotic situation in the United States?

How did we get here?

There has been a deadly ‘groupthink’ from the beginning, apparently shared by conservative politicians and senior medical advisors. Whatever was happening in some distant place called Wuhan could not possibly come to trouble these shores, we heard. “It’s no worse than flu”; “We will soon get herd immunity”; “let the virus move through the community and we’ll take it on the chin”. Even the deputy Chief Medical Officer claimed that our preparedness for a pandemic was an exemplar to the world.

The reality was that recommendations from recent government pandemic planning exercises had been disregarded. The state took out third party rather than a fully comprehensive insurance, because it was a lot cheaper. Messages from China about the seriousness of SARS-CoV-2 were ignored.

The NHS, underfunded and understaffed, was not in a good state at the start, and it has neither been protected nor has it coped. What the government means by ‘coping’ is that so far, there have been no pictures in the press of people seen to be dying because of lack of intensive care. This is their nightmare, and it may still come to pass. However, to maintain intensive care capacity many services were stopped. This had a huge knock on effect on non-covid conditions. For example, it is estimated that there will be an additional 18,000 cancer deaths from delayed investigation and treatment.

The government must stop blaming others and take responsibility

At the very outset, the suggestion of probable public non-compliance was flagged up in the dubious guise of ‘behavioural fatigue’. This was used to justify delay in initiating lockdown in March and at other times since then. Public health messaging was terrible, with many rightly interpreting the handling of the Dominic Cummings affair as one rule for the elite and another for the rest of us.

Going to the pub became a “patriotic duty” but this was later blamed for an increase in cases, as was the “eat out to spread the virus” scheme. Dangerous family mixing for five days over Christmas was encouraged, and then reduced to one day at the last minute. Against the advice of the teaching profession schools were declared safe, only to be closed on the day that children went back. The influence of lockdown sceptics on government policy can be seen time and time again.

Meanwhile, the government has been blaming anyone but itself. Over seven hundred health and care workers have died, with those who have been infected often blamed by managers for not following official guidance. Shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were first denied, only to be then blamed on workers using PPE inappropriately. Public Health England (PHE) was blamed for not providing tests, despite this was not one of its roles after PHE laboratories had been abolished.

In any case, following the 2012 reorganisation PHE was not an independent organisation but under the management control of the Health Secretary. Therefore any of its failures are his failures. To abolish PHE in the midst of the pandemic was described as “taking the wings off a malfunctioning aeroplane while in flight in order to ensure a safe landing”. This analogy highlights the government’s rash and ill-judged reactions to events.

The second tsunami

Now we have a virus mutation blamed for escalating case numbers, despite the evidence that these were going up in December – before its appearance – and when Tier 4 restrictions were clearly not working. Mutations arise because of rapid spread of infections. In other words as a consequence of the loss of infection control, and mutations are not the cause of lack of control. In other words less infection, less chance of a mutation.

The government was warned in September 2020 that major change in response was needed to prevent a surge in cases but, as always, it was disastrously slow to respond. It has pursued a short term strategy of suppressing the virus and hoping for an effective anti-viral treatment or vaccination to come along. It searched in vain for a magic bullet rather than setting in place a raft of measures under the guidance of public health experts.

The current figure for deaths in the UK from Covid-19 is 110,000, but this is likely to be an underestimate. Data from a Leicester study shows that 30% of Covid-19 patients discharged from hospital are readmitted within 5 months and 1 in 8 of these die – missed from the ‘death within 28 days’ definition used for the UK estimate.

Government claims a ‘vaccination dividend’

The prime minister is desperately wanting to take the credit for an effective vaccination programme in the hope that criminal incompetence will be forgotten. The rapid development of effective vaccines is a major positive development and a scientific triumph. But the £350 million contract that has been given to Lord Ashcroft’s (a former party chairman and major donor) company is another example of the outrageous cronyism that has been all too evident and should be no part of a response to a pandemic.

Let us also remember that official guidance prevents people without an NHS number getting vaccinated. This includes not just undocumented migrants but some NHS and care workers from overseas – an absolutely disgusting situation. As roll out of the vaccine continues at pace, we should remember that this is down to the efforts by staff of a National Health Service. All credit for a successful outcome should be given to a publicly funded, publicly delivered health system and be used as an argument for future investment.

It really could have been so different

There are places like New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea that pursued an elimination strategy aiming to exclude disease and eliminate community transmission. This greatly reduced cases, protected health services, saved lives, and averted serious health inequalities. Their economies were actually protected, performing more favourably than countries like the UK that pursued a suppression strategy. In New Zealand there have been just 25 deaths. If we had replicated this approach it could have been translated into 340 deaths in the UK, not 110,000.

Shaming and blaming

Rather than look to its own failures the government much prefers to blame the pubic for not obeying rules, or talking of ‘flouting’ or ‘brazen defiance’ by the population at large and using the flawed concept of pandemic fatigue as an explanation. That impression is reinforced by media attention focussed on examples of rule breaking such as house parties, involving only a tiny fraction of society. The problem is presented not as government failing to meet its responsibilities but widespread non-adherence to rules – a function of poor psychological motivation, more prevalent in certain communities.

The reality is quite different, with repeated surveys showing a very high proportion of the population (over 90%) following behavioural regulations. According to Office of National Statistics, even the much demonised students – in reality showed a very high level of social distancing and low levels of mixing.

The main area of non-compliance is in the area of self isolation if infected or a contact – but this is only running around 18%. But why is this? – because self isolation requires support that is still not available. Contrast this with New York where money, accommodation, counselling, food and even pet care were provided and compliance was 95%.

The bottom line is that people get infected because they get exposed. This happens if you are poor, live in crowded housing, cannot (or are not allowed) to work from home, and are dependent on public transport. The costs of an obsession with getting people back into crowded work places has been highlighted with the 500 cases among staff of the government Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s offices in Swansea.

Judgement is coming

The narrative of blame conveniently projects real government failures onto imagined failure by the public. Despite the vaccination programme we must insist that the government is judged on its record. That is – over 110,000 deaths – the worst death rate in the world – and still rising. Vaccination is not the elusive magic bullet and, like mass testing, like the app, like the tiers – will not bring us quickly back to a pre-Covid normality.

We still need an elimination/zero Covid strategy, a comprehensive ‘find, test, trace, isolate and support’ system based in local public health teams – and these things still need to be implemented urgently to prevent even more wasted lives.

“Keep Our NHS Public” will be reviewing all of these issues in its soon to be launched ‘People’s Inquiry into Covid’ (details on our website). The main lesson will be that it has been political choices that have got us where we are and a changed political landscape is needed if we are going to implement the ‘Rescue plan for the NHS’ and build the kind of publicly funded, provided and accountable health service that is so desperately needed.

This is the text of a speech given by Dr. John Puntis at a meeting of Health Campaigns Together Affiliates on 23rd January 2021. Reproduced with permission. The website for ‘Keep Our NHS Public” is at:

News from Berlin and Germany: 30 January, 2021

Weekly news roundup from Berlin and Germany


Compiled by Ana Ferreira



Berlin wants to set up its own vaccine production

In cooperation with the private pharmaceutical company Berlin-Chemie, Berlin wants to establish its own vaccine production. “Berlin is ready to help,” said Health Senator Dilek Kalayci (SPD) in the Berlin House of Representatives on Thursday. The health administration is in talks with the company in this regard. The company is willing to set up its own vaccine production in Berlin, Kalayci said. The necessary resources are available “to set up and quickly expand vaccine production”. According to the health senator, the company has both a suitable production hall and the necessary staff to produce vaccine. Source: nd


Poor despite work

The corona pandemic and related policies do not affect everyone in Germany equally. A study from the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) concludes that “(…) lower real wages is emerging.” Also, according to the authors, one in six dependent employees is currently considered poor. This includes above all women, young professionals and an increasing number of older people. There is still a gap of about 20 per cent between the incomes of women and men. The wage gap in East and West Germany remained unchanged. The authors sum up that “wealth is often male,” and that the pandemic is widening the gap. Source: jW

Broad alliance demands more Corona emergency aid for the poor

In a joint appeal, top representatives of 36 national trade unions and associations demand a rapid increase of the standard rates in Hartz IV and basic pensions to at least 600 euros as well as immediate additional Corona aid for poor people. Never before has there been such a broad civil society alliance for a needs-based, poverty-proof adjustment of the standard rates to a concrete level. The signatories appeal to the federal government to finally take action in the field of poverty policy. The alliance also demands financing of the purchase of an internet-compatible computer for poor pupils and credit moratoria. Source: lokalkompass

Opposition to lifting the Debt Brake

Even if the pandemic were to be over soon and the economy recovers, Germany’s economic output at the end of 2021 will be significantly lower than at the end of 2019. Government spending, however, has increased – from short-time allowances to vaccinations. The question now is how to reconcile this fact with the Basic Law, which provides for a debt brake (Schuldenbremse). The Chancellor’s Office wants honesty and commitment. That is sympathetic – but not enough to modify the debt brake. It must be removed altogether. However, the hysterical reactions to Helge Braun’s (CDU) proposal show the debt brake is sacrosanct for many Germans. Source: taz

Corona: Germany forgets its refugees

There is eager debate about the damaging consequences of the lockdown for children and young people, the economy and culture, but what about refugees? They suffer a double burden: in addition to the fear of being deported, there is the fear of being infected by the virus and the psychological consequences of the lockdown. Memet Kilic (BZI) has therefore called for a summit meeting with representatives of the federal government, the states and NGOs to tackle the most urgent problems and challenges. Meanwhile, Wiebke Judith (Pro Asyl) points out that “collective deportations to various countries take place on a regular basis.” Source: dw

Life sentence for main killer of German politician

Stephan Ernst was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Walter Lübcke. Co-defendant Markus H. received a suspended sentence. Ernst had repeatedly confessed to the crime – but in three different versions. Most recently, he incriminated his co-defendant Markus H. On Thursday, the Higher Regional Court sentenced H. to a suspended sentence of one year and six months for violating the Weapons Act. Originally, he has been charged with accessory to murder. The crime is considered the first right-wing extremist murder of a politician in the Federal Republic. The trial took place under strict hygiene conditions because of the corona pandemic. Source: taz


Victor Grossman’s latest Berlin Bulletin looks at elections in the US and Germany

BERLIN BULLETIN NO. 185 January 23, 2021

The US-American nightmare, tight-lipped and pouting, was finally forced to gallop off to its luxurious stable in Florida. Almost every European joined in “Hurrah!” cheers as they watched him go!

In Germany, national elections will also be featuring the departure— in this case after sixteen years— of a very different kind of leader, Angela Merkel. The results are still nine months away, but we all know how much can develop in just nine months!

And despite all the differences, there are echoes and parallels between Germany and the USA. I can testify to one; I was an unhappy witness, just a couple of yards away.

Every year in mid-January, leftists in Berlin have marched —or paraded — to the memorial site for the anti-war Social Democrats, later turned Communists, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, both murdered on January 15, 1919. The event differs greatly from year to year, depending on rulers and politics, but was never fully forbidden except in the Nazi years. This year, the organizing committee called it off because of the coronavirus – or postponed it until “maybe in May.” As expected, several thousand rejected this decision . Most of them, as ever, went by subway, then walked the last seven blocks to the cemetery to place red carnations on the plaques. Also as ever, a smaller group of about 2000 started instead at Karl Marx Allee and marched for two or three miles, with loudspeaker trucks, banners and flags representing every leftist, progressive, anarchist, far- and ultra-left group throughout Germany, plus a few other countries and exiles as well. Taken together, and despite some crazies, it was still a stirring sight for those who like the color red! (Here, colors have different meanings than in the USA!)

One little unit of about twenty wore the blue shirts and carried banners of the Free German Youth – FDJ – the official youth organization of the German Democratic Republic which died with it in 1990. This hardy group, refusing to accept either demise, moved to its assigned position in the long row.

Suddenly, a helmeted, visored troop of police charged in against them, asserting that “the FDJ is an outlawed organization.” The parade leaders, including lawyers, explained that the FDJ was indeed forbidden in 1951 – in West Germany. But the East-West “unification agreement” in 1990 had stipulated that East German organizations were not to be forbidden there. And this was East Berlin! So why attack them?

But who cares about niceties? I watched from a nearby stoop as the cops moved in, slamming hard with batons, kicking, knocking people down, upsetting a wheelchair, and pepper-spraying. Two victims soon lay on the sidewalk four feet from me as friends with water bottles tried to ease their agony. For nearly an hour the cops charged in, again and again, hindering all attempts at social distancing. Finally a truce was agreed upon; the FDJ members took down the flags and banners and covered the blue shirts, and the delayed parade moved off. It had been nasty, vicious, unnecessary – and clearly to prove “who is boss!”

There was irony involved. How could this happen in a Berlin governed by a three-party coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and LINKE (the Left)? I heard bitter remarks about all three.

But this year will be marked not only by a national election on September 26th; there will be six state elections as well – and also Berlin on that same date. All the parties are jockeying for voters and the SPD, whose present leader, the city-state’s mayor, wants to move upward into national politics, is worried about the party’s low poll ratings. The current interior minister (here called “senator”) is SPD man Andreas Geisel, and is thus in charge of police. With hopes to win votes from some folks, those lovers of “law and order,” a show of violence is always seen as appropriate, and not only in the USA! Last October, Geisel sent in over 2000 cops, also with visors, shin guards, and even an armored military vehicle, to forcefully remove a few dozen women from a building they’d lived in for years in an “anarcha-queer-feminist” commune. The victorious police were called in at the behest of shady foreign owner-speculators who prefer wealthier customers. And to win votes.

And yet, for years Geisel’s diligent cops were somehow unable to find a bunch of pro-Nazis who posted names and addresses of antifascists in internet, smeared the walls of their homes, stuffed their mailboxes with threats, and set fire to their cars.

The LINKE, also hoping to win more votes in September, is taking a very different path, far more militant than in past decades (but totally non-violent). Two years ago, with the Greens, and the SPD as a reluctant partner, it pushed though a city law prohibiting all rent increases for five years and even reversing recent increases exceeding a certain level. Costs for improvements – real or exaggerated – were also tightened, and new renters could not be charged more than their predecessors. The real estate sharks were enraged – and are biting at the law in the highest courts.

Even before that final decision, the LINKE, with weak support from the Greens and resistance from the SPD (and from three right-wing parties not in the governing coalition) is pushing for an even more radical goal. A petition, after 77,000 signatures were obtained, must now master a far higher hurdle in order to qualify as a “referendum.” Within a time frame of only four summer months – and despite any remaining corona restrictions – 170,000 Berliners must have signed the petition papers – 7 % of all voters. If this tough task is accomplished, the proposal will get on the ballot in September, along with the election – and will still require a majority of voters.

And if all hurdles are mastered? Every real estate company owning over 3000 homes will have to give them up, for an agreed-upon price, to a public enterprise owned by the city. The term used is confiscation! Hit first and foremost is a company, Deutsche Wohnen, which would then lose ownership of about 110,000 Berlin homes and apartments. Its irate boss, now very active in opposing the measure, would hardly go hungry; his current annual income is in the €4.5 million range. And two other enterprises, each with about a 10% share, would hardly face bankruptcy: they are well-padded BlackStone and the Boston company MFS Investment Management. But a lot of low- and middle-income tenants could feel much safer. But win or lose, this is the kind of militant politics needed so urgently by the LINKE, especially in Berlin – and as a model for all of Germany. And let those real estate czars foam at the mouth. Maybe it’s healthy (perhaps against some viruses.)

To add insult to injury for right-wingers and racists, the LINKE in Berlin has now proposed a law requiring all public services, from kindergarten teacher to garbage collector and court staff, to meet a quota of 35 % employees with first- or second-generation immigrant background. This corresponds with the city population, but not with hiring – now with only about 12% of immigrant background, based on color, religion, and name. This will certainly lead to a very hot fight – but again a good one!

The fight is also sure to be at least as hot on the national level. And complicated! Since Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer surprisingly decided to step down as head of the Christian Democrats (CDU), a thousand and one (1001) delegates, voting on-line from their homes, handed the homophobic, Islamophobic far-right Friedrich Merz, former German boss of BlackRock, his second defeat in two years. The winner, after a speech less about future plans than about his father, a miner, was Armin Laschet, now minister president in the key state of North-Rhine-Westfalia. He seems (in only some ways) similar to departing chancellor Angela Merkel, sticking to softer tones while letting cabinet ministers be responsible for the dirty work. But he may not get chosen to fill Angela’s boots as ruling chancellor; more likely is the head of the CSU in Bavaria Markus Söder, a man with a truly Mephistophelean smile and changing policy hues, perhaps recalling a chameleon – but without even one big eye glancing leftwards.

How will the next German leaders regard Biden’s Washington? The so-called Atlanticists see a chance to repair close connections damaged by Donald Trump. But others say: “Trump taught us a lesson! We must overcome trans-oceanic snuggling and build ourselves up, more on our own, the strengthening center of a strengthening Europe – diplomatically, economically, and militarily!” I fear I’m old enough to hear disturbing echoes in such tones!

The SPD is similarly split regarding USA attachments and armaments, especially those atomic bombs now stored in the base at Büchel, each one far, far more devastating than the one at Hiroshima and all aimed at Russia. The SPD role as Merkel’s junior partner has whittled its poll standing down to the 15% level – less even than the upstart Greens. Some SPD leaders sound currently more leftist than for decades, even bravely opposing those bombs and huge arms exports to countries like Egypt or Bahrain. But can brave words alter directions? And, if the SPD does decide to step away from its coalition, might it founder, split, go under completely?

Fluttering ahead in the political desert is always the vista —or mirage —of a “leftish alliance,” as in practice in Berlin and Thuringia – but on the federal level. But while in those two states the SPD, Greens, and LINKE can stick together in quarrelsome togetherness with a majority of seats, or close to one, and no credible alternatives— on the national level, the three together now stand at only 42%, so right now that mirage seems to be getting more faded or distant than ever.

And there are other obstacles beyond arithmetical ones. First of all, the Greens could choose to discard their last leftish remnants and team up with the CDU, as they already have in several states.

And more seriously, the LINKE has thus far upheld its rejection to sending troops to battlefields or missions outside Germany. Boots on the ground are followed by camouflage uniforms and, before long, to “protect” them, drones, panzers, and bombers. Will the LINKE maintain this party principle despite its total rejection by the potential partners, the SPD and Greens?

Last week an important LINKE leader in the Bundestag proposed a switch; Germany should again play a part in “world security” matters, the LINKE must be more realistic, even spending more money on armaments — not as much as Trump demanded, but more than ever before. The world has changed, and so must Germany’s role in it, he insisted. In other words, the LINKE party should break with its role as the one and only “Party of Peace” and join the others in an alliance which, stripped of artistic camouflage coloring, is aimed at Russia, erasing all thoughts of the 27 million Russian war victims or the menace just one of those storaged bombs represents for all of civilization and environment, too.

This will be fought out by the LINKE at its oft-postponed, Zoomed congress. The outcome could be fateful, like similar questions facing Joe Biden; will Germany – or the USA – treat Russia and China as adversaries, to be out-armed, surrounded, and regime-changed, waving weapons costing ever more billions, even trillions, despite full knowledge as to who will pocket the billions and whose pockets will thus be emptied? Or will instead – thanks to growing pressure from people everywhere – a path of rapprochement be chosen, of détente or— in plain English – of peace, the cause for which Rosa and Karl lived and died? And so many others!


Private note: I got my first anti-virus shot. Painless, no aftermath and no costs; even the taxi there and back was free for us Group One nonagenarians!

All interested in earlier Berlin Bulletins – or about me and my books:


6 out of 60,000: Solidarity with imprisoned socialists in Egypt!

Statement by several LINKE MPs and MEPs

by Michel Brandt, Christine Buchholz, Özlem Alev Demirel, Cornelia Ernst, Andrej Hunko, Zaklin Nastic, Tobias Pflüger, and Martin Schirdewan


Ten years ago, Egyptians took to the streets demanding “bread, freedom, and social justice.” While the world’s attention was focused on Tahrir Square, Egyptian socialists took the struggle into factories and workplaces. Their efforts helped organize the strikes that ultimately forced former president Hosni Mubarak to resign. Even after Mubarak’s fall, Egyptian socialists are still working tirelessly for social justice and freedom.

Since Abdelfattah Al-Sisi took power by force, elementary civil liberties have been suspended in Egypt. Al-Sisi launched a so-called “war on terror” and imprisoned more than 60,000 political prisoners. Among them are Islamists, liberals, leftists, trade unionists, journalists, and human rights defenders. Independent trade unions and youth organizations have been crushed.

Torture is commonplace in Egyptian police stations. At least 57 people were killed in a series of executions in early December 2020 alone. Amnesty International suspects the number of executions is even higher. The arrest of human rights defenders from the renowned human rights organization Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the few still active in Egypt, was – despite their release after three weeks – a new low point for human rights in Egypt.

Despite its systematic repressive action against civil society, the German government continues to court Al-Sisi’s regime. The former Egyptian ambassador to Berlin received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in October 2020. Egypt was the main recipient of German war weapons exports in 2020, with exports totaling 585.9 million euros from January to September alone. The bilateral security agreement and provision of police support and equipment assistance was continued in 2020 – measures were only temporarily suspended due to restrictions during the COVID19 pandemic.

We, the undersigned, stand in solidarity with Egyptian socialists and all Egyptians resisting the dictatorship. We demand a halt to weapon sales and the sale of surveillance technology to Al-Sisi’s regime as well as a permanent suspension of German-Egyptian security cooperation.

We demand the immediate release of all political prisoners. With this appeal, we point to the fate of six of the 60,000 political prisoners as examples. They are socialists who were active in different social fields:

Ayman Abdel-Moati was arrested at his workplace on October 18, 2018, accused of “colluding with a terrorist group to achieve its goals and spreading false news and statements.” These accusations are part of a standard repertoire of fabricated charges leveled against dissidents by the Egyptian regime.

Haytham Mohammadein has been advocating for independent trade unionists for years. He has been in pre-trial detention since May 12, 2019 on fabricated charges. These include “spreading fake news” and “membership in an illegal organization.”

Hisham Fouad was a key figure in the movement against the war on Iraq and in solidarity with striking workers and independent unions. He was arrested on June 25, 2020, and charged with “economic conspiracy to finance a terrorist organization.”

Khalil Rizk is a public transport employee, particularly involved in union organizing. He was arrested in his neighborhood in Cairo on November 17, 2019, and was charged with “participating in a terrorist group, spreading fake news, and misusing social media.”

Mahienour is a human rights lawyer from Alexandria. She has been arrested several times on trumped-up charges – including “spreading fake news” and “membership in an illegal terrorist organization” – most recently on September 22, 2019.

Patrick George Zaki is a gender researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He was arrested on February 7, 2020, at Cairo Airport during his arrival from Italy, where he was studying. Patrick was tortured with electric shocks and remains in pre-trial detention on fabricated charges such as “misusing social media” and “spreading fake news.”


  • Michel Brandt, Member of Parliament for Die LINKE parliamentary group, Member of the Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid.
  • Christine Buchholz, Member of Parliament for Die LINKE parliamentary group, Member of the Defense Committee
  • Özlem Alev Demirel, Member of the European Parliament for The Left group in the European Parliament – GUE/NGL, Vice-President of the Subcommittee on Security and Defense
  • Cornelia Ernst, Member of the European Parliament for The Left group in the European Parliament – GUE/NGL
  • Andrej Hunko, Member of Parliament for Die LINKE parliamentary group, Vice Chairman of Die LINKE parliamentary group
  • Zaklin Nastic, Member of Parliament for Die LINKE parliamentary group, Member of the Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid
  • Tobias Pflüger, Member of Parliament for Die LINKE parliamentary group, Member of the Defense Committee
  • Martin Schirdewan, Member of the European Parliament for The Left group in the European Parliament – GUE/NGL, Co-Chairman of The Left group in the European Parliament – GUE/NGL

More information about the campaign to free Egyptian political prisoners here.

Blair 1997 – Biden 2021. What have we learned?

When Tony Blair was elected British prime minister, many people thought that Things Could Only Get Better. A few years later, Britain was at war and the Left was demoralised. A look back at the heady Blair years and what they mean in the wake of Joe Biden’s election victory


The Day After

I still vividly remember 2nd May 1997 [1]. May 1 is a public holiday in Germany, and as it fell on a Thursday, most people at work had taken Friday off as a Brückentag (bridging day). I’d been up late trying to follow the UK election results on CNN and the BBC world service and was too tired and hungover to do much work.

So, I spent the morning using the still-rudimentary Internet. It was particularly satisfying reading about the fall of Michael Portillo. Just after three am British time, it was been announced that Portillo, one of the smuggest and most hated Tory ministers, had been beaten by his openly gay challenger, Labour’s Steven Twigg. The best selling book written about the 1997 election night was titled “Were you still up for Portillo?” But this night was about much more than individual hubris. It saw the end of 18 years of Tory rule, and millions drew a sigh of relief.

Thatcher’s children

I was one of Thatcher’s children. In 1997 I was already in my 30s but had lived my entire politically sentient life under a Conservative government. I had just turned 13 when Margaret Thatcher won the election in 1979, and I looked on impotently as unemployment rose, Britain fought a pointless war in the South Atlantic and Thatcher privatised pretty much all State owned industry.

In 1984 she took on Britain’s most powerful trade union, the National Union of Miners, and won. After that she seemed unstoppable. Victory against the miners encouraged Thatcher to bring in a swathe of anti trade union legislations which made striking and showing solidarity with other trade unions much more difficult. Despite some noble rearguard actions, most notably by the print unions, many of the trade unions were effectively neutered.

In 1987, the first general election in which I was eligible to vote, Thatcher won a third term of office. On a bridge in Coventry, where I was living at the time, some graffiti soon appeared: “Third Term, Third Reich”. See, calling everyone you disagree with Nazis is not so new, kids.

Thatcher was eventually forced to resign, largely on the back of a full scale riot in Trafalgar Square against her Poll Tax. By now she was so widely hated that on the day she was kicked out, our bosses allowed us to bring radios into work. We hoped – wrongly as it turned out – that this was the end of an era. But her successor, John Major, carried on her politics. He may have been less confrontational than Thatcher, a little greyer, but the attacks on the people at the bottom of society continued.

Still, Major was expected to be a short-term stopgap, and we invested a lot of hope in the 1992 election, less than 18 months after Thatcher’s fall. I watched the election results come out at a friend’s house, in a council estate in Bradford, the city where I’d grown up fearing permanent unemployment.

It has been said with a great deal of justification, that Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party lost the 1992 election because of arrogant overconfidence. This may well be true, but we were all sure that this time Labour would win. This made John Major’s eventual success even more devastating. As the scale of the Tory victory became clear, we peeled off one by one to return to our lonely homes.

1997. Having the “difficult argument”

So, yes, Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 meant a lot to me. The nation was delighted, and I was as excited as anyone else. Blair’s campaign song was “Things can only get better” by D:REAM. Originally a #1 single in 1994, it re-entered the UK top twenty the week of the election and seemed to represent a general mood of untrammelled optimism.

So, I fully understand the similar euphoria on 20th January this year, when the Orange Monster was finally turfed out of the White House. This was also a time for celebration. Instead of D:REAM (and later the Spice Girls and Oasis), this time the soundtrack was provided by Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez – politics and popular culture once more coming together.

In 1997, I didn’t want to be friends with anyone who didn’t cheer the Tory defeat. In 2020-1, I was as eager as anyone to dance upon Trump’s electoral grave. And yet, as the euphoria at Trump’s demise slowly turned into uncritical expectations of great reforms from the coming Biden-Harris government, I started to have horrible feelings of déjà vu.

After the Blair victory in 1997, I started contacting friends in the UK about it, and some difficult discussions ensued. The start of the discussion was easy enough – wasn’t it great that the Tories had finally gone? Could we really believe it? How were we going to celebrate? But then we came to the challenging part.

Who was Tony Blair?

While we knew who we were dealing with when it came to his predecessor, Tony Blair was still a relative unknown. Neil Kinnock had wrested defeat from the jaws of victory in 1992. When Thatcher had attacked the miners, Kinnock had held her coat. And wherever there was a discussion about progressive issue, Kinnock was almost always on the wrong side.

During the media witch hunt against the gay Labour election candidate Peter Tatchell, Kinnock’s response was to say “I can tell a bloody witch from a fairy!” When the gay and lesbian people were under attack during the AIDS epidemic, Kinnock’s press secretary Patricia Hewitt wrote a notorious letter, saying that “The ‘Loony Labour Left’ is now taking its toll; the gays and lesbians issue is costing us dear amongst the pensioners.”

Blair had been selected as Labour leader because Kinnock – as well as his successor, the bland John Smith – were considered too left wing. Most of my friends knew this. Many of them said, well sure, but Blair was necessary if we were to get rid of the Tories. Some even thought that it was a show – now that he’d won the election, Blair would say that it was all a trick and deliver serious socialist politics. Virtually no-one thought that we may have to fight Blair as well.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we now all know what happened next. The privatisation of British Rail was not reversed. Indeed, PFI (Private Finance Initiative) was introduced as a way of privatising hospitals and other public utilities at the taxpayers’ expense. Schools were turned into education factories with tests for children as young as seven. Tuition fees were introduced at universities. And of course, Blair was an ardent supporter of George Bush’s disastrous wars.

In 2005, we had a new best seller. John Harris, a music journalist who has spent recent years attacking Jeremy Corbyn, brought out a book “So now who do we vote for?” Around that time, my mother – a lifelong Labour supporter who had joined the party as soon as she was able to – asked me a similar question. If we want to understand the excitement about Jeremy Corbyn, a large reason is the sense of betrayal that so many Labour voters felt about Blair.

Lessons for today

The departure of Trump was definitely something to celebrate. I was one of the few people who got together to mobilise a crowd of 2,000 people in Berlin on the day of Trump’s inauguration. For the last four years, I have been fighting against everything that he stands for, and against the far right groups this side of the Atlantic who were emboldened by his time in office.

And yet, on the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration, I made the following post on Facebook:

Fully appreciate the outburst of relief at the departure of the Orange One and his fascist friends

But please remember. We now have a warmongering racist sex pest and a cop in the White House. They are not our friends

This was not a universally popular post. Many people who maybe should know better are investing a lot of expectations in Biden-Harris. And there do indeed seem to be some real gains – from signing on to the Paris Treaty and the World Health Organisation to the removal of a bust of Churchill from the Oval office. Even Biden’s acknowledgement that Covid-19 is a problem is a big step forward from what came before.

But the problem with Tony Blair was not that he never made any reforms. In 1999 for instance, a national minimum wage was introduced, which benefitted millions of low-paid workers despite being set at a derisory level. The 2004 Civil Partnership Act was a palpable gain for gay people. The introduction of Educational Maintenance Allowance in 2004 was some help to working class people wanting to study. And in 2007 troops were finally withdrawn from the North of Ireland.

And yet none of this did anything to stop the rapid and inexorable drift to the right. Cosmetic trade union reforms still left Thatcher’s restrictive laws intact. Blair himself wrote in the right-wing Times newspaper that “the changes that we do propose would [still] leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world” [2]. Meanwhile Peter Mandelson, Blair’s Director of Communication said that “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.”[3]

There is a reasonable argument that Blair was able to make attacks on the poor that Thatcher couldn’t make precisely because he was the leader of the Labour Party. And it was Thatcher herself who best summarised Blair’s government: When she was asked in 2002 what her greatest achievement was, she said “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”

How can we win?

Biden’s inaugural speech did co-opt the language of the social movements which emerged against Trump, starting by saying that “The will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded”. Biden has promised to repair, restore, heal and build. He has promised racial justice and to “defend the truth and defeat the lies”. He has positioned himself quite adeptly as the anti-Trump.

Biden’s main call is for unity. But unity with whom? With the people who lost out from Trump’s rule or with big business? With the organised fascists who stormed Congress or with Black Lives Matter? Faced with economic crisis and Covid-19, without a radical programme, Biden is almost guaranteed to disappoint. The question is, will this lead to a radicalisation to the right or the left?

We should not forget that the much-hyped Obama-Biden years saw not just the police racism which led to the formation of Black Lives Matter, but also a massive shift of wealth towards the rich. As Matt Breunig and Ryan Cooper reported in Jacobin, between 2007 and 2016, the average wealth of the bottom 99 percent dropped by $4,500. Over the same period, the average wealth of the top one percent rose by $4.9 million.

This does not mean that the next four years will inevitably just be comprised of neoliberal devastation. This depends on the actions of trade unionists, of climate change activists and of mobilisations around groups like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Real social movements have been built around Bernie Sanders and against racial injustice. These movements must not concede the streets.

We may also see the rebirth of new movements. Trump’s disinterest in what was going on outside the USA meant that while he continued old wars, he didn’t really start any new ones. Biden is much more hawkish. As Adolph L Reed and Cornel West remind us, “he has supported every military intervention he’s been able to, including, most disastrously voting for the 2002 resolution authorising war against Iraq and ushering the country into the endless war against “terror” we remain immersed in.”

When Biden’s inaugural speech promised to “make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world”, this was just a polite way of threatening to send in the troops. His chosen Defence Secretary General Lloyd Austin, the former head of the U.S. forces in Iraq, is being touted as an anti-racist diplomat. But Austin served as a soldier for 40 years and is very much part of the military machine.

Yet Biden’s push to war can be resisted. One of the most important memories of the Blair years is of the mass demonstrations organised by the Stop the War Coalition and organisations like the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). There is a space to prepare for similar mobilisations – but only if you get away from the assumption that Biden is somehow on our side.

What happens if we don’t fight?

The alternative is too horrible to contemplate. When a ragbag of fascists and assorted esoteric hangers-on attacked the Capitol, they received the support of 45% of Republican voters. What worries me more is that a major rampage by white supremacists was allowed to take place in Washington with no serious counter-mobilisation from our side. In the dark shadow of mass far right mobilisations in Europe, this should give us pause for thought.

Trump has been able to build a mass racist and fascist base. This is at least in part because many middle-class liberals refuse to believe that the 2008 crisis has caused any real suffering because everyone at their Country Club seems to be doing ok. Any opposition to carrying on as before has been dismissed as the rantings of ignorant yokels. The more the pain of working class people is ignored, the more the serious far right will be able to recruit.

When Bernie Sanders showed that he could articulate the despair and hope for change that was felt by millions of people, the Democrat establishment (including Obama) twice closed ranks and ensured that one of their own was chosen as presidential candidate – first Hillary Clinton, then Joe Biden. This associated the Democrats in many peoples’ eyes with a continuation of the status quo. Next time round, if the far right find a candidate who is less of a buffoon than Trump we should really start to be worried.

My lesson from Tony Blair is that right-wing politicians are only allowed to speak in our name if we concede the field. The main divisions in society are not between Conservative and Labour, Republican and Democrat, but between above and below. We must ensure that our side remains mobilised against the attacks that big business and capital will make, whichever of their representatives are in office.


1 Thanks to Alice Lambert, Carol McGuigan and Mihir Sharma for comments on an earlier version of this article

2 Cited in

3 Cited in