Working-class based campaign needed

Greater Manchester coronavirus row

Working-class based campaign needed

Roger Bannister

It is undoubtedly true that the defiance of Tier Three coronavirus proposals for Greater Manchester shown by its Labour metro mayor, Andy Burnham, took the Tory government by surprise.

Thirty five miles away in the Liverpool City Region, workers began to grumble that their own metro mayor, Steve Rotheram, now dubbed ‘roll over Rotheram’ in the city, had given in too easily to the Tories, and should have stood up to them.

Since then, both Johnson and other Tory spokespersons have praised Rotheram for his cooperation and used this as a stick with which to beat Burnham.

When Burnham’s response hit the news, the 21 September minutes of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, SAGE, had just been published, calling for a national lockdown across England, which Boris Johnson had refused to introduce.

This destroyed the carefully preserved myth that the government was simply implementing advice received and opened the door to the idea of regional and local administrations taking their own advice and determining local restrictions themselves.

Burnham posed the issue as one of both defending and supporting local businesses, and giving financial support to workers who would be laid off work, calling for the original 80% of wages furlough scheme to be applied, as opposed to the new lower 67% rate. The government felt obliged to negotiate with him, which must have caused them to question the advisability of introducing elected metro mayors in the first place!

The government originally offered a support package of £55 million, and Burnham and the constituent councils in the City Region asked for £90 million.

During the negotiations the government raised the amount on offer to £60 million, while Burnham dropped his figure to £65 million.

Neither side would move from these positions, and the talks broke down. The government subsequently imposed the £60 million across the City Region.

Greater Manchester is £5 million better off as a result of Burnham’s stand but much more could have been achieved had he organised a working-class based campaign, and taken steps to build it, rather than attempting a cross-class appeal to businesses and workers.

The demand to maintain the ‘80% of wages’ subsidy should be replaced by one for full pay; and it should be demanded that firms threatening bankruptcy are taken into public ownership – for example the Welsh government has announced the nationalisation of the Transport for Wales rail service as a result of low passenger levels during the current crisis.

An approach along these lines would undoubtedly get the support of trade unionists, and would also hit an echo in the working-class areas of Greater Manchester, and with students and other young people.

Arrangements should be made to organise on the estates and in the student areas to build unity around a campaign to force the Tories to provide the funding that is needed, which would help give rise to similar movements in other towns and cities.