Tuesday 19 April 2022

The Tory Politics of Back to Work

Haven't we been here before? Boris Johnson rising in the Commons to plead ignorance and make non-apologies for partying in the midst of the Covid crisis? Of opposition leaders urging him to resign? Of backbench Conservative MPs inventively finding a reason, any reason, to shield their boss from the sack? The scenes we witnessed in the Commons this Tuesday afternoon are reminiscent of scenes that have played that hallowed chamber before, and undoubtedly will again at Prime Minister's Questions and the "free vote" determining whether Johnson lied to the House this Thursday. It's all a bit of history repeating, of a Groundhog Day in which the same arguments and excuses are aired at and the end of it, the conclusion is the same: Johnson survives the day. Then it all starts up again.

This isn't just a property of the PartyGate saga: it's a feature characteristic of Conservative Party politics lately. The war on woke, the difficulties over "levelling up", the endless demonisation of refugees - unless they're Ukrainian. They have the privilege of navigating the Home Office's Kafkaesque bureaucracy. And another Tory hobby horse recycled its way back onto the front page of the Telegraph this morning: people not being in the workplaces. This time, Jacob Rees-Mogg is having a go: he's issued an expectation that civil servants should be back at their desks now that we're "learning to live with Covid." Just don't talk about the 482 reported dead over the last 24 hours.

The report discusses departmental league tables showing the Departments of International Trade and Health at the top with 73% and 72% back in on any given day, while at the bottom are the DWP at 27% and Education at 25%. In fact, what the report doesn't say is most civil servants are heading back to the offices with most being expected to come in at least twice a week. Quoting Lucille Thirlby of the First Division Association, the union of senior officials, she said "If they are still delivering the work of the department, the minister and the government of the day, why does it matter where people work from? Why does that concern ministers?"

What is Rees-Mogg's argument? It's very similar to points repeatedly made by Rishi Sunak. We need to "realise the benefits of face-to face, collaborative working", ensure taxpayer value, and "the wider benefits for the economy." The Conservative Friends of Costa strike again. Given how city centre economies are hugely dependent on so-called anchor institutions, landlords big and small, as well as franchise holders and shopkeepers need the at-work spend of civil servants. And as they disproportionately support the Tories, the government has to throw them a bone.

But there are wider politics too. The first directly impinge on class relations. For all the utopian talk of the death of the office in the early phases of the pandemic, having people working from home and managing their work at their pace was always going to induce chills and sweats among hyper class conscious layers of Tory politicians. For one, without constant supervision by watchful managers they might spend time doing things other than their work. Stuff like spending more time with their family, taking time off in the day to binge watch a box set or muck around on the internet. Even worse, some might discover how much of their work is entirely unnecessary and that divorced from the context of the workplace appears nothing more than a time sink at best, or at worse an example of anti-production - tasks that are pointless apart from being a manifestation of work discipline and control. For millions of workers, not just in the civil service, the transition from at-home work to flexible working suits their lives better and allows for self-organisation. Something any Tory would find hard to stomach: if work is set up to suit them, what demands might they make next?

In addition to keeping the political imaginary tightly circumscribed, there are the more conventional politics to consider - which scream loudly from the Telegraph's reportage. This comment from a "Whitehall source" leap out:
The whole of the country is getting back to normal. This feels out of step with the rest of the country – who after all pay for the existence of the civil service – who have been back in their offices working very hard for quite a while now.

There is another side of it – it feels that, in some cases, it is a minority of really hard-working officials who are in the office all the time and a silent majority of people aren't pulling their weight.
It's our old friend divide and rule. With the Tories beset by crisis, there are perceived political profits to be had from attacking the civil service as feckless and lazy. Setting them up as an out group worked well when the Tories came for them in the 1980s and 90s, and during the Dave and Osborne austerity years, so there is a folk memory, albeit one that only resonates among core supporters, to draw from. But if the civil service unions dig their feet in, and they should, there's an opportunity for more beggar-thy-neighbour politics. You're going into work, so why should they get to stay at home? An industrial dispute fought on these sorts of terms is a story that writes itself for the tabloids, and gives the Tories a chance to condemn Labour over its relationship to the unions - even though none of the civil service unions are affiliated to the party. Who cares about the details? This is a handy fight to provoke if the only feasible political strategy the Tories have left is a core vote plus Brexit vote gambit, hoping those who supported them in 2019 can be kept aboard by dirty tricks and scapegoating.

Could it work? The fight over deporting asylum seekers, the government's drip, drip attacks on trans people, the scraps with the liberal establishment, and every other bit of friction the government are working up into a blaze are all distractions. In the short term they're there to protect Johnson, but in the longer term it's about keeping them in office by, effectively, ensuring everything is debated and dissected except for their record.

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Robert said...

Rees Mogg is one of those awful caricature Tories you get from time to time. Shows the reactionary nature of that party.

Blissex said...

«now that we're "learning to live with Covid." Just don't talk about the 482 reported dead over the last 24 hours.»

That's more like "learning to die with Covid" in countries that have adopted a "let it rip" approach.

What is particularly revolting to me is that in those countries the "free media" publish a constant stream attacks against those "nasty" governments (usually that of China-mainland, two birds with one stone) that still pursue the "collectivist" approach of "zero COVID"; here is a small sampler as to the "evil" of having a much lower sickness and death rate:

TG 2021-10-30: "China’s zero-Covid policy takes toll Latest Delta variant outbreak is testing the limits of people’s patience with aggressive containment measures"

FT 2021: "China’s self-isolation is a global concern"

TG 2021-11-08: "Cost of Taiwan’s pursuit of Covid zero starts to show"

TG 2022-01-01: "As Beijing pursues its solitary path, observers are asking whether the policy is about protecting public health – or social order"

The Guardian 2022-01-04: "While most of the world is open and operating with huge case numbers, including some countries that previously pursued zero-Covid strategies, China has stuck with its policy of keeping the virus at bay"

Fortune 2022-01-24: "China’s ultra-strict COVID policies are trapping people in malls and office buildings for days [...] Residents reportedly suffered heart attacks and women had miscarriages after hospitals denied them care due to COVID rules. The reports went viral and triggered the first inklings of public pushback against China's COVID-zero policy."

TG 2022-04-05L: "‘This is inhumane’: the cost of zero Covid in Shanghai"

NYT 2022-04-17: "China’s Economic Trends Hint at Cost of Zero Covid Strategy"

TG 2022-03-19: "Fear, paranoia, anger – this is life under China’s zero-Covid strategy"

Blissex said...

«now that we're "learning to live with Covid." Just don't talk about the 482 reported dead over the last 24 hours.»

lifting mask mandates at a time when U.S. COVID numbers are still far too high and more than 2,000 people are dying daily

That's what "fatalistic liberalism" does; as to the context of "taking personal responsibility":

One-way masking exists on a continuum of risk mitigation, with universal masking—using masks that filter well—being the best case.

This is what a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found as well. It looked at infection risk in a situation where a person who has the virus is speaking to someone who isn’t infected. When the person who wasn’t infected wore a well-fitting mask (an FFP2 — a European counterpart to the N95), the risk of infection was 20 percent after an hour of talking. If both parties wear surgical masks, the risk of infection increases a bit, to just under 30 percent. But when both are wearing well-fitting masks, it drops to 0.4 percent. Clearly, universal masking with quality masks is better than one-way masking, and universal masking is what the study’s authors recommend. [...]
What’s frustrating, though, is that one-way masking is being proposed as a sufficient alternative to universal masking for the immunocompromised. This adds a scientific veneer of legitimacy to lifting mask mandates at a time when U.S. COVID numbers are still far too high and more than 2,000 people are dying daily. Once you’ve introduced the idea of one-way masking as an alternative, bringing back universal mask mandates becomes hard to justify. Why ask everyone to wear a mask when in theory those who are most at risk can still protect themselves?