When a Conservative administration is at war with its own citizens its strategy is always the same: crush and make an example of them so that no one else will dare contemplate the same course of action. “When they beat the miners, they could beat anyone,” said one former West Lothian miner about the miners’ strike of 1984-5.
The miners were the praetorian guard of the labour movement that once brought down Ted Heath’s Conservative government. Once they were routed, other workers were sent a crude but effective message: pick a fight with us and we will crush you. Economically depressed ex-mining villages are testament to that threat being followed through.
This week, it is the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, who has been paraded in the town square. When the Conservatives announced that they would impose tier 3 restrictions on the region, Burnham requested an economic package to protect his citizens from immiseration. Looking at the books, he budgeted that £90m would cover an 80% furlough and self-employment scheme, protecting low-paid families for whom life is tough even when there isn’t a national emergency.
No 10 said no, even as Burnham downgraded his request to £65m. Manchester refused the final offer of £60m, and the government walked away, briefing MPs and journalists that the recalcitrant northerners may have to settle for £22m. The derisory £60m was eventually put back on the table for individual councils to secure funding, but the signal to every other city and region was clear: resistance is futile.
To put this into perspective, £10bn has already been squandered on an inadequate test-and-trace system and the government cannot account for £3bn frittered away on private contractors since the crisis began. Indeed, our poor prime minister is said to be struggling on £150,000 a year; perhaps he can explain how he expects Mancunians to survive on two thirds of the minimum wage. Taking this into account, claims not to have £5m in the kitty to support hardship-stricken Mancunians seem less plausible.
The personal impacts of the government’s failure to control the virus over the summer will be huge for people living in the area. After driving millions back to work without a functioning test-and-trace system, the virus is resurgent once more. After a coronavirus scare at her workplace, Lily, a 22-year-old recent graduate and bar worker, got tested and took a few days off, but it was 10 days before NHS Test and Trace got in touch. Luckily she tested negative, but there will be many like her who tested positive or had come into close contact with someone who was, and who unknowingly spread the virus around Manchester.
Now, Lily has been put on the job retention scheme since the imposition of the 10pm curfew. With tier 3 now in place – closing bars except for those that serve “significant meals” and only to members of the same household – she isn’t sure when she’ll return to work. Instead, she’ll receive 67% of her minimum wage and have to apply for universal credit for the rest, an arduous process that could take weeks. She’s scraping by but she fears being unable to pay her rent and bills.
Johnny, a 27-year-old bar manager, is also suffering the consequences. Since the national lockdown was lifted, the bar he works for has been operating at a third of its capacity and with office workers staying at home, lunchtime food sales are seven times lower. His furloughed wage is £270, but on the same job retention scheme as Lily, it is now set to be slashed to £210 after tax.
His partner, a Cineworld worker, has already been forced to take unpaid leave for months due to Manchester’s existing Covid-19 measures, leaving the couple to survive on Johnny’s wage alone, plus £5 a week universal credit. He has a five-year-old son living with a former partner to support, too. “We’re on the verge of losing our apartment,” he tells me. “It feels like a punishment, that’s what we can’t wrap our heads around.”
Hospitality does not exist in isolation, of course: those working in sectors dependent on it are also being thrown into turmoil, too. With nightlife in collapse, so is taxi driver Scott’s trade. He has to spend £260 a week on car hire and radio rent before he makes any money, so any fall in income can put him into the red. “I don’t know how we’re going to do Christmas as things stand,” he tells me. “I may have to borrow £3,000 from somewhere: my credit rating isn’t the best, it has to be a family member if they’re willing to … When it comes to kids, I’ll do whatever it takes, I won’t eat if it means I can feed my kids.”
Why, you might ask, are the Tories abandoning working people? Bar manager Michelle hits the nail on the head: “It doesn’t feel like the government is acting in the best interests of the people in Manchester. It feels like they just want to make an example of us for Andy Burnham daring to disobey them.” If the government were to concede to Burnham’s demands, other cities and regions would feel emboldened to demand support for their struggling citizens, too.
Johnson has promised the pandemic will not lead to austerity: he is not a man renowned for sticking to his words, but the Tories undoubtedly fear having to hike taxes on big businesses (who form their donor base), or affluent older citizens (their core vote) to pick up the tab. In the 1980s, it was Britain’s miners who were faced down so that other workers could be taught a lesson. As Manchester’s bartenders, bookies and taxi drivers are about to discover, the Conservatives will respond to this pandemic as they do to every crisis: with cold-blooded class warfare.