The Burner Episode #216: Labour Leaks and UK’s Coronavirus Response

Ash Sarkar tackles the weekend’s leak of an internal Labour dossier and what it reveals about what was going on at the top of the party. Plus, leading thinkers on the left tell us about how the UK should really be responding to the coronavirus crisis.


James Butler: Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler. It is Tuesday April 14 and we are still in lockdown.

I hope your Easter long weekend has treated you well. As the work week beckons again, as you make the move from sofa to kitchen table – or you’re commuting into work if you’re still not working from home – I hope you didn’t spend your weekend inside reading dossiers. I didn’t, I cleaned by bike instead. Much more productive. Yet these things matter, and they really do matter.

For this morning’s Burner, I’ll hand you over to my inestimable and perpetually acute colleague and comrade Ash Sarkar.

Here’s Ash Sarkar

AS: Hello. It’s our first day back after Easter. Christ has risen from the dead. Dear God, attention seeker! He pulls this stunt every year. Hell has been harrowed and all the devils are here. It’s been a rowdy 48 hours on the socials. The leaked rapport into the work of the Labour Party’s governance and legal unit in relation to antisemitism (2014-2019) may not make the Booker [Prize] long list, but it has still supplanted Hillary Mantel’s latest as everyone’s new favourite 800-page magnum opus on the horrors of political bloodletting.

Compiled internally to submit as evidence for the EHRC’s investigation into antisemitism, the leaked report lays bare a working culture at Labour HQ more toxic than if he’d cooked down all my exes and reduced them to a glossy jus. You can visit for a comprehensive summary of senior staff’s attempts to tank the 2017 general election in order to take down Jeremy Corbyn. The election night’s WhatsApp conversations, in particular, are an early contender to my top read of 2020.

But I’d like to focus today on something a little different. For the past few years, antisemitism has been considered largely apart from other forms of racism. That phrase, and all other forms of racism, has popped up with dizzy and regularity in the labour party’s official missives in order to acknowledge that there are indeed miscellaneous bigotries which need to be taken very seriously. Also, there are some good reasons for this.

Antisemitism can take distinct forms when presented in left-wing guises, not just as the often/quoted socialism of fools, but as a particular distortion of anti-imperialism in which Palestinians are often spoken of but rarely spoken to. The leaked report does identify behaviour from confirmed Labour members which falls into this category. Those hoping for a full exculpation of the party membership may find themselves disappointed.

However, understanding antisemitism through a wholly partisan lens, and considering it [as something] apart from racism at large, has meant there’s been something of a blind spot when it comes to anti-blackness and Islamophobia in the Labour Party. And indeed, the leaked report exposes a culture of complacency and cruelty when it comes to both these forms of racism when it served a factional purpose. Allegations regarding a sitting Labour MP’s pattern of Islamophobic behaviour – including referring to a local Bengali wedding as an Islamist plot – were, the reporter alleges, rejected by then-general secretary Iain McNicol as the complainant was a councillor of a rival party.

A staffer in the Policy Unit showed a clip of Douglas Murray after the Westminster bridge attack in which the commentator argued that terrorism comes from the religion of Islam. The staffer spoke of the need for hard questions even for so called moderate Islam, holding Muslims to a level of collective responsibility; under Labour’s later adopted IHRA definition, that would be considered racist if applied to Jewish people. Alongside a pattern of minimising and delaying complaints regarding Islamophobia for factional purposes, the report details a level of vitriol directed up black female MP’s by senior anti-Corbyn staffers. That’s nothing short of despicable.

Dawn Butler’s appointment to the shadow cabinet was met with scorn, specifically due to her highlighting of racism within the Labour Party. Diane Abbott was labelled as “a very angry woman”, “repulsive” and one staffer in a key role liaising with the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] said “she literally makes me sick”.

Labour Party staffers, whose plenty comfortable salaries were paid by the very members they reportedly loathed, saw in one of their own MP’s being reduced to tears over targeted racial harassment an opportunity for her further humiliation.

But one WhatsApp exchange, which took place in February 2017, is quite frankly astonishing in its viciousness. The report quotes messages from senior staffers in which they said that Diane Abbott was found crying in the toilets. Someone suggests feeding this information to Channel 4 reporter Michael Crick. To which, as the report alleges, Patrick Heneghan replies: “Already have”. He would have been Labour’s executive director of elections, campaigns and organisation at the time.

What puts this beyond the quotidian malice of Westminster politics is that matching up the dates with news reports, this coincided with a period of particularly gruelling racist abuse, which culminated in Diane Abbott’s office making a complaint to the police.

Labour Party staffers, whose plenty comfortable salaries were paid by the very members they reportedly loathed, saw in one of their own MP’s being reduced to tears over targeted racial harassment an opportunity for her further humiliation. It’s not simply that this stuff is nasty; it’s that objection to racism for factional purposes put Jewish members in the firing line of an internecine battle, pitted communities against one another in a hierarchy of racism, and threw black and Muslim members to the wolves. In an attempt to grind out domination over the Labour Party machinery, these staffers abandoned any claim to actual anti-racism.

Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner have issued a joint statement commissioning an urgent independent investigation into how the report came to be, its content and how it entered the public domain. It’s reasonable to hope for the new management to bring in a change of bureaucratic culture, but the political questions raised by the report can only be resolved by political means.

That is to say, like economic production under socialism, it’s very much everybody’s business. But it’s not all infighting and issuing leftist [papal] bulls of excommunication to Lord Iain McNicol. Here at Novara Media we’re a constructive bunch and so we assembled our pick of the left’s best and bonniest to imagine themselves as a pandemic war cabinet of sorts and share with us their top policy priorities if they were in charge of a coronavirus emergency measures package.

Picture the scene. It’s April 2020, we’re in lockdown and Clive Lewis MP is on your telly box standing at the lectern…

Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South

CL: Hi Ash. For the three key policies I would implement for the emergency of Covid-19, I would start with universal basic income. I think the current help is okay, but there are too many people who are falling through gaps in provision and through the safety net. Secondly, we need grants, not loans, especially for smaller businesses because it’s no good giving loans to companies with a cash flow crisis. It completely defeats the object. Third, suspend all rents as well as mortgages; rents will be harder to do the mortgages but low interest loans for landlords is probably the easiest or softest way to make such a policy work. These would kind of provide the basics in terms of three emergency policies. Hope that helps. AS: That’s a strong opening offer. And now for Carys Roberts, executive director of IPPR, both in actually existing reality and the one concocted for the purposes of this podcast.

Carys Roberts, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

CR: If I were in government, one policy I’d be thinking about right now is setting up an assistance wealth fund. Any economic policy at the moment, should be trying to do three things: first, provide support quickly so that the economy doesn’t collapse. Second, it needs to keep people in their job so that we don’t see spiralling and damaging unemployment. And third, it needs to be fair. Unlike the last recovery, the measures should be trying to broaden wealth and security, not keep things at the top at the expense of everyone else. What we’ve seen so far, with the government stepping in to pay 80% of people’s wages when they can’t work, does quite well on the first two [things a government should be trying to do], but doesn’t do much for just economy in the long run. It might also not be enough.

Increasingly, I think we’ll see more businesses asking for a bailout. Already, Richard Branson has asked the government for £500 million, offering his Caribbean Island as collateral. Rather than no-strings-attached handouts to corporates and landlords, there’s a chance here to grow public wealth and manage the economy for the long-term public interest so that the measures benefit all of us, not just those at the top. Buying assets and holding them in assistance, what fund would do this? How would it work? The government could borrow historically cheap rights and, taking advantage of low asset prices right now, buy an equity stake in companies that are struggling because of the pandemic. This would provide the companies with capital quickly. The equity could then be held in a newly created, democratically governed citizens’ wealth fund. This fund would expect the value of the shares to grow once the pandemic is over and the economy is up and running again. These returns would go to the fund and could be used for funding public services or even paying out a dividend down the line. The wealth we own in common would increase over time.

But even more than that, by holding the shares in a fund, the public could have a say over how the companies are run. This could include making sure companies pay taxes, putting a stop to runaway executive pay and making sure all business plans are in line with an ambitious net-zero target. You could apply a similar logic to other kinds of assets too. We don’t yet know what’s going to happen in the housing market, but if price is full, there’d be a strong case for the government to buy housing stock. This would stop the house price death spiral and we could rebuild the country social housing stock for ordinary people to benefit from.

AS: What say you, Dr Kojo Koram? For the audience, please note that Kojo is speaking as a law lecturer and not the kind of doctor who’s interested in having a look at that weird rash you’ve had since Ayia Napa.

Dr Kojo Koram, writer, academic and teacher at the School of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London

KK: From what we’ve learned about the Covid-19 virus is that it really flourishes in conditions of overcrowded populations and confined spaces – especially if there’s a lack of access to clean sanitation and proper medical treatment. Now, unfortunately, we already have a plethora of those places here in the United Kingdom and those are known as prisons.

The United Kingdom actually has the highest prison rate in all of Western Europe. I think that we really need to take this moment in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic to think about our prison population and to try to enact policies that would drastically reduce that number. Not just policies, such as the piecemeal ideals around the release of low risk prisoners, but much more widespread engagements in terms of the abolition of custodial sentences for anyone who’s been convicted of a nonviolent crime. I’m thinking about replacing current incarceration with systems of restitution, policies around community work and a wide scale of other alternatives that would be much preferential to putting people in the kind of risky conditions that they currently find themselves in most UK prisons today.

AS: Next up, Maya Goodfellow, author of Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats and my pick for home secretary in the unlikely event I ever get any say on the matter.

Maya Goodfellow, writer, researcher and academic

MG: There are at least three policies that I would want to see introduced in response to the coronavirus. The first is a minimum income guarantee, which is a policy suggested by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). Not everyone is covered by the government’s income protection package. What the minimum income guarantee means is that anyone who isn’t [covered] would be able to access £ 221 per person per week and this would also be used to increase benefit payments.

The NEF have said that this would last at least three months, with the potential of extending it depending on what happens with the pandemic. And the thing I think is really important about this particular policy proposal is that it wouldn’t be means tested so that anyone accessing this wouldn’t have to go through this onerous often very difficult process of means testing.

The other two policies that I’d want to see introduced are related to immigration, which I think is something that really risks being overlooked in this moment of crisis. The first thing is that everyone should be let off immigration detention, which is similar to what they’re doing in Spain. And the reason that I think this should be done is not only because it’s the right thing to do, but it makes sense in terms of keeping people safe and making sure that we’re abiding by the public health rules. At the moment people are being cooped up in these detention centers, people with underlying health conditions. There are reports that suggest that people are still being detained even though they’re presenting with symptoms. But even by the home offices own logic, this doesn’t really stack up. What they say is they, supposedly, only detain people if there is a realistic chance that they will deport them. We know right now that that is not the case. There is not the realistic prospect of deporting people who are currently being kept in immigration detention so they should all be released and when they’re released, they should be given proper, decent accommodation and financial support regardless of what their status is.

And the second thing that should be done in relation to immigration is to ensure that all migrants, regardless of their state, whether they’re documented or whether they are not, automatically can access citizenship rights; things like being able to access benefits and state support, which is what they’ve done in Portugal. This should be automatic, as should visa extensions. At the moment the government have given automatic visa extensions to certain healthcare professionals, people like doctors and nurses, but they should be rolled out to all migrants free of charge so that everyone feels comfortable coming forward to access healthcare if they need it, but also know that they can access state support.

The reason why this is incredibly important, in particular in a country like the UK, is that for years and years migrants have been told that they are living in a hostile environment where they aren’t able to access basic services. It needs to be clear that they are able to do that. This all needs to be packaged up in a massive campaign where the government makes it abundantly clear to everyone that, regardless of their status, they can access health care and they can access financial support. It is crucial to protect everyone at this time and not leave anyone behind.

AS: And last but not least, Andrew Fisher, long-time listener, first time caller and Labour’s former executive director of policy.

Andrew Fisher, political activist and author of The Failed Experiment

AF: Okay, so the issue to resolve is that, as a result of this crisis, millions of people are going to be facing unemployment, reduced hours and reduced incomes. If not addressed, this will in turn lead to a reduced demand in the economy, which in turn leads to more businesses failing and even more jobs going. Those are the two things you’ve got to try and solve. For the first part of my policy solution, there would be a minimum income guarantee, which basically means significantly higher benefit levels, both with universal credit for those in work and also for hours work benefits. Contrary to popular right-wing propaganda, Britain has some of the least generous benefits in Western Europe. We need to increase the levels of benefits available to people on low hours, low incomes, and also people who are unemployed or who are carers. Carer’s allowance by the way, is £66 a week, even lower than jobseekers’ allowance (JSA) at £73 a week.

Recently, the Resolution Foundation said that there should be a kind of minimum income guarantee of £100 a week, which would be about a 50% increase in the current rate of carer’s allowance, about 40% increase on JSA. The NEF [did an estimate of this minimum income guarantee] basing it on the minimum income standard, which is put together by the Joseph Roundtree Foundation and they’ve put it around £220 a week. Now, that may sound like a huge increase. For comparison though, the equivalent of jobseeker’s allowance in Ireland pays £183 a week. As I said, UK benefits are a lot lower than most others in Europe, where it’s £73 here in the UK.

The second part of my kind of policy solution would be a jobs guarantee that the government provides. That would mean coordinating with employers and also being proactive itself. You need a kind of entrepreneurial state. For example, we clearly need more carers. We need more nurses and we should be encouraging people into those professions in a mass recruitment exercise, encouraging the unemployed to train and paying them to train even.

There are a lot of shovel-ready construction projects for building council housing. [I would propose] joining up the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) with local councils to build council housing that people need. That’s an urgent thing, so that we can permanently house the homeless, for example. We’ve taken them off the streets and put them into hotels during this crisis. We should be building them homes as well as the millions of families on housing waiting lists. Those are all kind of things we could do for that along with free training grants and apprenticeships paid at a decent rate. So, jobs guarantee and amendment minimum income guarantee, those are the two things I think we should do.

AS: See, there were some good eggs working there after all. Thank you so much to all those who contributed. And inshallah, exercises such as these aren’t just a way to kill time during another interminably long quarantine day wondering what might have been had a few thousand votes gone Labour’s way in 2017.

While the leaked report has had many of us ruminating on the recent past, it’s perhaps wise to remind ourselves of the left’s historic role in ameliorating the suffering of the present and shaping the values of the future. None of us are in this game to spend our days nurturing embittered screenshots accounts on social media. It’s up to us to come up with the ideas which will smash the consensus around unpalatable injustices, just as Corbyn did for austerity. With those lofty ambitions in mind, I’ll let James Butler take back the reins and run through the stories of the day. I’ve been Ash Sarkar and it has been the privilege of my life to spend the morning in lockdown with you.

James Butler: My thanks Ash for that typically expensive and adroit helming on both of those issues. It’s important, on that last note, that we remember there is still a future to make, however wild, infuriating and honestly injuring the revelations of the weekend were.

Headlines this morning

A quick zoom around this morning’s press before we let you get on with your day. Over in the US, Trump has held another press conference in which the presidential ed was in full flow. There was very little in there about the coronavirus itself, which was nominally the subject of the briefing. Instead, we were treated to, first, a bizarre video compilation literally played on screens in the press room – like white house staff had been used to produce the kind of thing you find on ultra-right-wing crank YouTube – in order to demonstrate Trump’s perfect response to the crisis. This, of course, in the middle of a pandemic. And then there came an outright slanging match with the press in the room who questioned it. And then, a bizarre assertion, truly bizarre assertion, session that the president’s authority over governors of the individual states was total. That of course is not true. It’s worth hearing, just some of it:

Donald Trump: And then we’ll answer some questions. I’ll ask you some questions because you’re so guilty, but forget it.
Reporter: In an unprecedented crisis…
Donald Trump: Nobody thought we should do it, and when I did it…
Reporter: What did you do with the time that you bought? There was a gap, for the entire month of February, what did you do?
Donald Trump: What do you do when you have no case in the whole United States… Reporter: You had cases in February.
Donald Trump: Excuse me, you reported it. Zero cases, zero deaths on January 17. Reporter: January. There’s a gap in that video for the entire month of February. What did your administration do in February in the time that your travel ban bought you? Donald Trump: A lot. And, in fact, we’ll give you a list. What we did, in fact, part of it was up there. We did a lot. Look, look. You know you’re a fake. You know that your whole network, the way you covered, is fake.

[Minutes after]

Donald Trump: Why didn’t Biden apologize? Why didn’t he write a letter of apology? Reporter: We don’t care why Biden didn’t apologise to you.

[Minutes after]
Donald Trump: We really, we really have done this right…
JB: Now, that’s deeply inauspicious and very worrying for the United States response, its already shattered and gutted administrative state and the contact of a purely media and narrative-driven organisation. You know, the world only happens on Fox news with viral reality.

Here in the UK, some tremendously interesting polling in The Times this morning. Three quarters of people in the UK (74%) favor limiting the spread of the disease, even if it means additional costs to the economy. That’s significantly different to elsewhere, with 61% in the US, 54% in Sweden and in Germany. You could draw all sorts of interesting speculation from that. But here’s what it’s got me wondering: What prompts such substantial disinvestment in the future of the UK economy? Is there something about the way the economy has been deployed in political argument over the past decade or two which makes so substantial a number of people feel like whatever happens to it, one way or another, its impact on their life is not marginal, but perhaps very little? You might wonder.

Relatedly perhaps, YouGov this morning suggests around 40% of people think the lockdown measures should be strengthened, with just 5% thinking they’re too severe. One in the eye there for governments’ pet “behavioural scientists”. Who thought Brits would really, really bridle at the lockdown?

Today the Sage group, the government scientific advisory group, meet in order to determine how long the lockdown should go on. But it has effectively already been briefed out that they expect to extend the lockdown until May 7 – by which time they expect Johnson to have emerged from his convalescence and take back the reins from the furious piece of gristle in a suit, which is Dominic Raab.

Fears about the economy abound as well. Once source says to The Times that the Treasury warns of systemic failures if the economy is not brought out of this comma by mid-summer. “There’s a point where there just isn’t anything to come back to,” the source said. More on the economy [will come] coming this week, I’m sure, but I point you to an essay by me in the latest LRB which dubs into some of those questions as well.

Two issues likely to blow up today are both testing and masks and especially which decision was made when and by whom; on top of that, [we might see something about] the crisis and the number of deaths in the care system, which so far seem not to have been in those headline figures of deaths. All this as government advisers finally begin to admit that they’ve screwed up on testing. Their timeline of how they screwed up doesn’t quite seem to add up. More on that is to come as well.

But where should the blame lay? Professor Helen Ward, a professor of infectious diseases at Imperial [College] tells The Mirror this morning that a lack of testing, lack of PPE, a lack of ventilators and a lack of hospital beds and NHS capacity is a result of 10 years of cuts. Some truth there.

All right, that’s it for this morning. I will be back tomorrow. My thanks to Ash for her typically brilliant handling of the show this morning. And to all our contributors on the response to the crisis.

As ever, do get in touch with angles you’d like to see covered, plus your stories and tips; especially angles we’re not seeing elsewhere. You can as ever get me on [email protected] that’s it.

Stay safe, stay home, wash your hands and do not be a prick. That’s it. This is The Burner. I will see you tomorrow.      


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