In the second part of her interview with S&C Founding Editor Tom Sykes, Cllr Claire Udy, Leader of the Progressive Portsmouth People Group on Portsmouth City Council, discusses workplace safety, police enforcement of the lockdown and the Labour Party’s response to the government’s management of the Coronavirus crisis.
Tom Sykes: Are there particular social problems in Portsmouth that make combatting the virus difficult?
Claire Udy: As we know, the people worst impacted by COVID are people of colour and people of low income who work in retail or hospitality. My dad delivers pizzas for Domino’s and my mum works in a supermarket. My mum has probably already had COVID – she was really ill for a couple of weeks – but she couldn’t know for sure because there was no testing at that point. People like my parents are being told to go back to their workplaces even though it isn’t safe. Those doing menial, minimum wage jobs are a massive part of the Portsmouth population and they could be risking their lives when they get back to work.
There’s a lot of fightback from the trade unions over this, which I agree with. The teaching unions are rightly threatening to sue the government if schools re-open too early. I’m relieved that parents won’t be fined if they don’t send their kids back to school on June 1st.
Does the Council have a position on this issue of potentially unsafe workplaces and other public spaces?
The Council only really has a position on its own employees. We’ve furloughed some staff who are paid through direct income to the Council, such as from planning or licensing. But the government won’t let us furlough any more staff so we’re operating at “business critical” –everyone’s working from home apart from a small number who come to the civic offices.
We need to re-open face-to-face services because I have a really important piece of case work that I’ve been trying to push forward for six months. The person in question is stuck in their house with a lot of problems and they can’t get temporary accommodation. It’s difficult to move anyone right now due to the virus.
We need these services running again, but in the safest way possible. When a crisis like this hits, obviously people don’t stop being on Council waiting lists or having problems at home. At the moment our housing officers are not on-site and vulnerable people need to be seen, even if it’s through a social distancing route.
The HIVE partnership has really stepped in to help those shielding. There were delays with the letters sent out nationally advising the vulnerable to shield, but luckily the HIVE have a list of all those people and have made contact with them. And whereas people were being missed by the government’s food package delivery programme, the HIVE guys are making sure the packages are getting to everyone who needs them.
The Portsmouth Coronavirus Support Group is doing chores and picking up shopping and prescriptions for anyone who can’t get outside. They’re doing the Lord’s work at this point and that’s great.
Do you have any concerns about the local police enforcement of the lockdown? I guess the mixed messaging from Boris Johnson and the government hasn’t been helpful here either.
The worry is that when you give the police new powers that are vaguely defined, they can interpret them how they like. Around the UK the police have been criticised for clamping down on ‘non-essential’ shopping. The chief of Northants police was ticked off for saying his officers would search people’s shopping trolleys.
In Portsmouth and elsewhere, members of the public who have been arrested and charged with offences have been additionally charged for breaking the lockdown. Then the lockdown charge has been dropped because it’s too vague, and it’s just not enforceable.
I asked Portsmouth police who they’ve been fining and why. They gave this example: if they saw two lads exercising in a park and told them to move on, then found them later doing the same thing on the Common, they would fine them. I guess that’s legit. But if there are homeless people with nowhere to go, will they be fined? They might be on the street because they don’t want to go to the day service or stay in the Ibis hotels that have been made available, as social distancing isn’t in place. We’ve seen the outbreaks in care homes so amongst the homeless population it could be as bad.
The other issue here is that ‘stop and search’ has always been a discriminatory and racist policy. If anyone looks remotely different or suspicious, they could get pulled over. If I think of myself walking around the streets, my hair has faded down to white so I don’t look too much like a reprobate anymore, but if I had brightly coloured hair, I was wearing my leather jacket and I was walking at eight o’clock at night by myself with my headphones on under my hood, chances are the police would try to to stop me. I’d probably get lairy about that and then I’d be fined or arrested. So that would be a situation where these new powers result in authoritarianism because the police can do whatever they want.
That’s a sort of American libertarian position, isn’t it? I’m always worried about my civil liberties, but I worry about them from a socialist and anti-fascist standpoint. The problem with these right-wing critics is that their hatred of the ‘bootlickers of the state’ – the police and the state decision makers – and their clampdown on our liberties goes hand-in-hand with an attitude to free speech that I don’t agree with i.e. they can say whatever they want. My view is that free speech is important, but nobody has a right to indulge in hate speech. If your hate speech undermines my human rights, then that’s not free speech.
The anti-lockdown rightists think the world is overpopulated and that we could do with culling millions of people. They want to be like Thanos: click your fingers and make people disappear. It’s also like the TV series The Leftovers – which I loved – when 2% of the world’s population vanishes. That right-wing perspective blames ordinary people for global problems.
Whereas it’s more a systemic fault in the ways humans organise themselves politically and economically?
We are destroying the environment for capitalism. Capitalism’s to blame, as always.
What do you think of Labour’s response to the government’s handling of the pandemic?
Labour really need to step their shit up. They need to call for national inquiries because the Tories are going to try to brush it under the carpet, for sure. I’m happy for people to admit we got it wrong, and the relevant bosses or decision makers should pay for that. I just don’t want things to go back to normal after this because that won’t be good enough.
Why do you think Keir Starmer is getting an easier ride from the media than Jeremy Corbyn?
Because Starmer is ‘forensic’ apparently! But the Tories are properly smearing him now and a lot of it is untrue. He did make some decisions which I ultimately think were wrong, like not charging John Warboys, the ‘taxi driver rapist’ with other crimes that came to light after he went to prison. Those victims will never get justice and that upsets me. Starmer must also take responsibility for not bringing charges against the police for hitting Ian Tomlinson on the head and killing him during the 2009 student protests. Also, Starmer apologised on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service for not proceeding against Jimmy Savile when there seemed to be enough evidence against him.
Frankly he’s not doing a good enough job over COVID-19. And I’d say the same about Jeremy Corbyn if he was just sat there not tearing into the Tories right now. I think Starmer’s sitting on the fence because he knows he needs to win some Tory votes back. I have a lot of socialist Labour friends who think Starmer’s alright. Stop the bootlicking, I say!
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