Last night, as Boris Johnson trailed plans for easing the UK lockdown, ministers told the Daily Mail of a fear that was haunting them. It was not that the death toll, by this point inching toward 32,000, would spike again. Their spectre they raised was the “Blob” – a supposed alliance of trade unions, public servants and Labour politicians – which would prevent schools and other public places from reopening on the Prime Minister’s starting gun.
This term had its most recent cameo in British political discourse early last decade, when then Education Secretary Michael Gove declared war on the Blob, which supposedly stood in the way of his education reform agenda. Dominic Cummings, now at the heart of the Covid-19 response, was Gove’s political advisor and presumably had a hand in popularising the term.
Cummings styled his reforms as an “Odyssean” education, one in which teachers and pupils set out not to tick arbitrary boxes and please civil servants, but to develop minds able to solve the grand challenges facing human civilisation. The reforms produced the manifest opposite. Curricula were to be rewritten not to encourage multidisciplinary critical thinking but to glorify the British Empire.
As for special interests, vast power over education budgets were handed to those whose motivations were rather more tawdry than educational innovation. Academy giants raked in cash, oversaw governance structures that reduced democratic influence, and presided over a litany of failures – poor grades at best and outright corruption scandals at worst.
As teachers were forced to accept restrained pay, longer working hours, ever more targets and overcrowded classrooms, many fled the profession they loved in record numbers. In a grim metaphor, school buildings rotted away due to lack of funding, opening up a £6.7bn shortfall by 2017.
It was not only education policy which structured poor outcomes. In 2013, a Gloucestershire school liaison officer arrived at the home of a boy not attending school. He found a house without food, where the mother’s benefits had been stopped as a result of a “change in circumstances” – her husband leaving her.
All this is what the Blob had been demonised for resisting; not differences on pedagogy but differences on money. Now ministers are once again raising the spectre of a Blob of special interests, a metaphor based in a fictional amoeba apparently as threatening as the virus which is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in Britain in just a matter of weeks.
Dominic Cummings often argues that politics does not incentivise thinking about serious existential threats, from nuclear accidents to pandemics. He argues that this is because politics “incentivises a badly selected set of people to consider their career not the public interest, drops them into dysfunctional institutions, centralises vast amounts of power in [their] hands and provides very weak (and often damaging) feedback so facing reality is rare and system reform is seen as a hostile act.”
The political operation he is part of has once again been an ironic case study in this problem. As late as February, Boris Johnson appeared to embrace the benefits of taking less stringent measures on the pandemic than other countries. Cummings himself has been implicated in the disastrous “herd immunity” strategy resulting in a late lockdown which, according to the government’s former Chief Scientific Advisor and other experts, cost lives.
This was against a backdrop of chaotic communication both within government and between the government and the public. Communication appears to have been driven by reputation management more than crisis response, from the briefing of crucial information anonymously to selected journalists at right-wing papers, to moments of pure farce such as the apparent attempt to count individual gloves as items of PPE in order to massage figures.
Cummings sees himself as a maverick – but his management model seems to be bog-standard neoliberalism. Every government from Thatcher to Cameron was built on the idea of bringing private sector discipline to a profligate state. This was rooted not merely in economics but in views about human nature. In their account, the public sector was inefficient because the public service ethic was a unicorn; only market-style discipline would make public servants in a shrunken state serve their citizen-customers well.
From the introduction of an NHS internal market which generated proliferating costs and bureaucracies, to New Labour inventing the science of “deliverology,” the war on red tape drowned government in red tape. Success was not measured qualitatively, but in reference to arbitrary targets that routinely did more harm than good. A contradictory class of politicians emerged – control freaks who did not fundamentally believe in wielding the levers of the state they controlled to effect change.
Critical to this process was the denial of relevant expertise. Practitioners, whether in healthcare or education, were not to be listened to but instructed. If they disagreed with their instructions they were simply vested interests who hated change; obsolete Sir Humphreys or cartoon Scargills depending on whether they came from the establishment or the left.
These processes were happening the world over and creating or exacerbating crisis. The botched privatisation of the railways was linked to a string of deadly rail crashes. The shattered regulatory regime and drive to cut “red tape” left North Kensington’s Grenfell Tower coated in flammable cladding and lacking safety measures. The picture in the private sector was similar; the endpoint of a managerial revolution at Boeing which removed power from engineers and handed it to consultants was a plane which was designed to crash itself and did so twice before anyone realised what was wrong.
What does this crisis-prone form of neoliberal management have to do with the Covid-19 response? Quite a lot. The nudge unit’s rational-choice assumptions about human behaviour appear to be behind their scepticism that a lockdown would be effective in those first crucial days. In reality, popular pressure and spontaneous self-quarantining was a major factor in lockdown being eventually adopted.
On a graph of major threats, the UK national risk register puts pandemic influenza at the height of both likelihood and potential damage. Yet preparedness had been allowed to degrade; those talking to a recent Sunday Times investigation pointed to emergency stockpiles of PPE which had severely dwindled and gone out of date after being deprioritised in the austerity years. The training to prepare key workers for a pandemic had been put on hold for two years, and the lessons from 2016’s Exercise Cygnus wargame had not been implemented.
State survival mechanisms have kicked in. In the real world, free markets depend on strong states to maintain the environments they operate in. The state moved swiftly to increase hospital capacity, develop a furlough scheme, and other greater levels of intervention than they were used to.
But the machinery was insufficient, often simply did not work and created numerous errors and gaps. And it came with conditions, such as Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Victorian assertion that we had to avoid workers being “addicted” to furlough money, or employers having extensive latitude in defining “essential” workers. One in three have remained at work throughout the “lockdown.”
Even in better moments, people were peripheral to a response which was primarily about ensuring a stable operating environment for markets. “The economy” – construed as some machine or spirit outside of human control which demanded our sacrifice through ever-more austere and insecure working conditions – now demands productivity during a deadly pandemic.
While lockdown advice “relaxes” into incoherence we urgently need to tell a different story. The government has failed in its first duty, to protect its citizens, not because of incompetence or even malice but because the machinery of government services a different first duty – the preservation of wealth and power.
This is the real Blob, not teachers and doctors, but the sort of people who call workers standing up for health and safety “hysterical” or dispassionately discuss the economic benefits of “culling the elderly.” The values that have enabled effective local and national level responses where they have existed – collective action and responsibility, strong levels of social organisation and labour movement organisation, and states who have prioritised human welfare above all else – are anathema to this slimy being.
But very different values, ones less concerned by profit and more interested in social well-being, have been resurgent throughout this crisis. As the government pursues an increasingly cavalier attitude to working people’s lives, it’s those values we’ll have to rely upon to protect ourselves into the future.