by Dr. Gary Sidley
When recently asked why he was wearing a mask, musician Billy Bragg said, “I don’t want anyone here to think that I’m a Tory.” His comment betrays how politicised the degree of compliance with the Covid restrictions generally, and mask-wearing in particular, has become. Even Professor Clifford Stott, a pro-mask member of SPI-B, the SAGE subgroup of behavioural scientists, recently acknowledged that covering the face is a politicised act; an observation that is consistent with reports that lobbying, rather than any robust new scientific studies, caused the World Health Organisation to reverse its advice in June 2020 and start recommending masks as protection against the virus.
A political dimension shaping attitudes towards the Government’s response to Covid might help explain an intriguing observation I made in the spring of 2020, and one that continues to baffle me: that the large majority of my left-wing, socialist friends immediately embraced and supported unprecedented restrictions that were always going to disproportionately disadvantage the less affluent people within our communities. Twenty months on, and despite accumulating evidence that impositions such as lockdowns and masks are ineffective and hugely damaging, their views seem resistant to change. What are likely to be the key reasons why most Labour Party supporters have backed the Government’s draconian Covid restrictions? Although I do not claim to have the definitive answers to this question, my intention is to share ideas that will stimulate the ongoing debate.
It was clear from the outset that lockdowns, and other unprecedented measures, would hurt poor people considerably more than the affluent, and it was therefore reasonable to expect that those on the left of the political spectrum would push back hard against these restrictions. Dire predictions were evident early in the pandemic. In April 2020, a pre-print paper in the Lancet forecast that the restrictions would have a “devastating” impact on the third-world, significantly contributing to the deaths of more than one million children under five years-old in low-to-middle income countries. Around the same time, the UN International Labour Organisation expressed concern that “half the people in the global workforce risk losing their jobs“. Subsequently, these grim prophecies were substantiated, with lockdowns evoking carnage in both Africa and India, despite their populations being much younger than those in the Western world and therefore at far less risk from the virus.
While the parliamentary Labour Party repeatedly backed the Government’s imposition of draconian Covid measures, typically urging earlier and harder restrictions, the working-class demographic they claim to represent were suffering disproportionately. Whereas many white-collar, professional employees happily Zoomed from home, those in relatively low-paid occupations (such as delivery drivers, supermarket workers and care-home assistants) continued their essential work in the real world. Many other people, particularly the young and lowly paid in the leisure and retail industries, lost their jobs; by winter 2020, an additional 600,000 people in the U.K. had fallen into poverty as a result of lockdown.
Lockdowns will have contributed prominently to the widespread increase in mental health problems witnessed across all age groups in the U.K. However, the additional impact of school closures, an intervention repeatedly championed by the teaching unions, has led to many vulnerable youngsters spending prolonged periods of time in dysfunctional and chaotic home environments. Consequently, the mental health of our children suffered a disproportionate decline. Also, as early as the first lockdown, doctors were reporting an increased number of children presenting with head trauma and, sadly, more recent investigations have confirmed the rise in incidence of child abuse and neglect during the period of Covid restrictions.
In keeping with the comment of Billy Bragg, the wearing of a face covering is the most blatant indication of one’s political affiliation; House of Commons images of the split between masked Labour MPs on one side and predominantly unmasked Conservatives on the other starkly demonstrates this polarisation. It is puzzling that most socialists enthusiastically promote an intervention that, in addition to being ineffective as a viral barrier, is associated with a number of negative consequences for vulnerable groups of people. These include: the perpetuation of fear that discourages people from seeking medical help for non-Covid illnesses; preventing the hard-of-hearing from engaging in human communication; the stifling of a child’s emotional and cognitive development; and an increased risk of falls in the elderly. Personal stories powerfully illustrate the human costs of mask mandates.
Countering poverty, social exclusion, mental health problems, inequality and child abuse would all be regarded as issues close to the heart of those from the left of the political spectrum, so why the blind devotion to lockdowns, masking and school closures?
Over the last few months, I have engaged in many discussions, including some with lifelong socialists, to try and find a definitive answer to the question of why a large majority of Labour voters have enthusiastically supported regulations that negatively impact the sociodemographic they claim to represent. I have failed. No conclusive answer has emerged. Nonetheless, four ideas arose, each of which may have significantly contributed to the left’s affinity with the draconian Covid restrictions.
Throughout the Covid crisis, world leaders have displayed widely differing attitudes towards the dominant narrative. It is plausible that Labour voters’ existing dispositions to these heads of state, whether they are perceived as saints or sinners, will have determined the degree, and direction, of influence in regards to views about the appropriateness of the restrictions.
Thus, Donald Trump – the U.S. president when Covid first emerged – was highly sceptical towards the idea that the disease posed a once-in-a-lifetime threat that necessitated unprecedented measures (such as lockdowns and masking the healthy) to control it. Trump was detested by those on the left of the political continuum and this antipathy may have led Labour supporters to adopt a diametrically opposed position and to enthusiastically embrace the restrictions. Conversely, the New Zealand leader, Jacinda Arden – the golden girl for many on the political left – has stridently promoted a ‘zero Covid’ approach to the pandemic involving the early and extreme imposition of restrictions. It seems likely that her narrative and associated actions will have powerfully promoted lockdowns and masks as legitimate and necessary measures in the minds of Labour supporters.
The prominent role of the Government’s deployment of covert ‘nudges’ to increase people’s compliance with Covid restrictions has been well documented (see here and here). The mediators underpinning these methods of mass manipulation often rely on constructs that would be expected to resonate with Labour Party supporters. As such, the widespread use of ‘nudging’ may have nurtured greater acceptance of the regulations among those on the political left.
The diktats to mask healthy people provide one example. SPI-B members have admitted that mask mandates were primarily a compliance device, intended to instil a sense of “solidarity” among the British people, the idea that “we’re all in this together”; such mind states and associated mantras would likely feel familiar and affirming to those on the left of the political spectrum.
Arguably of greater significance has been the nudge to equate virtue with adherence to the Covid restrictions – in the language of behaviour science, a focus on ‘ego’. The former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, urged university students not to “kill your gran“. In addition, we were peppered with virtue-signalling media messages suggesting that following the rules was synonymous with being a good person. For example: ‘I wear a face covering to protect my mates’; ‘I make space to protect you’. While we all like to view ourselves as virtuous, such visible acts of altruism might be particularly attractive to many Labour Party supporters.
Among the plethora of propaganda inflicted upon the British people over the last 20 months, the ‘protect the NHS’ message has developed a religious intensity. Last year, for 10 consecutive weeks, people were encouraged to participate in the ‘Clap for Carers’ ritual; to collectively stand on our doorsteps to whoop, clap, and bang pots and pans so as to communicate our appreciation of all the doctors and nurses working on the frontline. This recurrent focus on protecting the NHS has led to a situation where any person daring to question the utility of the Covid restrictions is likely to be accused of the ultimate sin, that of not valuing our free-at-the-point-of-access health service. And no self-respecting Labour voter would wish to be the target for that accusatory finger.
When asked directly as to why she supports the unprecedented, non-evidenced and hugely-damaging Covid restrictions, a friend and lifelong socialist replied, “I hope something good will come out of it”. The implication of this response is that interventions such as lockdowns, although costly in terms of collateral damage to health, mental wellbeing and the economy, will ultimately act as an effective conduit to desirable changes in the political and economic landscape. In other words, the ends justifies the means.
One can speculate that contenders for these hoped-for outcomes might include: the undermining, and ultimate replacement, of the Western world’s capitalist system; greater involvement of the state in people’s lives; the implementation of a universal income, where each individual would be receive the same recurring payment without a means test or work requirement; the introduction of green policies, such as zero carbon, and a marked reduction in air travel.
It is counterintuitive that the large majority of the political left have shown enthusiastic support for the Covid restrictions. The poor and the vulnerable within our society – the demographic whose interests they claim to serve – have suffered disproportionately as a direct result of lockdowns, school closures and the fear-perpetuating and de-humanising mask mandates. In this article I have speculated about the potential reasons for this surprising observation, and suggested four potential explanations: the influence of hated and respected world leaders; ‘nudge’-induced virtue signalling; the evangelical desire to be seen to be supportive of the NHS; and a range of opportunistic agendas. Please feel free to share your own ideas about what underpins this apparent mismatch between the stated mission and recent actions of Labour Party politicians and supporters.
Dr. Gary Sidley is a retired clinical psychologist with over 30 years’ experience working for the NHS and one of the founders of the Smile Free Campaign, which advocates against masking.