The British Left Opposes Vaccine Mandates—Anti-Worker and Repressive

by Glenn Greenwald Dec 15, 2021

The shorthand label “anti-vax” once had a clear and concise meaning: namely, those who reject the prevailing western scientific orthodoxy that vaccines are a safe and effective means of protecting humans against infectious diseases by training the immune system to combat a pathogen in advance. As vaccines become more prevalent against an increasingly wide range of diseases — measles, mumps, polio, chickenpox — a dissenting political and scientific movement has emerged which rejects the scientific premises of vaccines and attempts to persuade others not to vaccinate themselves or their children on the ground that they are ineffective, dangerous and/or motivated by corporate profit rather than legitimate concerns about public health.

But exactly as we have seen with so many other political labels — terrorist, racist, fascist, white nationalist, anti-Semite — this once-descriptive, precise and useful phrase has metamorphized far beyond its original meaning into something barely recognizable or cogent. That transformation has been deliberate, with a clear motive: to weaponize the term into a potent political insult designed to compel submission to decrees from institutions of authority and stigmatize dissenters, threatening them with reputation destruction. The rapid expansion of the term “anti-vax” into a coercive political weapon has been years in the making, but the COVID pandemic was the steroid it needed to blossom into one of the most reputation-crippling labels one can affix to a political target.

Just as is true of accusing people of being terrorists, white nationalists, fascists or anti-Semites not because one espouses views traditionally designated by those terms but as punishment for any sort of dissent, the destructive power of the COVID iteration of “anti-vax” resides precisely in its vagueness, its lack of precise contours, its emptiness and meaninglessness. A term that means nothing can, by definition and by design, encompass anyone and everyone depending solely on the needs of the moment.

The utter obliteration of any coherent definition is evidenced by the fact that one can now be labelled “anti-vax” even though one a) believes in the foundational science of vaccines, b) is themselves vaccinated for COVID and makes the decision that one’s children will be as well, and c) states publicly that they have chosen to be vaccinated.

How is it possible to pull off such a seemingly inane and internally contradictory attack: namely, malign people who have taken the vaccine and publicized their choice to do so as “anti-vax”? This is accomplished by twisting and distorting the term “anti-vax” away from its scientific meaning (“one who rejects the efficacy of vaccines”) into a term of political disobedience. Thus, the operational definition of the term has become: one who questions any of the decrees of public health authorities on any matters or who believes that adult citizens should retain the choice to decide for themselves whether to be vaccinated. In other words, the term “anti-vax” now means nothing other than: one who questions any policies adopted by state officials in the name of fighting COVID.

Unfortunately for the liberal-left which has constructed this manipulative and coercive framework, this now requires that the term “anti-vax” be applied to one of the international left’s most beloved political figures: former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. They must also now apply this term of shame to the most admired left-wing members of the British Parliament along with leading trade unions in the UK. That is because the British Left — not just Corbyn and leftist MPs but also leading labor unions — have united to emphatically oppose vaccine mandates and vaccines passports on the ground that 1) it is immoral and profoundly anti-worker to fire health care front-line workers and other workers for refusing a vaccine they have not been convinced is safe and effective, and 2) persuasion is a far more effective and ethical means of administering public health policy than coercion, dictate and punishment.

On Tuesday night, the UK Parliament approved a proposal by conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson to require proof of COVID vaccines — a COVID passport — to enter any venues with large crowds such as nightclubs and stadiums. The vote was 369 to 126. But the opposition was composed of a mix of populist right-wing Tories and the anti-establishment left-wing members of Labour and other leftist parties. Close to one hundred conservatives, and more than 20 leftist Labour members (along with Corbyn, now technically an “independent” after being expelled by his successor, Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer), voted against Johnson’s vaccine passport law.

British left
Vote breakdown in UK Parliament on vote to require proof of vaccines to enter large venues, Dec. 15, 2021

A similar vote, and similar breakdown, emerged on a separate bill from Prime Minister Johnson to require workers of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to be vaccinated or be fired. The vote in favor of that vaccine mandate bill was 385-100.

Conservative opposition to these two bills was — despite being advocated by the Tory Prime Minister — unsurprising. Their rationale was similar to right-wing opposition to such COVID-era coercive measures around the democratic world. Tory opponents depicted such mandates as an infringement of individual liberty as well as unnecessary, in light of the UK’s vaccination rates for all adults, which exceeds 70%, and is at least on par with most other western European countries.

But what is particularly notable — and most definitely out of the ordinary when it comes to Western politics — is the steadfast opposition to vaccine mandates and passports from the British left. Labour unions have adamantly denounced the threat of termination for employees who refuse the vaccine as “anti-worker” and a violation of the autonomy of workers. They have argued that it is particularly cruel to threaten health care workers — the same people the world has been applauding for their brave work on the front-line of the pandemic — with loss of their job for their belief that vaccination is not the right choice for them and their family.

In October, for instance, the BDA Trade Union announced what it called “a clear and definitive position in opposition to any attempts to make the take-up of the vaccination mandatory.” While the union encouraged its members to be vaccinated, they argued that firing employees who refused would be illegal: “Mandatory vaccination could potentially discriminate against staff with protected characteristics as contained in the Equality Act 2010” based on race, age, disability, sex and religious belief. The British trade union UNITE, which represents more than 100,000 health care workers, has similarly and repeatedly opposed such mandates, with its leader saying in October: “Unite strongly opposes forcing any health and social care workers to have a vaccine or risk sacrificing their job. Encouragement, not compulsion, is the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO) for the very good reason that such an approach is shown to work.”

Corbyn has spent weeks echoing the views of labour unions. On Tuesday afternoon, the leftist icon announced his opposition to both vaccine mandate and passport bills:

In an interview he gave on Monday to LBC, the radio call-in network, Corbyn was adamant that mandating vaccines was a completely unjustified intrusion into the right of individuals to decide for themselves what to do with their own bodies. Citing the sacred right of bodily autonomy, he added that other, less intrusive measures — such as requiring testing for entrance to nursing homes and other places where “vulnerable populations” were found — was a far more reasonable and balanced approach to COVID:

Other prominent British leftists have been similarly steadfast about the injustice of vaccine mandates and passports. The Corbyn-supporting MP Zarah Sultana, who represents the Coventry South constituency in Parliament, published a lengthy statement on Tuesday saying she “shares concerns by human rights organizations such as Liberty on COVID passes, with fears that they are ineffective and will lead to to the further marginalization of minority groups.” MP Sultana also cited the opposition of British trade unions to such mandates, arguing that they “will be counterproductive, entrenching vaccine hesitancy, and may worsen staff shortages” (despite this ringing opposition, Sultana apparently lacked the courage to defy party leadership as she failed to vote on the bill to require passports).

But perhaps the most stirring opposition was expressed by left-wing MP Rachael Maskell, a former shadow minister under Corbyn and also a former health-care worker and trade unionist. On the floor of Parliament, Maskell stood to note the dark irony that the same health care workers who were heralded as essential heroes were now under threat of termination for failure to obey a vaccine mandate, and emphasized what had been a long-standing left-wing value: bodily autonomy.

Is the U.S. liberal-left now going to disparage Corbyn, trade unions and left-wing members of the Labour Party as being “anti-vax” and “anti-science” and recklessly risking lives? Are they going to claim that these leftist stalwarts, speaking for workers, are somehow placing extremist libertarian values of individual rights over public health and the collective good? Will they say that these left-wing “anti-vaxxers” have blood on their hands because they refuse to force people upon pain of losing their jobs in a pandemic to take a vaccine into their body that they do not believe is safe or effective rather than attempting to persuade them that it is?

This defiant and courageous stance on principle by Corbyn, labour unions and the British left highlights the obscenity of labelling anyone who dissents from or questions endless attempts to further empower the state as “anti-vaxxers.” But it also highlights one of the hidden truths about vaccine hesitancy: namely, who composes the “vaccine hesitant” and what their motives are.

As we have repeatedly covered here, a false narrative was manufactured from the start: namely, that the only people doubting the vaccine were right-wing Trump supporters, which enabled condescending employees of media corporations to malign anyone who sees the world differently than they do as primitive, deplorable racists. The truth, from the start, was far more complex: many of those who were in doubt about the vaccine were not only Trumpian “white nationalists” but disproportionately brown and black people, along with a higher percentage of Republicans. Indeed, many of the most outspoken celebrities in culture and sports expressing vaccine hesitancy were Black.

That is why vaccine mandates for workers with a punishment of firing for noncompliance can lead to racist outcomes, as these British trade unionists noted: because such punishment will fall disproportionately on black and brown workers. And labor unions representing health care workers and workers in other sectors around the world — in the Europe, and on other continents including Africa — were vehemently opposed from the start to the liberal demand (now joined in the UK by the politically desperate Tory Government) that workers be fired for refusing to be vaccinated.

Now that one of the world’s most admired leftist icons, Jeremy Corbyn, has not only spoken out but voted against vaccine mandates for health care workers and vaccine passports for the citizenry — joined by labor unions and other leading British leftists — this sham narrative will be harder to maintain. Will the liberal-left now shift to applying to their own leaders one of the most shameful and reputation-crippling titles that can now be bestowed in left-liberal circles: anti-vaxxers? Or will the British Left’s principled stance finally force the recognition that long-standing left-wing values of bodily autonomy and anti-authoritarianism are often the grounds for the view that it is long past time to keep increasing the power of the state over our lives and bodies in the name of stopping a disease that will almost certainly be with us into the indefinite future?

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