Safety first, then we must curb tech giants

Dave Randall on the latest threat to music venues locally and nationally

Brixton venues will be concerned by new Covid-19 “circuit breaker” policies, which include the 10pm curfew and a possible two-week shutdown.

Many have invested significant sums to make their businesses Covid-safe in accordance with existing guidelines and these further restrictions will push some to the brink.

Tempting as it may be, we should resist the urge to automatically oppose the new measures. Contrary to the claims made by the mask-refuseniks who gather in Trafalgar Square, Covid-19 is no conspiracy; it remains a deadly pandemic.

We must do everything we can to prevent a return to those days in the Spring when every news report included a rollcall of the fallen; key workers who had died following contracting the virus – most of them black and Asian, many of them young.

However, venues and relevant trade unions have every right to demand that closures only take place as part of a coherent and competently delivered strategy.

So far, the government’s response to Covid-19 has been confused and bungled.

gig poster

The sector also has every right to demand more financial support. After all, plenty of taxpayers’ money is currently being splurged by this government, much of it on spurious schemes.

Take the debacle of testing and tracing … Test centres are currently run by Sodexo, G4S and Serco – the same giant private companies that run prisons and which have proved inept in the past.

Serco has been given nearly half a million for its contact tracing system, which has proved near useless.

Many of these contracts and others have been allocated without competitive tender.

The crisis has been a windfall for these companies, while the NHS lacks funds at every turn.

It has also been a windfall for some of the world’s biggest corporations, among them Amazon and the tech firms whose platforms we increasingly rely upon.

During the second world war, new monopolies were subject to windfall taxes designed to redistribute wealth to those in need. Why not now?

In July Amazon announced that profits had doubled during the pandemic to $5.2 billion by the end of the second quarter of the year.

Just a fraction of that would not only enable governments to give nurses and other key workers a decent pay rise, but also to provide ongoing help for the hardest hit independent businesses, such as our beloved music venues. 

But, in truth, the economic beneficiaries of the pandemic and their political representatives may not want to help small businesses.

Closed sign outside Effra Hall Tavern

Rather, some among them see this as an opportunity to realise their vision of an increasingly online world. To the owners of social media platforms, shopping; entertainment; the arts; even friendship and sex enjoyed offline represents revenue lost.

Designers in Silicon Valley have long heightened the addictive nature of platforms to increase profits, but a comprehensive takeover of all the core areas of our lives seemed a slow burning pipe dream until the pandemic gave it rocket boosters.

So, while we must put safety first now, we must also keep the ambitions of tech giants in check.

Unfortunately, our current government is unlikely either to keep us safe or to curb dystopian corporate desires, and the leader of the opposition has displayed little in the way of dissent from the government line.

But the good news is that a new report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Green New Deal, which consulted over 50,000 people, concludes that the public are way ahead of parliament.

Many want a post-pandemic world with more flexible working, shorter hours, greener policies and a majority are for a guaranteed monthly income – in short, a higher quality of life with more time to enjoy together.

Perhaps most interesting is that these aims are shared regardless of age, sex, ethnicity or class – the desire for fundamental change is widespread.

Those of us who recognise the immeasurable value of culture in our communities – of live music and arts that encourage people to congregate, be creative and celebrate one another – must ensure that such things are at the heart of our post-pandemic plans.

Demanding more help for our local venues now, and supporting our creative community in whatever ways we can, are small but important steps in that hopeful direction.

Dave Randall is a musician and author of Sound System: The Political Power of Music