As we come out of the coronavirus crisis, the battle lines for the next fight are being drawn, says TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady.
The coronavirus is not just an unprecedented public health emergency, it is also the biggest economic threat since the Great Depression. Forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility suggest that by June our national output could shrink by 35%. We need urgent action to rebuild and redesign our economy – and stop the despair of mass unemployment.
As we celebrate 75 years since VE Day, we should look at the lessons of the post-war period. In 1945 Britain was bloodied, battered – and broke. Yet after the war, our economy grew faster than ever before. We did it not by cutting back, but by making decent jobs, new homes, infrastructure and a new national health service the priority for all.
It was no less than what the ordinary women and men who had beat the Nazis deserved – and a big contrast to what had happened after the great crash a few years earlier, when severe cuts led straight to the desperation of the 1930s across Europe and beyond.
So, let’s channel the spirit of 1945. The coronavirus crisis doesn’t have to equal mass unemployment and a poorer, meaner country. We can do what the post-war generation did: rely on one another, grow our way out of this crisis and build a better life for everyone.
The TUC is clear: that means we need a plan to invest for growth, with full employment at its heart. Not cuts to services, deregulation and tax cuts for big business.
The pandemic highlighted longstanding flaws in how we run things. A decade of austerity left our NHS and public services ill-equipped and understaffed. Living standards have barely risen since the 2008 financial crisis. Millions of workers are trapped in low-paid, insecure work. We were not ready.
But the campaign against the virus has also shown what we can do, with urgency and common purpose. The TUC has helped negotiate the job retention scheme, a powerful example of government intervention for good. It has saved millions of jobs. In just days, the UK got nearly every rough sleeper into safe accommodation. And the way communities have come together has been inspirational. Think of the flowering of mutual aid groups, the solidarity of clapping for our NHS and care workers on Thursday evenings, the exploits of Captain Tom Moore and the myriad displays of neighbourliness.
Above all, the crisis has shown the value of working people’s labour. It’s not financial wizardry in the City that has sustained the country through these tough times. It’s the hard work of NHS staff, carers, teachers, council staff, posties, supermarket workers, delivery drivers and people working in our transport, distribution and energy networks.
So any plan for recovery needs to put working people and jobs at its heart. We can work our way out of recession, safely and together.
The first priority is a jobs guarantee scheme to prevent a return to the dark days of mass unemployment. This country cannot afford to have three million people unemployed – nor to have school and college leavers graduate and go straight on the dole. That’s why government should fund guaranteed jobs with a social purpose on a decent wage.
Then, we need to build an economy that creates many more good jobs, all over the country. A smart industrial strategy can rebuild Britain’s manufacturing. It can create good, green jobs as well as high-tech jobs to help us tackle climate change and be more resilient to future pandemics. And it can show that we respect and value the job of caring, with thousands more good jobs on decent pay with secure contracts in social care.
Working our way out of recession also means making sure pay keeps rising and ensuring our key workers get the wage rises they have earned. And we need a new way of doing business: where better, more responsible, more innovative companies power future growth.
To stop people being plunged into poverty by the fallout from the pandemic, we need a much stronger safety net. We must raise the basic level of universal credit, child benefit and sick pay, and end the unfair benefits cap.
If the crisis has taught us one thing, it’s that the private sector economy can’t function without public services to keep us safe and well. Months of clapping for key workers must be followed by years of investment and an end to inefficient privatisation and outsourcing.
The impact of the crisis has been uneven. It risks entrenching existing inequalities, and opening up new ones. Structural racism means that BAME workers are more likely to be in frontline roles, less likely have the power to refuse unsafe working, and more likely to be low-paid.
With childcare settings unlikely to reopen in the same numbers as before, parents face difficult choices about their long-term working future – and we know that the burden will fall on women. And for disabled people and those with long term health conditions, many of whom will have been told to shield for months, there is a real risk of being pushed out of the labour market altogether.
There can be no recovery without a recovery for everyone. That means targeted action to address the unequal impacts of coronavirus, and the inequalities in our society that caused them.
A strong, fast recovery is also crucial for strong communities – and to stop the far right exploiting despair and deprivation to divide people. Places where everyone has a decent job, where mutual aid flourishes, and where the local economy and public services are thriving are places inoculated against hatemongers.
As we come out of the coronavirus crisis, the battle lines for the next fight are being drawn. We must be ready to set out the case for investment for growth, and full employment, and to oppose the siren voices of austerity, tax cuts and deregulation. They offer no route out of this crisis.
Instead, we need millions of working families with higher disposable income to create the economic demand needed for strong growth, healthy public finances and a fairer, more inclusive country. That’s how we recover, together.
Frances O’Grady is General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress | @FrancesOGrady