The Public Is Ready for a Post-Covid Alternative – if the Left Makes the Case

The coronavirus crisis has deepened Britain's inequalities, but it has also strengthened public opposition to austerity policies – the task for the Left is to build a new consensus on progressive terms, argues Faiza Shaheen.

There is so much Covid-19 is teaching us about our resilience, our communities, the costs of austerity, the harsh realities of life for our multi-ethnic working class, and how polarised the labour market is. The problem is, too often politicians and commentators are talking about these problems as it they are Covid-19 induced, rather than the legacy of the last 40 years of a neoliberal, hyper profit-driven economic approach.

The Conservative government’s intervention has so far been about addressing the immediate crisis – applying short-term sticky-plaster policies to stop the system from total collapse. This tells us everything about this government’s intentions to return to a normal that generates obscene inequalities – which we see in the annual Sunday Times rich list – while exploiting workers and the planet’s resources. If we want real change, we are not only going to have to fight hard, we are going to have to connect the dots of today’s disaster with the past.

In writing our annual report on the realities of the labour market, we put together a timeline and statistics highlighting trends over the last decade. It helped to remind us just how effective the Conservatives have been in pushing their agenda of a small state, lower regulations and individualism.

And it is this ideology, not the pandemic, that means almost a quarter of those we surveyed are just one pay cheque away from being unable to pay their mortgage or rent, and 60 per cent are less than three months away. Despite the furlough programme almost one in five are not confident they will still be employed in their current job in six months times. Such high levels of insecurity do not bode well for levels of stress in society, nor the ability for the economy to have a health recovery.

There is, as always, some cause for optimism though. A new poll commissioned by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) did find some good news – that the public want change. Our polling shows considerable support for a pay rise across key public and private sector frontline workers and a desire for more state investment.

Only one in five workers would support a policy that prioritises paying down any debt created by government intervention during the lockdown. Instead, there is an overwhelming demand for the government to tackle inequality: over two thirds of workers support taxing the wealthiest more (69 per cent) and increasing investment in public services (67 per cent). Over half support green investment, while just 4 per cent oppose it. 

This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the ‘need’ for austerity was the consensus in parliament up until Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership in 2015. Let’s also remember that the public have been subjected to 40 years of the ‘container’ argument that the economy works just like a household budget and that any debt needs to be paid down by tightening one’s belts.

It seems after a decade of austerity, in which the damage to society has been increasingly obvious, people are just not buying it. In this crisis they have seen the government do what they told us they could not do and are just not accepting the old arguments. 

This gives those of us on the progressive Left the opportunity to demand a recovery plan, focused on fixing the environment and the care sector while creating thousands of unionised well-paid jobs. The furlough scheme is a necessary emergency measure, but it is not the solution to the workers crisis. That can only come by investment in employment, particularly green jobs, and skilling the workers with investment in education and training.

We need to break the cycle of low-paid jobs to unemployment that has become so prevalent in our zero hours and gig economy. So instead of workers heading towards the cliff edges of the end of furlough, and other cliffs such as Brexit and climate breakdown, we are ready to glide to a better future.

We have no time to waste, as British Airways’ laying off of 12,000 staff reminds us. There have been signs of Brexit opportunism whereby companies have used Brexit as a way to avoid pay rises, Covid-19 could be used as cover to make people redundant.

Four in ten companies surveyed globally admitted that they are now bringing forward plans for automation to “pandemic-proof” their companies, which is disproportionately affecting non-graduate roles. It seems that Covid-19 is exacerbating existing inequalities and creating new ones. 

The case for change couldn’t be stronger, but it is far from inevitable. As Home Secretary Priti Patel’s further push of the Immigration Bill shows, we have many challenges ahead. If we thought that the last general election was the key battle for the Left, this pandemic has shown not only that our ideas are winning public support – even if we don’t always get the credit – but also that change is within reach. We will be tested all over again, and this time we really cannot afford to lose.