We stand at a historical crossroads. Simultaneous crises in public health, the global economy, of inequality and the climate will shape the world we live in for decades to come. Socialists can be confident that we have the answers needed to avert these catastrophes. But it’s urgent that, as the Left, we collectively raise ourselves to uniting and organising around an alternative vision for society that can win popular support.
The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the deep failings in our society caused by a decade of austerity and the four-decade domination of neoliberalism. A distorted economy, weak public services, broken social care system, woeful lack of workers’ rights and hollowed-out social security system have left us less dangerously unprepared to deal with this crisis. So many have paid too high a price for this.
All this demonstrates the importance of Labour laying out a bold alternative vision to this failed neoliberal model. Labour did so in its 2019 manifesto and many of those policies remain popular not only with Labour members but, crucially, with the wider electorate, though some policies now need deepening in light of the intensified crisis we are living through. Our election defeat was certainly not a rejection of these policies, but a consequence of an election dominated by Brexit.
It is vital that our party wins the next general election in order to fundamentally change the course of the country. But in these times of crisis, politics cannot be left to an election in four years’ time. The unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of people and a looming economic crisis in which many will lose their livelihoods will mean the public demands answers well before the next general election. And under this right-wing Tory government, the country could look very different by then if the proponents of “disaster capitalism” use this crisis as cover to further advance free-market models that have long failed working-class communities.
Positively, it is clear that the wider public understands that things not only can be done differently but wants them to be done differently too – for example, only 6% want to return to a pre-Covid economy. Labour has to seize this moment, shape the debate and outline its vision to ensure that by the next election, it is Labour and not the free-market ideologues in the Tory party or even far-right forces with racist responses, that has set the agenda for the future of our country.
Our entire movement needs to urgently engage in the debate about the nature of our alternative vision. Socialists have a key role to play in leading the conversation, this must be our priority over the next period, given it will affect the lives of millions of people. The neoliberal right has no answers to the multiple crises and the Left needs to confidently put forward its alternative. While defeats in the Labour leadership elections have clearly weakened the Left, it is a myth that the Left is now irrelevant.
In recent decades, it has been socialists that have led the charge on a whole range of issues that went on to win wider public backing and spurred on social change – including leading on campaigns against homophobia, racism and for women’s equality, peace in Ireland, opposition to the war on Iraq and warning of the failings of austerity. As the Left, we now need to take such a lead in the debate on how our society will respond to the overlapping crises we face.
Below is a contribution to that discussion. It takes the form of a 10-point plan that could be the basis for united labour movement priorities and campaigns over the coming months and which can easily be communicated to millions of people desperate for answers to the multiple crises they face. The aim of this article is to help kick-start the debate but no doubt there will be significant omissions in it and points that need much greater emphasis.
I welcome contributions and comments on these ideas here. I hope readers of Tribune will be amongst those who play a role in shaping this debate and forging the solutions that working class communities across this country so urgently need.
- National Campaign for Jobs
The public health crisis is set to develop into one of the deepest ever recessions, with experts warning that UK unemployment could hit 15% – meaning up to 5 million workers thrown on the scrapheap through no fault of their own. At the same time, private corporations will use this employment crisis to drive down terms and conditions. We cannot allow what is happening in British Airways and British Gas to become the blueprint for our economy. We need a national campaign for jobs that both supports trade unions in defending every job and outlines the urgent need for the government to step in and directly create employment opportunities. At the core of any such campaign must be the demand for a programme of public works that gets people into well-paid, skilled, secure employment that serves society’s needs. As the TUC recently stated “where business models face major changes after the pandemic, government investment in public services and infrastructure can provide new jobs”. Demands to rebuild our public services can play a key role in tackling unemployment, given there are over 100,000 vacancies in social care and 100,000 more in the NHS and 100,000 redundancies made in local government over the past decade.
- For a Green New Deal
One such state-led investment programme that must be at the core of any Left programme is the Green New Deal. Our economy and state was not prepared for the coronavirus crisis and we cannot meet the impending climate crisis in the same inadequate way. A Green New Deal can provide over a million green jobs, including the high-skilled employment especially needed in areas of high deindustrialisation, while ensuring that we take the action needed to meet the scale of the task to avert climate catastrophe including large scale investment in renewables, public transport and wider infrastructure, and the retrofitting of millions of homes. The market clearly cannot meet this challenge. There is no reason why a united campaign from the entire labour movement for a state-led Green New Deal that bails out people and planet cannot win broad public support and secure real change over the coming years.
- Universal Social Security
Hundreds of thousands of people have had to claim social security benefits for the first time as a result of the coronavirus crisis. As a result, millions more people will be conscious of the failings, inadequate support levels and dehumanising nature of this system. Never can we allow our party to return to the stigmatising narrative of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. The case for a progressive, social security system based upon universalism and a Minimum Income Guarantee rather than means testing is more compelling than ever and one that the Left should fight for and can win a majority for.
- Ending NHS Privatisation and Building a National Social Care Service
Millions of people showed their solidarity with the NHS during this crisis. On the Left we need to build on this, fight for our NHS to be properly funded – not least to deal with coming waves of coronavirus – and win the argument for NHS privatisation to be halted and reversed and pay rises for all NHS staff. As well as campaigning to prevent our NHS being part of any negotiations for a trade deal with the USA, we must step up the call for the full repeal of the Health and Social Care Act 2012. Our privatised, inadequate social care system, where private equity and hedge funds play a significant role, must be replaced by a National Care Service based upon the same principles as those which founded our NHS and where the staff are paid decent salaries worthy of the vital work they do.
- Public Ownership, Not Private Profit
As the capitalist crisis deepens, private corporations will slash investment levels to maximise short-term profits, worsening the economic downturn and job losses. State investment must be increased. This should not be about giving life support to a broken economy but transforming our economy to serve the people, not the 1%. That means we on the Left need to urgently develop an Alternative Economic Plan based on state-led investment, including through state banks, that creates skilled employment, improvements in living standards and the high-skill industries of the future as well as tackling both our economy’s substantial productivity gap and unacceptable regional inequalities. As part of this more managed economy, the railways, mail, water, energy and fibre broadband provision must be brought into public ownership with greater democratic control. We must also fight for (part) ownership of those strategic companies that receive state bailouts so that the rewards go the public, not private shareholders. With the crisis in our higher education system set to deepen, we must continue to demand that free education is a central part of that sectors’ solution. With the real risk of Local Authorities becoming bankrupt, the Left must spearhead a nationally-coordinated campaign for proper Local Authority funding so that the Tories cannot continue to devolve responsibility for local service cuts which make outsourcing and privatisation more likely.
- A New Era of Workers’ Rights
The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated that the work in our society which is truly essential is all too often low paid and subject to poor terms and conditions. This has to change. As well as fighting for a National Minimum Wage at real living wage levels, we must use this moment to ensure Statutory Sick Pay is also paid at living wage levels. With growing anxiety about workplace safety and fears of redundancies, millions have seen the importance of union membership. Now is a crucial moment to step up the campaign for the expansion of individual and collective employment rights, and the empowerment of our trade unions. This must include full and equal employment rights from day one, banning zero-hour contracts, the repeal of anti-trade union legislation, the introduction of secure electronic and workplace balloting for industrial action and ending our country’s race to the bottom by, for example, bringing the UK into line with International Labour Organisation standards.
- Housing as a Public Right
Our housing system has been broken for decades but the coronavirus crisis demands urgent action to fix it. Labour must unreservedly stand with millions of renters facing housing insecurity and in favour of policies that treat housing as a right and not as a commodity. We need to put the demand for 100,000 new council houses per year at the heart of debates on solutions to the housing crisis. But even more urgently, we need to ensure that no one loses their home because of the coronavirus crisis and its aftermath. Hundreds of thousands of renters who have fallen behind on rent face this threat when evictions restart in August. We need to support and build the campaigns for an extension to eviction bans so those who have lost income due to the pandemic do not also lose their home alongside state action to suspend rents to address the reality of loss of incomes and unsustainable housing debts. The New Economics Foundation has explained in detail how such rent suspensions could work including income protection for smaller landlords who’d fall below a basic standard of living, alongside genuine mortgage freezes.
- Tax Justice
The pandemic has increased the already unacceptable levels of inequality in society as billionaires have been able to extract ever greater profits during the crisis. While millions face the risk of losing their job, their home or business, the richest few have secured super profits during this pandemic, with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ income growing by $13 billion in a single day. While the necessary investment in public works can be financed via record-low UK government borrowing costs and paid for through a state-led economic growth , a debate is opening up on higher taxes, for example with government briefings on a new tax for the over-40s to pay for social care. We need to consistently and clearly make the case for the recovery being funded by those who can afford it – not through attacks on working-class living standards. As part of this, a windfall tax on those corporations whose profits have increased as a result of the coronavirus crisis, and a greater emphasis on wealth taxes, will help create a fairer, more inclusive society and help fund the public works programme that is necessary to build back better.
- Solidarity with Black Lives Matter – For a Society of Equals
The pandemic has again exposed the deep structural inequalities that scar our broken society. Too many live in poverty, overcrowded housing and with poor health – and all too often Black communities are disproportionately affected. The Black Lives Matter movement has rightly pushed structural racism to the top of the political agenda and the Labour movement must fully align itself with the demand for the real change that’s so urgently needed. Tackling structural inequalities requires huge social investment that will not only tackle deep rooted discrimination but help transform our whole society for the better. The dismantling of all such systematic inequality must be at the heart of how we restructure our institutions following the crisis. This cannot be treated as a distraction from the class struggle, as some may argue, but be central to it by helping to build the unity of the working class in all its diversity that is needed to win the change we need. As the economic crisis intensifies, we will see ever more reactionary attempts at scapegoating and attempts to divide and rule communities. Standing shoulder to shoulder with women, disabled people, all Black, Jewish and minority communities and LGBT+ people against any social reaction must be at the core of our response to the crisis.
- For Peace, Justice and Global Cooperation
The coronavirus crisis has not only deepened inequalities within countries but between them, with, for example, poorer nations facing ever greater debt repayments that risk health services being further weakened. Any global recession will also see international tensions rise – already Trump has become even more belligerent, with his attacks on the World Health Organisation a sign of an even more unilateralist US foreign policy. There are also deeply worrying signs of a new Cold War opening up between the US and China which would not only pose a threat to peace across the entire world and risk vast resources being reallocated from public services to rising military budgets but could also further undermine the economic, climate and public health cooperation the world needs now more than ever. In such a context, as socialists and internationalists, we must play a full role in backing peace and justice, including justice for Palestine in the face of threatened further annexation and for an end to the war in Yemen, backing global calls for debt cancellation and campaigning for Britain to have an independent, ethical foreign policy.