In being forced to admit that millions of workers in the UK are ‘essential,’ the government has inadvertently made a case for Universal Basic Services better than any radical could. By accepting that the once demeaned ‘low-skilled’ worker is actually essential, the crisis has forced the government to recognise that the services they provide are crucial as well.
You only need to look at our National Health Service to see a shining example of this theory brought to life. Despite the backdoor privatisation and ideological attempts to undermine the public element of our public health service, the NHS remains a beacon of humanity. And we should learn from it – based on the NHS, we can build the argument for greater public provision of essential services in a way that people will naturally understand.
It makes moral sense that those who are ill should be cared for according to their need and not their ability to pay. But why did we stop at healthcare, and not advance the moral argument that, for example, those who cannot afford food should be fed based on their needs as well?
While the conservative tradition has argued that the market should deliver these essentials at the individual’s cost, the labour movement has long believed that our lives’ essentials should be provided collectively and available free at the point of use. The recent de facto nationalisation of Britain’s railways is an example of even a Tory government realising that some services cannot be left to private interests.
Though not an example of genuine public ownership, this has served as an example of the market ideologues in government losing control of their argument. And now, with the coronavirus pandemic emphasising the need for collective solutions more than ever, there is an opportunity for the labour movement to make a case for further public provision of essential services.
Though we have rightly praised the efforts of our incredible doctors, nurses and healthcare staff throughout this crisis, we have also started to properly appreciate other workers who support us to go about our daily lives. From refuse collectors to shelf stackers, there has been a re-evaluation about whose work is essential and deserving of reward. And in the case of billionaire Twitter addicts – yes, Elon – whose work isn’t.
Following the Communication Workers’ Union offer to form a ‘fourth emergency service‘ at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Rebecca Long-Bailey presented what was probably the best policy of her leadership campaign: a national food service. What Long-Bailey was starting to develop was a radical plan for the provision of our lives’ essentials, and a solution to the disgrace of ever-growing queues outside of foodbanks in the sixth wealthiest economy on the earth.
Food provision was one of the areas covered in the Institute for Global Prosperity’s 2017 report on Universal Basic Services. The report found that it would cost roughly £4 billion per year to provide 1.8 billion meals to some of the country’s poorest households. With warning bells about a second coronavirus spike already sounding, this sort of policy should be given serious consideration to alleviate suffering if there is to be another national lockdown.
Whether we look at implementing the UBS model in terms of food supply or transport, housing, or healthcare, the point is that we are making the argument for a new model of collectivism. The former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty argued that “the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War” was coming undone.
The ‘glue’ that he is talking about is collectivism. Throughout successive governments, we have seen the neoliberal ideology destroy much of the post-war settlement. But we should not set our sights solely on what has been achieved before. In advancing the cause of Universal Basic Services, the labour movement must make the broader case for a complete reorganisation of our society.
The coronavirus crisis has already done some of this work for us. It will be a historic and unforgivable mistake if we let this moment for real change pass us by as the government races ahead with its version of the ‘new normal.’
The labour movement must build a new model of collectivism rooted in the provision of new, universal services that offer everyone life’s essentials while cementing the idea that working people are not commodities to be traded on the market, but people worthy of a decent life.
A rewarding and fulfilling life should not be the preserve of the wealthiest in our society – it should be the very basic that all of us enjoy. In supporting the campaign for Universal Basic Services, that is a future that we can make possible.