We must claim the future. If we don’t, others will.
There is struggle taking place in our society. It’s barely reported in the mainstream media but it’s real and it’s happening.
It’s between people who have experienced the last 10 years of austerity and the first wave of the pandemic and have decided that things have to change and the establishment who are desperately seeking to hold on to their grip on wealth and power.
The pandemic has acted as a pressure test on how our society and economy operates.
It has exposed the stark reality of 21st century capitalism.
Where for millions work means poverty wages and a daily struggle to make ends meet. Where social security provides no security. Where, as a result of gross underfunding, social care leaves thousands in neglect.
Not only have the weaknesses and failings of the system been exposed but the dominant theories upon which the economy has been managed are being forcibly challenged.
The market patently doesn’t always know best. Private good, public bad as a dictum for the provision of public services has led to ripoff profiteering and poor and at times dangerous delivery of the services we depend on. The wealth amassed by the rich at our expense has not trickled down.
The first wave of the pandemic inflicted immense hardship and produced many personal tragedies but it also often brought out the selfless best in many people and prompted the first stirrings of an optimism that lessons were being learnt and change could follow. Since then tens of thousands more have died and we face the second wave in which it feels like we are back to the start but without the safeguarding systems put in place to cope that were promised months ago.
The frightening threat of Covid has been made so much worse by the crass incompetence of Prime Minister Johnson and his ministers, who have combined failure with disingenuous bluster and cover up.
Ministers and advisers have disregarded safety rules with impunity and created unnecessary divisions across the country to the point of putting at risk the very integrity of the UK.
Nevertheless, for their friends, awarded lucrative government Covid contracts, it has been a very profitable crisis. What economic support that has been provided to businesses has been unconditional with the result that there have been no constraints put upon companies pursuing fire and rehire strategies to cut workers’ wages and undermine hard won terms of employment.
Now that the Government is cutting support, mass redundancies are being pushed through and job losses are mounting rapidly. Unemployment is predicted to reach levels even beyond the 1980s, hitting young people the hardest. A new lost generation is emerging.
Mobilising to respond to the immediate problems our people are facing of job losses, attacks on wages, rising debt and evictions is now taking on a heightened sense of urgency.
But whilst confronting the day to day issues it is equally important that we lift our sights to plan the society we aim to create so that never again will we face a crisis so vulnerable and ill prepared: a society that will guarantee the security, hopes and dreams people naturally seek to possess.
We must claim the future.
If we don’t, others will.
It will be the establishment politicians and the corporate interests they serve that will prevail.
The risk is a repeat of what happened after the financial crash of 2008 when, by failing to mobilise for an alternative, progressives allowed the political vacuum to be filled by the right.
That crash exposed a grotesque economic system built on greed, perilously out of all democratic control, but the establishment soon closed the waters over the crisis to return to business as usual.
The result was 10 years of brutal austerity that didn’t just cause hardship but cost many lives.
History has taught us that a recession on the scale we could be facing now not only blights the lives of a generation but is often dangerously also the breeding ground for the far right.
The Claim the Future project has brought together a wide range of policy experts and campaigners to discuss and plan what a new future could be like but also by networking activist campaigners with policy analysts and researchers to enable the prefiguring of that new society in the campaigns and policy solutions being promoted now.
With an 80 seat Conservative majority in Parliament and a largely craven media, the question is how do we claim the future? How is fundamental political and economic change achieved?
The past two major political paradigm shifts were brought about by the post war Labour government and the 1980s Thatcher government.
They achieved radical change not by relying solely on the publication of a long lists of policies but by advocating a vision of a society based upon a basic set of principles that caught the wind when the opportunity for change arose.
For Attlee’s Labour Party it was a society built upon solidarity, collective action and public ownership.
For Thatcher’s Conservative Party it was individualism, market competition and private ownership.
Both these sets of principles dominated political economy for their generation and beyond to the extent that they were incorporated into the thinking and policies of political opponents.
The experience of the pandemic after a decade of austerity has the potential to deal a fatal blow to the already shaky hegemony of Thatcherite neoliberal ideas and open up the opportunity for change.
Contrary to the Thatcherite claim that there is no such thing as society, the pandemic has taught us that we are a community and we do care for each other and need each other.
Collective action and mutual support have been essential to tackling the pandemic and supporting its victims, not just by the state but also in a multitude of forms of mutual aid.
The promotion of individualism in a society and economy where there is already an unequal distribution of power and wealth has exacerbated that inequality. The pandemic has exposed the brutal consequences of inequality in the higher death rates in economically deprived areas and the BAME community.
Markets become next to irrelevant in large sections of an economy shut down in a pandemic and private ownership has proved to be unsustainable in many sectors of the economy like transport or shown to be dangerously unfit for purpose in areas like social care.
The pandemic has demonstrated the redundancy of neoliberalism at times of crisis with a clear lesson for how we deal with the next crisis: the existential threat of climate change.
The argument could now be won for resetting our economy to a new set of principles burnished by the pandemic experience. An economy where universal basic services provide, as a right, access to employment, education, a decent home, treatment and care and an income securing a good quality of life.
An economy of true value, where the distribution of rewards is based upon the social value of the contribution a person makes to society and not solely the market value.
An economy based on community, whose aim is to bring people together and support communities to thrive across the whole country.
And, as climate change is here, an economy with sustainability at its core – where every economic decision is based upon sustaining life on the planet and the rights of future generations.
A new set of founding economic principles is made real by the advocacy of specific alternative policies to meet the immediate challenges we face that prefigure the society we aim to create.
It is these policy demands that can provide the basis upon which movements can be mobilised. It is only through those movements that we can create an unstoppable climate of opinion to force through fundamental change.
The coronavirus crisis has revealed how reliant everyone is on working people from the carers in our residential care homes, to the supermarket workers, the drivers of trains and buses and to the cleaners, essential to reducing the risk of infection. Workers have secured people’s health, care, travel, shelter, and livelihoods.
But it has also exposed how the pay and working conditions of many of these workers show how little they have been valued in the eyes of employers and government alike.
3.7 million people are in insecure work with nearly a million workers on zero-hours contracts with no guaranteed hours. Insecure work has gradually spread into new industries, such as banking and education.
The last ten years has also seen a “pay disaster”, in the words of the chief economist of the Bank of England, with weekly wages still below the 2008 levels in the months before the pandemic. In-work poverty has increased by a third since 1996/97.
Statutory sick pay is at a miserable £95.85 per week and many zero-hours contract workers and other ‘gig economy’ workers do not have access to statutory sick pay at all.
Low pay is the product of decades of decimating workplace rights.
Margaret Thatcher’s goal was “to smash the unions forever”. She introduced legislation reducing compensation for unfair dismissal, enabling punishment for striking, restricting strikes in support of other workers and ending the ‘closed shop’. Privatisation, outsourcing and deregulation were often justified on the ground of reduced costs but invariably this reduced cost was secured by undercutting workers’ pay and conditions and loosening protections at work.
Key elements of anti trade union legislation were maintained under New Labour. Then between 2010 and 2020 efforts to dismantle organised labour were redoubled under successive Conservative-led governments. The Trade Union Act 2016 introduced even further restrictions on when a strike was possible. Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey called it “a dark day for workers” when the Act was passed.
It is no coincidence that as membership of trade unions fell by 47% between 1979 and 2014 there was a sharp rise in inequality. Over the same period the share of wealth that went to the richest 1% leapt by 134%.
When the pandemic hit, it became obvious that the state had to intervene urgently and at scale to support people unable to work and to support businesses whose operations were curtailed.
But the government’s interventions have been slow, half-hearted and riddled with gaps in coverage, with the result that many have suffered hardship from inadequate or no support at all.
By failing to attach basic conditions to state aid the government has also given free rein to employers to drive through long held corporate ambitions to cut wages and undermine terms of employment to enhance their long-term profits. The rapidly expanding practice of “fire and rehire” has demonstrated that many employers are not letting the crisis go to waste.
With the uncertainty of government support continuing, joblessness is predicted to reach levels not seen since the 1980s. The Alliance for Full Employment estimates that one and a half million young people will experience unemployment over the next year.
We need a reset programme of immediate measures to protect living standards during the pandemic and lay the foundations of a new economy based upon full employment and properly valuing and rewarding workers.
A Job Guarantee Scheme providing the guarantee of paid work at least at the real living wage, or the union negotiated rate, or to provide free education or skills training will be vital to preventing a prolonged slump and the even larger economic and social costs that come with sharp rises of long-term unemployment and increased poverty. Linked to the Green New Deal this would provide the well paid, skilled jobs needed in the just transition to a sustainable economy.
The guarantee of a job or an educational or training opportunity will only succeed if universities and colleges are fully resourced. The free market model in universities and colleges was already fundamentally broken, since a large percentage of student debt is never going to be paid back. And now, hit through the Covid crisis by a £2.6 billion shortfall, some universities may face bankruptcy, denying opportunity to thousands of young people, as well as resulting in job losses.
Government has provided some limited financial assistance to universities to help with cashflow but is threatening to cut courses and restrict access. A full bail-out is critical but must be conditional on preventing job losses, ending casualisation and linked to scrapping tuition fees, restoring maintenance grants and the Education Maintenance Allowance to remove barriers to workers seeking to improve their skills and retrain throughout their working lives.
The Job Retention Scheme could readily be adapted to a short time working scheme, permanently available if needed, to share work and reduce the working week under the leadership of trade unions.
Boosting the minimum wage is an essential way both to value workers properly and to assist in recession-proofing people in work. Prior to the coronavirus crisis the minimum wage was not a real living wage. An immediate increase to £10 an hour with the aim of a staged increase to £15 an hour would not only reduce in work poverty but also inject money back into the economy, since those paid the least are highly likely to spend these wages rather than save them.
Sectoral collective bargaining is the single most important way to ensure good minimum terms, conditions, and pay are agreed across an industry. Its early introduction in the care sector could overcome the chronic low pay of carers.
Effective collective bargaining requires the restoration of trade union rights by repealing the Trade Union Act 2016 and overhauling earlier legislation restricting the rights to organise, strike, and gain access to workplaces for organising.
The exploitation of insecure work would be reduced by banning zero hours contracts and returning to one category of ‘worker’ whilst a better balance between work and rest could be struck by reducing working hours with the aim of achieving the equivalent of a four day week and increasing the number of bank holidays without loss of pay.
The path to a better society and a stronger economy can only be built on the foundations of a strong safety net. If social security is to mean anything in the sixth wealthiest country in the world, it should mean nobody lives in poverty.
Poverty has been rising in Britain for over a decade. Under the austerity policies of the Conservative government from 2010, billions of pounds have been cut from social security budgets, driving millions more people into poverty.
The benefit freeze meant real terms cuts in incomes – while eligibility for support was removed from many people. Support for low paid workers was also reduced through cuts to tax credits, Universal Credit and housing benefit.
Alongside these cuts, a more punitive conditionality and sanctions regime has been introduced, described as going from a system that helped people to a system designed to trip people up.
14 million people in Britain are now officially classified as living in poverty. Over four million children are growing up in poverty, pensioner poverty is rising again, and over three in ten disabled people live in poverty.
In-work poverty is at record high levels, and 70% of the children in poverty are in a household where at least one parent works. Of the 14.3 million people in poverty, nine million live in households where at least one person works.
UK benefits provide some of the lowest incomes in western Europe. The United Nations has been damning about the impact of austerity, saying that the UK’s social safety net “has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos” whilst a former government adviser, Louise Casey, has referred to people facing destitution.
In recent years the number of workers who are self-employed has increased dramatically from 3.3 million in 2001 to around 5 million workers at the start of 2020. Many are not eligible for the social security protections that are available to employed workers, and many are falsely self-employed – working regularly for the same employer, while the employer avoids having to pay pension or NI contributions or having any duty to provide benefits like sick pay and pensions.
When the coronavirus crisis hit it was clear that the UK’s shredded social safety net would be inadequate but whilst the government has been forced to introduce a series of additional, short term, late and limited measures to support businesses and wages, its obvious aim is to cut this support at the earliest opportunity.
The Government is clearly shares the view of the Governor of the Bank of England when he argued for ending support “to let structural change in the economy take place.”
The inevitable consequence of withdrawing support without any plan for managed structural change is rapidly rising unemployment and, with the resultant loss of income, poverty. It is the return of the Conservative attitude of the 1980s that unemployment is a price worth paying.
Government ministers fail to accept that social security acts as what economists call an ‘automatic stabiliser’, acting as a buffer that not only protects the individual but the wider economy – preventing economic demand from slumping.
The underlying principle of social security is that it should provide a liveable income for all those unable to work or whose pay from work does not provide a liveable income. The current system fails to fulfil this basic role. It needs to be reset.
All our children should be given the best possible start in life, but child poverty has been rising in recent years due to deliberate policy choices – including limiting benefits to the first two children and freezing and then capping child benefit. To tackle child poverty, child benefit must be increased substantially, the benefit cap scrapped, and the two-child limit removed.
A social security system that does what it says and provides security, must start with a Minimum Income Guarantee at its base – providing the minimum level that anyone is expected to live on. A range of levels for the MIG have been suggested including a Liveable Income Guarantee equivalent to the real living wage, accounting for housing costs too, and linked to additional support to ensure the right to independent living for disabled people. These would be significant increases from the current levels of UK social security, but they would be not greatly dissimilar from levels of social security paid in Ireland, France or Germany.
Housing is the starkest example of market failure. In the last decade the number of people sleeping rough on England’s streets has more than doubled. 726 rough sleepers died in 2018.
The street homeless are the tip of the iceberg of the housing crisis that exists across Britain. There are now over 135,000 children growing up in temporary accommodation, without a home to call their own.
Home ownership has steadily declined especially among younger households, which have not been able to afford a home. The average house price is nearly 8 times the median wage.
Landlords have also been crowding out first-time buyers in the housing market, as house price rises have outstripped wage rises for a generation.
Only those with significant wealth are able to put down the necessary deposit in order to get a mortgage. This trend means nearly a million fewer under-40s own their own home than was the case a generation ago.
At the same time the numbers renting in the private sector in England have doubled to 4.6 million with many renters trapped in overcrowded accommodation.
Cuts to housing benefit mean that a lower proportion of rent is being paid by benefits. The bedroom tax also took away further housing support from council and housing association tenants if the property was deemed to have a spare room. The household benefit cap has socially cleansed low income renters out of many areas.
Despite pledging to end no fault evictions in 2019, the Government has yet to bring forward legislation and more than three years on from Grenfell, hundreds of thousands of people continue to live homes covered in flammable cladding.
In the early stages of the pandemic the Government gave all mortgage holders a payment holiday with deferred payments added to the end of the mortgage term or added to monthly payments. A moratorium was introduced on evictions for renters and renters and landlords were urged to agree repayment plans. The result is landlords have been protected from losses like no other businesses. Housing benefit was marginally improved but the benefit cap and the bedroom tax have been left in place. StepChange debt advice charity estimated that by late May 2020, 590,000 household had fallen into rent arrears.
The temporary ban on evictions has ended with the prospect of large-scale evictions and homelessness.
For homeless people sleeping rough, the Government brought in an ‘Everybody in’ policy, working with hostels and hotels to try to accommodate all rough sleepers, but that policy was ended in May, and rough sleepers are at risk of a bleak winter back on the streets.
The failure to have any concerted housing policy and leaving housing supply to the market has resulted in millions of families being without a safe, secure and affordable home and that figure risks growing unless urgent and co-ordinated action is taken.
Housing should be a human right for all not an investment opportunity for a few. Whether they are homeowners, leaseholders or renters, everyone must have the right to a safe, secure and affordable home.
To achieve that we need a Housing Reset Programme that deals with the immediate housing crisis and lays the foundations for ensuring a decent home is guaranteed for everybody.
Emergency accommodation must be provided to homeless people and the ban on evictions extended for a further year whilst 8000 additional homes are allocated for people with a history of rough sleeping, and legislation to protect renters has been enacted. Millions of renters will exit lockdown with substantial housing debt because they have lost their job or had their pay cut on the furlough or job support schemes. The government should legislate to cancel housing debt.
To ensure housing is affordable housing benefit should be restored to the 50th decile of local market rent, the bedroom tax scrapped and the benefit cap abolished. Rent controls should be re-established and security of tenure in the private sector legislated for with councils required to introduce landlord licensing to enforce minimum standards.
Landlordism is an even greater scourge today than it was when Keir Hardie wrote in 1907, “Socialism proposes to abolish capitalism and landlordism.”
We should not be neutral but increase the taxes on property and rental profits, and bring forward new regulations that contribute to curtailing and ending landlordism, including increasing capital gains tax on second homes, banning the purchasing of homes by companies, limiting the number of homes that can be owned by an individual and ending leasehold.
A nationally co-ordinated programme of mass council house building is urgently needed to ease the housing crisis, and to provide jobs and training. This programme needs to be part of a co-ordinated green investment programme to ensure all new builds meet a zero carbon homes standard and a new Decent Homes Standard, as well as making existing homes safe by the removal of cladding, with improvements funded by landlords and private developers in the private rented sector.
A new agency is needed with powers to purchase land and to make public land available for low-cost housing, combined with ‘use it or lose it’ taxes applied to developers that are land-banking.
With government debt much higher than levels reached after the financial crash some will resist action to tackle domestic household debt or debt in the Global South.
The response is to point to the Attlee government which, with a debt of over 200% of GDP, created the NHS, built the welfare state, undertook a massive council house building programme, producing economic growth, full employment, rising wages and debt reduction.
In the 2008 banking crisis, the banks were bailed out, enabling the financial system to recover. In this crisis, it is people, businesses and the poorest countries that need the bailouts and protections that the banking sector was afforded in the last crisis.
The shutdown of the economy is leading to unemployment, business collapse, and rising personal and corporate debt.
The debt charity StepChange has calculated that between March and June 2020 4.6 million people were facing a "tsunami" of debt or arrears of more than £6bn. It’s estimated that 100,000 people attempt suicide every year due to debts.
Although the Bank of England cut the base rate of interest, credit cards, personal loans secured or unsecured, payday loans and overdrafts all charge rates of interest tens or even hundreds of times in excess of the Bank of England base rate. It is in this way that banks and other lenders make profit, often from their least well-off customers.
One solution is to cap interest rates. This could be done as a multiple of the Bank of England base rate or as the BoE base rate plus a percentage. Other proposals include capping the total amount that can be paid in overdraft fees or interest payments.
The mortgage payment holiday has extended mortgage terms for the 1.8 million people who have not been able to make mortgage payments for several months but borrowers may have their credit rating downgraded for taking advantage of the payment holiday scheme.
Many people have also gone into arrears on household bills and council tax. Italy suspended household bills during the coronavirus crisis, but the UK did not follow suit.
The Government has ended its ban on bailiff visits. Bailiffs don’t just collect debt on behalf of lenders, but on behalf of those who have purchased debt on the secondary debt market. These vultures purchase (at knockdown prices) debts that other lenders have given up on recovering and pursue debtors.
The Government is the only actor that can borrow at low interest rates and act to control and reduce company and personal debts. A more wide-scale solution to debt would be for the Government to create a consumer equivalent of UK Asset Resolution, the so-called ‘bad bank’ that purchased problem debts from the banks to clean up their balance sheets.
Such a vehicle would allow people to offload problem debts and refinance at affordable rates, avoiding the excessive interest rates and extortionate fees made by some lenders and bailiffs.
Covid is a global pandemic so global solutions are needed.
A number of countries in the Global South have managed coronavirus far more effectively than the United Kingdom, adopting stringent quarantine and lockdown measures and responding rapidly to the threat of an outbreak.
But other countries face funding constraints and restricted public capacity, because of the longstanding expropriation of resources from the Global South by imperial powers, especially the UK, which has removed a key source of revenue for governments, contributing to high levels of government debt.
Policies imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, alongside Western support for military action, sanctions regimes or corrupt authoritarian rulers have left many countries ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic.
Radical reform of international finance is needed combined with the pursuit of debt cancellation by the UK in the short term. G20 agreed to suspend some debt payments for 76 countries. But this involved only country-to-country debt, not debt to international institutions or the private sector.
Because of the central role of the City of London in global finance the UK’s support for the new international campaign for debt cancellation would be a game-changer.
The Black Lives Matter protests highlighting Britain’s imperial past and role in the slave trade could make debt cancellation a first step in a reparations process phased over time.
Austerity, privatisation and fragmentation within the NHS and care sectors have exposed the UK to one of the worst Covid death rates in the world.
If we aspire to ensure good health and care for all we need a reset programme to rebuild our NHS as a publicly-owned universal and comprehensive health service, alongside the founding of a National Care and Support Service.
Over the last decade the NHS was subjected to the longest funding squeeze in its 72 year history. When the coronavirus crisis began, the NHS had over 100,000 staff vacancies, including 40,000 nurse vacancies caused by the removal of the nurse student bursary exacerbated by the ‘hostile environment’ policies and pay falling by 8% in real terms.
Before the pandemic NHS hospitals had recorded the highest number of A&E 'trolley waits' on record, NHS targets had not been met since at least 2016, and some not since 2015, including the waiting time for cancer treatment.
The 2012 Health & Social Care Act opened the door to large scale outsourcing and privatisation, whilst the number of NHS hospital beds fell by 5% between 2012 and 2019, leaving the government needing to rent private hospital beds for coronavirus patients at huge expense. Chronic underfunding resulted in NHS Trusts entering the Covid-19 crisis with £13.4 billion of debt.
If the NHS was under pressure, then social care was in crisis. There were 120,000 vacancies across the care sector, where low pay for care workers was endemic. Due to £8 billion being cut from the social care sector since 2010, Age UK estimated that 1.5 million older people were not receiving care even though they needed it.
Even before the pandemic hit the UK, life expectancy improvements had slowed dramatically, and even begun to fall for some groups, and health inequalities were widening. According to the King’s Fund, “in 2015–17, people in the least deprived areas could expect to live roughly 19 more years in good health than those in the most deprived areas.”
From the identification of the first case of Covid 19, the Government’s response to the pandemic has ranged from the complacent to the incompetent and at times downright dangerous.
An initial adoption of a dangerous strategy of herd immunity has been followed by the failures in the supply of PPE and testing and tracing on anywhere near the scale and speed required. Lockdown policies have been late in implementation, then confused and undermined by being disregarded with impunity by senior government ministers and advisers.
So far the failure to effectively implement the World Health Organisation test, trace and isolate strategy has contributed to a death toll of 45.000 and predicted to reach 60,000. 600 of our health and social care workers have also already died.
We need an NHS and Social Care reset programme on the scale of a ‘new Beveridge settlement’ to rebuild our NHS and to create a National Care and Support Service.
The first priority for the NHS is to secure the long term funding it needs: to meet the needs of an ageing society, to recruit the staff to fill gaps, to give especially lower paid staff a decent pay rise, and to address the backlog of delayed operations and treatments. This will require substantial and sustained investment, well in excess of existing commitments.
The NHS already had record waiting times, which are being exacerbated by the coronavirus. The NHS will need considerable investment in reopening beds and increasing capacity to cope with the accumulated backlog.
Increasing NHS workers’ pay is essential to retaining existing workers and those who have recently returned, as well as attracting new recruits and trainees. The nurse bursary is set to be restored in 2020 (at a lower level), but the Government should go further and abolish all fees for all health professionals’ training. The NHS has been operating below safe staffing levels, and the Government should legislate to require safe staffing on wards.
The Government should also end the ‘hostile environment’ so that all UK residents can access NHS services. We are all at greater risk if some are excluded from care. There should be no checks on immigration status at NHS or primary care settings.
It is also clear that there will need to be extra investment in mental health, as cases emerge of Covid-19 survivors, as well as NHS and care staff, suffering from PTSD, and to deliver the commitment to put mental health on a par with physical health.
NHS privatisation must end and services be brought back in-house to meet public need not private greed. Repealing the Health & Social Care Act is the key to rebuilding a comprehensive and universal healthcare system that ends the requirement on health authorities to put services out to competitive tender, and ensure services are delivered in-house. It is also vital that the NHS, social care and all vital public services are kept out of future post-Brexit trade deals.
To reduce NHS procurement costs and aid future pandemic preparedness, the UK Government should establish a generic drug company whilst incentivising all pharmaceutical companies to prioritise research on what is most medically urgent, not on what is most profitable.
A National Care and Support Service is needed with the status, respect and commensurate resources of the NHS to meet the needs of an ageing population and to ensure independent living for people with disabilities. It should be funded from progressive taxation, free at point of use, and have universal coverage, and staffed on terms aligned to the NHS.
To fundamentally refocus our social and economic decision-making, the Government should consider adopting the Welsh Government’s Future Generations Wellbeing Act 2015, to ensure that health and wellbeing of the nation is prioritised in all policy-making.
This is a generation-defining moment. We can choose to move out of the coronavirus crisis and revert to ordinary high-emitting, environmentally destructive practices that have brought our planet to the brink of overheating
Or we can decide that the catastrophic damage to human life, communities, and economic wellbeing caused by the coronavirus crisis provides the opportunity for a reset.
Prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres said on climate change: “The point of no return is no longer over the horizon. It is in sight.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s work demonstrated the urgent need to limit global warming to a 1.5 degree increase. Although a 1.5 degree increase would still bring severe weather and temperature impacts, the impacts on species loss and ecosystems as well as climate-related risks to health, food security, and water would be much lower at 1.5 degrees.
In the United Kingdom, environmental leadership from the government has been profoundly inadequate. The Committee on Climate Change set out 25 policy actions for the year ahead in 2018. A year later, in its mid-2019 update report, the Committee observed that 24 of those had not been delivered.
The UK was not expected to meet its 2021 legally binding target for water pollution, with the Environment Agency labelling water companies’ environmental protection efforts “simply unacceptable.”
ClientEarth said in late 2019 that 83% of reporting zones in the UK had illegal levels of air pollution, with no progress shown in meeting obligations that should have been met in 2010; 40,000 early deaths are estimated to be caused by air pollution every year in the UK.
This country’s and the world’s record in tackling climate change and protecting the environment have left the future of the planet at risk.
In response, 2019 saw people-driven environmental movements create a growing groundswell of demand for action, including in the UK three school strikes inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and mass civil disobedience actions by Extinction Rebellion.
The outbreak of coronavirus relegated climate change to the margins of media reporting and political attention. On 1 April the Glasgow COP-26 climate talks were postponed until 2021 with the risk that climate change would be neglected in policy-making.
Nevertheless the plummeting of US oil prices in April, which reached a point where the price went below zero, has sparked renewed discussion of a managed windup of fossil fuel production and a demand for just transition guarantees, including an end to fossil fuel subsidies, no new exploration for fossil fuels, and a nationalisation of the oil industry to enable managed decline.
There is a strong case therefore for the Government to establish a green Ministry of Public Works to co-ordinate a Marshall Plan-scale investment programme in clean physical infrastructure investment, improved insulation, in natural capital, clean R&D spending, energy efficiency programmes for the UK’s housing stock, electric vehicle charging networks, better road design for cycling, tree-planting and rolling out full fibre broadband.
New publicly owned and democratically run industries are called for that address both the unemployment crisis and the climate crisis at the same time, centred on an expansion of the renewables sector to supplant oil, gas, and coal. This bringing key water, energy, mail, rail, and broadband infrastructure back into public ownership. Publicly funded retraining of workers for these industries is essential to ensure the transition does not involve job losses.
There is growing support for a National Investment Bank to focus on lending for infrastructure and SMEs, with an overriding goal of rapid decarbonisation and innovation, providing essential resourcing for green projects, as well as skills and capacity-building for these projects. To harness private investment to the decarbonisation agenda, Bank of England credit guidance could encourage green lending and prevent lending to fossil fuel projects; whilst the requirements for listing on the London Stock Exchange could be amended to encourage climate-friendly practice.
A Green New Deal must be global if climate change and other threats are to be tackled. Debt relief is needed so that the Global South can contribute to green investment efforts to tackle climate change and the UK government should commit to offering technology developed in this country cheaply or free to countries in the Global South, partly as an act of reparation for historical injustice.
The role of any economy should be to enable us all to live thriving and fulfilling lives. The exclusion of migrants from participating in, and sharing the benefits of, the economy undermines that whole purpose.
Guaranteeing the rights of migrants and ending that exclusion is a part of guaranteeing a sense of security for us all. It also reflects our commitment to internationalism, which recognises a right to move for everyone, not just the global rich. It also acknowledges that the movement of people is a result of global inequality to which the United Kingdom has significantly contributed.
“Hostile environment” and other racist policies have been an assault on the standing and basic dignity of people who have migrated to this country. They have been built on top of a longstanding framework of policies and legislation that treats migrants as second-class citizens: through detention centres, policing practices, deportation flights, and restricted access to work, housing, and public services. They are a product of the United Kingdom’s participation in an unjust international economy, walled up by borders, producing migrant injustice every day.
These policies are the direct result of past and current imperialism and racism in the United Kingdom, that has been highlighted by recent Black Lives Matter movement.
As coronavirus spread across the United Kingdom in February and March, non-UK nationals found themselves with restricted access to social support and were left unable to self-isolate effectively, and to protect themselves from contracting coronavirus. The ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ visa condition blocked access to vital public services. Migrants continued to be held in migrant detention centres indefinitely, with reports of coronavirus cases breaking out, concern over the mental health of those detained, and no instructions or guidance on social distancing.
There was a threefold increase in hate crime against people appearing to be Chinese or from East Asia between January and March 2020. With travel to a number of countries restricted, many migrants were locked out from returning home. In addition, those from overseas have been asked to pay astronomical fees, like the Immigration Health Surcharge, just to carry on living and working here, on top of paying taxes just like British nationals.
Campaigners mobilised to pressurise the Conservative government with the result that the visas of overseas health and care workers were extended for a year. More than 700 detainees were released from migrant detention centres between March and April and a successful legal challenge secured some exception to the “No Recourse to Public Funds” rules. These limited moves by the government did not prevent stark injustices and human tragedies.
Although the coronavirus crisis highlighted the need to revalue work that was previously labelled ‘low-skilled’ the Government went ahead with the introduction of its Immigration Bill in May, paving the way to restrict entry to the UK for those who do not not meet its salary threshold, the so-called ‘low-skilled.’
By reducing access to legal, flexible migration routes for the lower-paid, the Government’s so-called “points-based system” will force more people in those circumstances into workplace exploitation and modern slavery where they are unable to obtain a secure legal status in the country.
The likely tightening of borders around the world creates the risk of anti-immigrant policy and rhetoric becoming entrenched. We need a strategy to resist any rise in xenophobia.
The Black Lives Matter movement has also exposed the role of the criminal justice system in excluding people from the economy and society. Responses to the movement in the United Kingdom have made clear that racism, classism, and brutality in the criminal justice system are pervasive problems in this country.
Early release of people from prison during the pandemic has revealed that many individuals in prison are better off rebuilding skills and resilience in the community.
But a carceral mentality runs deep. To mark a break with this way of thinking we need an immediate moratorium on new prisons. Urgent support must be given to groups advocating drug law reform, a moratorium on school exclusions, and an end to youth custody centres. We need to rethink police powers, including suspicionless stop and search. And we need review whether the police are best placed to provide support for individuals in need of more specialised social services support, while acknowledging the problems of racism and punitiviness right across the delivery of public services.
Greater investment in universal basic services can play a role in tackling social harm that prisons and police have struggled to resolve for decades. Writer Amna Akbar has called for an ‘invest-divest’ strategy, where spending is rebalanced across the system towards essential social services. This is a positive opportunity to find effective responses to social harm, and to address the social conditions producing that harm.
A much broader conversation must be started about the United Kingdom’s historic role in the world, and how that has informed its approach to politics – and in particular migration – today.
By advocating greater teaching in schools about this country’s imperial history we can use political education effectively to draw connections between past racism and the current immigration system, as embodied in the Windrush sscandal.
One spur to this broader political conversation is that the coronavirus crisis has confirmed, yet again, the ongoing contribution made to the UK’s society, culture, and economy by migrants. It is migrant carers, nurses, and doctors that have kept people alive during the crisis.
But while this contribution made by migrants is undeniable, it is vital that policies do not reinforce false narratives about ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ migrants. Access to social services should be guaranteed due to migrants’ status as human beings, not on whether they have contributed to society.
Based upon the adoption of Maya Goodfellow’s “no caveats” approach and the immediate issues faced by migrants, our aims are clear.
There is a need for an end to ‘no recourse to public funds’ in its entirety, a closure of detention centres, an end to the Prevent duty, an end to all deportations, firewalling of data between policing and public services , increased legal aid support for migrants, and a scrapping of the Immigration Health Surcharge, not for some migrants but for all. The right to work for asylum-seekers must be reinstated. At the same time, it is essential that progressive movements, including trade unions, support routes to regularisation for people without legal status, including through work.
Panic is being sown by some government ministers about how the pandemic will be paid for, with some even mooting a return to austerity with cuts in public service spending and wage cuts.
Instead the real discussion that is needed is how we tackle the shocking levels of inequality that have been exposed and made worse by the pandemic and how we harness the country’s resources to invest in securing a growing but sustainable economy of the future.
Reform of taxation and our financial system is key.
On tax, to address the grotesque levels of inequality in our society and fund our public services a basic five point reform programme is proposed, based upon raising funds from those that have gained rather than lost from the crisis.
First, the introduction of an excess profits tax on all businesses, exempting small businesses, taxed over a defined period during the coronavirus crisis, at a level set either above a defined level of reasonable profit or relative to previous profits.
Second, the promotion of the principle of unitary taxation, installing a new tax on multinationals that reflects where economic activity really takes place and where value is created, rather than where revenue and profits are booked. It involves taxing a proportion of a multinational’s global profits that matches the UK proportion of their sales, labour, and operations. On a conservative estimate, some £6 billion would be raised.
Third, the ending of the artificial split between capital gains and income and taxing them at the same rate, thus raising £14 billion in the fifth year of operation. Capital gains are just repackaged income. The income share of the top 1% has grown twice as fast as previously thought since 1996-7 when capital gains are taken into account.
Fourth, raising Income tax on the highest earners by restoring a 45p additional rate from £80,000 and 50p top rate from £125,000 would raise some £5.4 billion, taking into account behavioural response.
And fifth, launching a blitz on tax avoidance including action such as introducing a public register of trusts, greater transparency in the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories, replacing the governent’s ineffectual General Anti-Avoidance Rule, clamping down on enablers of avoidance and evasion, an increase in targeted audits by HMRC, scrapping non-dom status, public country-by-country reporting in the UK, fair taxation of trusts, as well as an Overseas Loan Transparency Act to close loopholes, support international tax justice, and mobilising a mass direct action tax justice movement on the model of UK Uncut.
In the finance sector, central bank and government interventions have gone some way to protect the stock market with some hedge funds even profiting massively from successful bets on the economy.
Now is the time to secure robust reform to both regulate and harness finance to resource investment in a sustainable economy agenda.
Against a backdrop of sustained volatility the timing is right for the introduction of a small levy applied to a wider limited select group of trades to stabilise financial trading and provide additional revenue.
Given the failure of existing regulatory structures, including the Financial Conduct Authority, it is also time to introduce stronger regulation and greater democratisation of financial regulation, covering areas like shadow banking, short selling, hedge funds, asset management, private equity and green washing.
To address the imbalance in bank lending that focuses more on real estate than benefical growth sectors, we need the Bank of England to use credit guidance to encourage lendng for green and productive industries.
The UK also has a vital role to play in the reform of global finance, where the system of trade and investment agreements and the role played by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are impeding the ability to take decisive and effective global action against both Covid and climate change.
This requires an overhaul of trade agreements to withdraw from existing investor dispute settlement clauses and prevent their use in future agreements.
The failure of both the World Bank and the IMF to address effectively the issues of debt relief and regulation to stem capital outflows from the Global South cries out for major reform or, failing reform, for the replacement of these bodies with international institutions better equipped to coordinate progressive taxation, social support programmes, reparative justice and environmental action.
Covid has been a huge shock to our society and economic system. Faced with threats to their health and livelihoods, it’s inevitable that people experience feelings of vulnerability and search for greater security.
They also sense the lack of any say or control they have over decisions being made distantly over their lives and their futures. There is an understandable desire to get back to normal life.
But we can’t accept a return to a normal that created a society with its public services so ill prepared for the pandemic and with families so lacking in financial resilience that they were immediately threatened with economic hardship.
In crises like this, progressives have a responsibility to act to protect our communities from the immediate hazards and hardships they face but also to seize the moment to envisage a new society, to claim the future.
First, in practice, that means mobilising and supporting the numerous actions and campaigns that are at the forefront of confronting the damaging impacts of the virus and its economic consequences.
An essential element of the current campaigning is the discussion, development and advocacy of the vision of that new society and also the concrete policy advances that will bring it about.
Our vision is a society where everybody’s basic needs are guaranteed as a right by universal basic services, rewards are distributed on social not market value, where community is not denied but promoted and sustainability is at its core.
To make a start on its creation we advocate a reset programme for our economy entailing 4 basic guarantees for everyone of jobs, a minimum income, a home, and health treatment and care when needed, alongside a debt jubilee and justice for migrants. We take inspiration from past movements that have secured paradigm change.
In the depths of the Second World War progressives looked back to the depression of the 1930s and determinedly stated “Never Again.”
They then went to dream, discuss and plan the new society they eventually successfully built after the war was won. It falls to us now in the midst of the present crisis to be the ones to inspire those dreams, hopes and plans of the new society we will now campaign for and, in due course, bring about.
It’s time to claim the future.