“Some on the left are no doubt despondent at recent political events. I understand that, but I’m afraid we don’t have time for that. People need to dust themselves down & get ready for a huge fight over the coming months to force the government to change track on health & the economy. Many lives & millions of livelihoods depend on it.”Richard Burgon MP
When Rishi Sunak was asked this week in Parliament whether sick pay at £95.85 a week is enough to live on, he refused to answer. His silence spoke volumes. He knows it isn’t and doesn’t intend to do anything about it.
I was saddened but not surprised by the response of the man reputed to be the richest member of Parliament with a reported £200 million net wealth. It’s yet another example of how out of touch the Tories are from the struggles ordinary people go through.
Sick pay in Britain is pathetically low compared to levels across Europe and two million don’t earn enough even to qualify for statutory sick pay. This is both a public health issue and a social justice issue. If people can’t afford to take days off work to isolate because of the low levels of sick pay then how are we going to tackle Coronavirus?
This issue highlights the need for the left to step forward with both solutions to public health and the economic crisis and to organise to ensure we are leading the public debate. As I write, the testing system has collapsed. The issue could not be more serious and it underlines that the government has no answers to this deepening crisis.
Britain has suffered some of the highest excess death rates in the world and this will only have been worsened by the Tories’ transparent attempts to reopen the economy too quickly. The reality is that we cannot properly end the economic crisis until we have dealt with the public health crisis. This is why I and Socialist Campaign Group colleagues have called for a Zero Covid strategy. We can eliminate the virus but only if we act now in the way New Zealand and others have done.
To tackle the related social crisis, we need to focus on some immediate demands. There must be extensions to the furlough scheme and a year-long ban on evictions bans. For either of these provisions to expire in the next weeks would be disastrous for hundreds of thousands of people.
There also has to be a raising of sick pay to Real Living Wage Levels. Those with Covid-19 symptoms should not be forced to work through ill health or have to endanger others out of fear of not having enough money to pay their rent and feed their families. It is absolutely contemptible that in the sixth richest country in the world people are too poor to be off sick.
But these proposals represent only the most basic firefighting necessary to salvage working people’s livelihoods in the coming weeks.
What must come after this is deeper change. Coronavirus has exacerbated unemployment, foodbank usage and inequality; but it did not create these travesties in the first place. We must have a plan to rebuild and restructure the economy so that it works for everyone.
The collapse in employment figures released earlier this week underscores the huge assault on working-class living standards to come. The UK shed 700,000 jobs between March and August. Young people have been bearing the brunt of the crisis with a record decrease in employment. By some estimates, employers in Britain are already planning more than twice as many redundancies than they did at the peak of the banking recession.
Some bosses will see this crisis as an opportunity, a chance to drive down wages, to rewrite terms and conditions and to sack employees and replace them with cheaper workers. We can’t allow the “fire and rehire” practices in British Airway and British Gas to become the blueprint for our economy.
We in the Labour movement know that we will never get anything from the Tories without a fight. So we need to be prepared to use every point of pressure over the coming months to force the government to change course from its disastrous economy as well as its public health policies.
At the core of this must be a bold defence of the right to work. We need to be demanding full employment. Now more than ever Britain needs a Green New Deal. This could create one million desperately needed high skilled, decently paid jobs and ensure we are better prepared to tackle the climate crisis than we have been on the public health crisis.
We need to be calling for the private sector to be kicked out from the Test and Trace system but also from the wider NHS. This broken social care model has been exposed by this crisis and we need to be demanding more investment in this vital sector and that it becomes fully publicly owned.
And we need to be demanding reforms to our social security system to ensure there is a Minimum Income Guarantee so that everyone has enough to live off and no one slips through the social safety net.
We also need to ensure the state is intervening in the interest of the wider public not corporate elites. Where corporations do receive bailouts, these need to be conditional on wider social, environmental and labour demands such as workers’ representation on boards, restrictions on dividend payments, better pay for workers, environmental targets and part state ownership so that these can form part of an active government economic plan that serves the public interest into the future.
Many ideas that appear radical now will be common sense soon as the crisis develops and mass unemployment and the worst recession in decades hit. People will see that it would be far more dangerous to continue with the same failing model. It is for the left to paint a picture of how things can be different.
Some on the left are no doubt despondent at recent political events. I understand that, but I’m afraid we don’t have time for that. People need to dust themselves down and get ready for a huge fight over the coming months to force the government to change track on health and the economy. Many lives and millions of livelihoods depend on it
- This is Richard’s first regular monthly column for Labour Outlook. Our weekly column from the Socialist Campaign Group each Sunday will feature Richard, Apsana Begum MP, Kate Osborne MP, Jon Trickett MP & John McDonnell MP.