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Don’t make workers pay for this crisis – Howard Beckett, Unite the Union AGS on #Budget2021

“Since 2008 the top 1000 earners have seen their wealth rise by £550 billion, yet workers wages have gone down by £440 billion. This is what austerity has left us with – a redistribution of wealth from the poorest to the richest.”

Howard Beckett, Unite the Union Assistant General Secretary.

This week is not only budget week, it is also the anniversary of the first UK covid death. Just one year ago this Government was refusing to take the crisis seriously and our Prime Minister didn’t bother to turn up to the first 5 cobra meetings that were discussing how to respond – instead he went on holiday, announced his engagement and threw a baby shower.

Now we have the worst death rate in the world, with more than 130,000 dead and a government who are still ignoring their own scientists.

If we think back to that time when this pandemic started, we actually had to stand up for people’s right to life, we had to remind people that they had the right to expect to come home from work alive,  we had to fight for the right to work from home, we had to fight for basic health and safety in the workplace, we had to fight for furlough, and we had to fight for schools and care homes to be provided PPE and cleaning materials. 

Unite are still fighting for these rights every single day, fighting employers who are using the crisis as an excuse to attack workers pay through ‘fire and rehire’, fighting employers that are still insisting on people coming to work in unsafe conditions, fighting to get the government to make the £20 uplift in universal credit permanent, fighting to ensure the government provide support for the most vulnerable, fighting for full sick pay, for support for sectors, jobs, support for individuals who are self isolating – and now fighting for a budget that delivers for workers.

This pandemic has shone a light on the enormous levels of health and wealth inequality in our country – the decade of austerity has damaged the fabric of our society to the extent that Local Authorities are bankrupt and many services have collapsed.

When it comes to the NHS, despite the heroic efforts of staff, the NHS struggled to cope with the pandemic because of decades of underfunding.

We have seen an explosion in the numbers of people reliant on food banks with 14 million people in the UK now living in poverty, Deaths among homeless people up by more than a third in 2020, the dire consequences are endless.

Unemployment is already at 2 million and forecasted to rise as high as 4 million – because of this government’s failure to support jobs and sectors – young people accounted for six in 10 of those made unemployed in the last year, risking another generation of mass unemployment.

Universal Credit claims have doubled since the start of the pandemic – six million people are now stuck in a bureaucratic maze of five-week waits, low payments and benefit sanctions.

And students have been charged £1 billion for accommodation they have been unable to use after being forced to travel to campuses that were not Covid-safe leading to a huge spike in infections.

The list could go on and on – failure after failure from this government.

Yet will the budget deal with any of this?

This budget needs to set out plans to address the huge levels of unemployment, inequality and poverty. It needs to bring a program of investment in jobs and sectors. 

But many fear it won’t – and who is going to force the government to make changes if the official opposition won’t even support a rise in tax on profits?

The pandemic exacerbated all of the problems in society – but it also proved once again that its public services and key workers that are the people who hold our country together, and they should not have to pay for the privilege of doing so.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, after the financial crash we made no inroads into the state of society. We ended up paying for the crisis the spivs and speculators caused – our public services were underfunded, we saw rounds and rounds of redundancies and vacancies not being filled, attacks on every aspect of support that society relies on and we didn’t even get as much as a robin hood tax out of it.

We must learn from our mistakes – and we must not let that happen again.

We must not let workers pay for this crisis or for this government’s mistakes.

Coming out of this pandemic we have to insist on changes in society, and we have to insist that health plus wealth inequality is eradicated.

Since 2008 the top 1000 earners have seen their wealth rise by £550 billion, yet workers wages have gone down by £440 billion. – This is what austerity has left us with – a redistribution of wealth from the poorest to the richest.

We must now reverse that. We have a responsibility as the Labour and Trade union movement to fight for our society and demand change.

We are coming out of a crisis that has seen grotesque levels of mismanagement and cronyism as well as the worst death rate in the world – our opposition front bench need to be brave and demand real change, if they can’t be brave at this moment in time, then when will they be? 

In 1945 when they returned from the war we demanded change, we demanded the creation of the NHS, we demanded the right to 3rd tier education – we must do similar now.

We must demand sector support, we must demand investment, we must demand 15% pay rise for NHS and LG workers, we must a minimum wage of £15 an hour, we must demand a national care sector as part of our NHS,  We must demand privateers are kicked out of our NHS, we must demand the cancelling of student debt, we must demand fair rents and rent support, we must demand the end of fire and rehire, we must demand the right to food and we must demand the £20 uplift remains permanently.

Demanding a drive on green jobs could stop mass unemployment, power our economic recovery and help tackle the climate crisis. Filling the 600,000 vacancies in the public sector would be a start to ensuring we were able to rebuild 

We must insist on support for Education, Schools, Universities and colleges – any post Covid-19 recovery will rely on further education providing the skills many will need and without proper investment the sector will not be able to provide the support required.

Yet it’s likely we won’t see any of that – just a return to 5% mortgages and a freeze on the income tax threshold.

Well let’s be clear on those – providing support for first time buyers will just lead to further rises in house prices – when the average house in the UK currently costs more than eight-times average earnings. The vast majority of people in this country are a million miles away from thinking of buying property, they are in rent arrears, food and fuel poverty and those in work spend more than 40% of their monthly income on rent living little money for anything else. We need action on unscrupulous landlords and fair rents, and we must extend the eviction ban until the end of this health crisis.

When it comes to income tax thresholds this is clearly a stealth tax on workers, a freeze on income tax thresholds is regressive and will hit the lowest paid hardest – potentially our lowest paid workers losing hundreds of pounds a year.

We must not let workers pay for this crisis or this government’s mistakes. Instead, we must insist that our front bench demand a wealth tax to pay for this crisis and to pay for all of these essential changes. 

The way out of this crisis is via an end to the neo-liberal policies that have done such damage to our society. That is what the Trade Unions and all of us must fight for.

  • Howard Beckett is Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union and one of the union’s representatives on Labour’s NEC.

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