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The Tory approach is to prioritise profit, while workers shoulder the burden of the crisis – Labour must inspire with a vision of full employment. Nadia Jama.

“We are living through history; this is the greatest economic crisis in more than a century. We should set our aspirations to meet it.”

Nadia Jama

By Nadia Jama, Labour NEC

Taking into account the measures announced in the last budget, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility – which has a reputation for sunny predictions – suggests that by the end of the year, 6.5% of workers could be unemployed. That’s about 2.2 million people. The OECD puts the figure at around 7%.

While the Tories boast about spending vast amounts of money on temporary support measures for businesses, in the February budget they announced only a meagre £8bn in new infrastructure and green investment, and a cut of £4bn on day-to-day spending (that’s things like public services and social security) on top of last year’s 5.6% cut.

Combined with furloughed wages – sometimes to below minimum wage levels – and the downward pressure on wages from rising unemployment, it’s clear that the government plans on a weak recovery funded by the increased exploitation of workers. The plan is Austerity 2.0.   

But none of that is inevitable. Part of the reason the unemployment rate won’t be even higher is because of the pressure on the government to extend the furlough scheme. As we come out of the public health crisis, we need to continue to pile on that pressure – arguing for a plan to invest in our economy and create jobs.  

Labour must take a lead in shaping that debate. We can’t be satisfied with throwing 2.2 million people out of work. One job lost is one job too many.

We should be ambitious. Our plan to create 400,000 new jobs with £30bn of green infrastructure investment is a step in the right direction, but we need to be much bolder. The policy is a retreat from our 2019 pledge to spend twice that on green retrofit – and many will wonder about the remaining 1.76 million jobs needed to tackle the unemployment crisis. 

This isn’t a time for half measures; Labour needs a plan for full employment – creating jobs by investing in a Green New Deal, including housing and home retrofit, public transport, renewable energy, digital infrastructure and everything we need to bring our economy into the 21st century. 

And that should mean a fundamental change in our conditions at work, too. We need to reverse the casualisation of our economy which has seen an explosion in zero-hours contracts, and an end to dodgy hire and refire tactics.

The public health crisis has also shone a light on the under-resourcing of health and safety enforcement. We need to reverse cuts to the Health and Safety Executive and ensure that all workplaces are safe.

But it’s not enough just to address the problems we’ve seen exacerbated by the public health crisis. We need to reimagine work-life balance. Lockdown has forced us to work more flexibly – a four day week is a more realistic prospect than it’s ever been before.

We also need to bring an end to in-work poverty and stagnating wages. That means increasing the Government’s fake living wage to a real living wage, ending the year-on-year pay freezes for public sector workers, and making up for a lost decade of pay cuts by backing the 15% increase for NHS workers. If you’re ill, you shouldn’t be forced to live on less than £100 per week – we need sick pay which is at least as much as the real living wage.

At the heart of negotiating better pay and conditions, are strong trade unions. Anti-trade union laws in the UK are some of the harshest in the world. Not only do we need a repeal of anti-trade union legislation, but we need to reintroduce sectoral bargaining and find new ways of empowering workers in sectors that trade unionists have historically found difficult to access – the same sectors that have often been hit hardest by the pandemic.

It’s clear that the Government’s plan is to continue with the austerity logic of the last decade – prioritising profit, while workers shoulder the burden of the crisis. Labour needs an alternative strategy – one which mends the damage not only of the last twelve months, but the last twelve years by investing in full employment and setting out an inspiring vision of work in the 21st century.

We are living through history; this is the greatest economic crisis in more than a century. We should set our aspirations to meet it.

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