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Editorial: After Covid-19, the government must be forced to change track

CALLS on the Chancellor to move beyond emergency relief measures and invest in a greener and more sustainable economy are about more than creating jobs.

Research by think tank Class showing one in five workers fear they will be out of work in six months’ time shows how little confidence there is in Britain’s ability to weather the Covid-19 pandemic.

Most believe that the economic impact of the coronavirus will be more severe than that of the 2008 bankers’ crash. Yet the lasting damage the “credit crunch” did — with workers’ incomes still lower than pre-crash levels a decade later — was more to do with political choices than the fallout of the financial crisis itself.

The bankers’ crash was an indictment of “free market” capitalism, the direct result of the scrapping of banking regulations from the Thatcher government onwards.

It exposed how precarious and unsustainable the economic model of Thatcherism was. 

Yet it led to an intensification of all the policies that had caused it. The right, with its dishonest drivel about Labour having “maxed out the credit card,” was able to seize on the debt accumulated by bailing out the banks as an excuse for a mammoth programme of cuts and privatisation.

“Austerity,” as implemented by the Tories and Lib Dems, was never the national exercise in belt-tightening they sold to the nation.

News that the Sunday Times Rich List shows a fall in billionaires’ incomes “for the first time since the financial crash” reminds us that year after year as wages were frozen or held below inflation, the fortunes of the rich continued to swell. 

Just as privatisation and outsourcing diverted public investment for the many into private profit for the few, the huge cuts programme was an attack on working people on behalf of big business: hitting wages directly as well as deferred wages (pensions, which workers have earned) and the “social wage” comprised of the public services we rely on.

The right never waste a crisis. Huge pressure is being brought to bear on the government to reverse the half-hearted steps away from austerity we saw in Rishi Sunak’s first Budget.

The elite is determined that the cost of state interventions to protect jobs and incomes should be pushed onto workers with further rounds of cuts.

High unemployment will allow bosses to force wages down still further and feed the continued growth of precarious work.

Yet, as Class notes, the public mood is for the exact opposite. Tory ministers are rightly accused of hypocrisy when they emerge weekly to “clap for key workers,” given they cheered the defeat of a pay rise for nurses in the last parliament.

But the exercise has helped reinforce the popular view that things have to change after this crisis, with big majorities favouring pay rises for NHS staff, emergency workers, carers, supermarket workers, delivery workers and bus and train drivers, as well as higher taxes on the rich.

Support is there too for significant investment in public services, with widespread recognition that cuts and underinvestment are a key reason Britain’s Covid-19 death toll is the highest in Europe and that we should rebuild our own manufacturing base rather than rely on the vicissitudes of the global market for the products we need.

The big economic interventions forced by Covid-19 must not become an excuse for a new form of debt bondage, with working people going without for years to pay off the cost of the crisis.

Instead they can become arguments for the kind of sweeping economic planning we need to rebalance and redirect our economy along greener and fairer lines.

That will not happen unless the labour movement can put both ministers and managers under such pressure that they have no choice but to bend. 

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