Great Britain

As after World War II, we can never go back

THIS weekend would ordinarily have seen tens of thousands of Labour members heading to Liverpool to our annual conference.

2020 however has been a far from ordinary year. Indeed, as I write this I do so from a north-east that has had fresh restrictions imposed after cases of coronavirus reached worrying levels.

Labour Conference has been replaced with an online version — and many people are left worrying about what might happen next.

The crisis that has been unfolding over the past nine months has exposed huge fissures running through the heart of British society and the brutal nature of attacks on our vital services over many years.

It has shown who the “essential” people really are — essential to the running of our country — and unsurprisingly it isn’t those bankers who have continually undermined our nation’s finances in the City of London.

Those heroes who have been on the front line of this crisis are those in health and social care, in education, those involved with the distribution of goods and keeping our infrastructure running.

Many of those we clapped for are low paid: the Resolution Foundation has said that half of front-line care workers, around a million people, are paid less than the Real Living Wage. This is a shocking indictment of our society.

The crisis has also shown the austerity rhetoric of the past decade to have been a cruel lie, something many of us have always known.

The slashing of support to ordinary people and the bonfire of public services was never needed. The state does have power to intervene in people’s lives to protect them.

After being lobbied by the trade unions and the Labour Party they eventually implemented schemes like furlough and Self Employment Income Support.

While millions of people slipped through the net, many millions more during this pandemic have found themselves reliant on the government to pay their bills.

As of August 16 there were 9.6 million jobs being supported by the government’s furlough scheme, many more were supported through the Self Employment Income Support scheme.

The crisis has also shown that flexible working is possible. Millions of people swapped the office for their bedrooms or kitchen tables and businesses kept going.

As children stayed home, many people changed their hours to enable them to care for them. What was previously impossible, suddenly became possible.

Since this worked too well, the government has spent the summer bullying and harassing people back into cramped offices.

The government has badly failed the people of this country. A decade of austerity has left the public sector in a precarious position and struggling to cope with the surge in issues that the pandemic has thrown up.

They have been dragged kicking and screaming into adopting even the most meagre of measures designed to protect the financial security of working people.

We now approach the unnecessary guillotine of October 31 where the furlough scheme will be ended unless urgent action is taken.

Estimates suggest millions of people could be made redundant as a result.

The impact of this will be felt more strongly in those communities that have been long held back by the government and have seen their concerns forgotten.

Communities like those I represent are ill prepared for yet more hardship.

Unless urgent action is taken we face mass unemployment in areas already disproportionately reliant on precarious work and state support.

Mining areas like the one I represent lost a generation following the closure of the industry upon which the communities were built.

We have never properly recovered. But the idea that another generation could be lost in the same way is unthinkable.

Sadly, if we do not get to grips with the current situation then we will see it once more. We must start by extending the furlough scheme to buy us some time as has happened in France, Austria and elsewhere.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of a radical Labour government taking power in Britain after half a decade of destruction.

That conflict saw the entire economy mobilised to protect the country and its people, and at its end, those people who had suffered poverty even before the privation of war, resolved never to go back to the way things were.

The virus calls for a different approach, with unessential parts of the economy demobilised to protect our people. But just as the war exposed the brutal reality of poverty here in one of the richest nations on the planet, we can never go back to what came before.

We must do what we can to support ordinary people throughout this crisis, stop the unnecessary spiral into destitution for so many and resolve to build a fairer, greener, more equitable society on the other side.

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