Crises often reveal that which was previously hidden from view. The 2008 financial crash, for example, didn’t create our casino financial system or an economy in which too many people were reliant on debt to make ends meet, but it did shine a light on it. Now the coronavirus crisis is showing us what we should have known already: that we are all connected; the health of one impacts the health of all, and too many people are still one wage slip away from hardship.
This virus is forcing us to rethink the value we place on different kinds of work. Two months ago, who would have thought of logistics workers – delivery drivers, postal staff and warehouse dispatchers – as key workers? Now we can see that they, along with supermarket staff, nurses and care workers, are part of the backbone of our society.
We should judge ourselves by how we respond to and learn from crisis. And, let’s face it, after 2008 we failed terribly.
The bankers were bailed out and the rest of us saw more than a decade of cuts, rising costs and stalled wages. Yes, there is a bit more regulation in the financial system and a little more debate about the way the economy works. But the rules of the game that gave rise to that financial crisis are still with us 12 years later.
It might seem a long way off, but as we brace ourselves for the worst impact of coronavirus – and particularly its human cost – we should start thinking about how we get the post-crisis response right this time.
This crisis should make us realise that we’re all connected – that the chief executive relies on the refuse worker, the corporate lawyer on the supermarket worker, and the politician on the nurse. And this realisation should power how we rebuild our economy when the crisis is over.
We must start acting to value each and every person in our society and promote solidarity rather than stoking division. That’s what the inspirational mutual aid groups around the country have been doing. Humans are social animals, but the way our economy is set up too often pits us against each other and breaks down the collective bonds that help us survive in tough times or bring joy in better times.
So, as we reboot the economy after the crisis, we should programme into it the values we now know we want to see, and increase the resilience of our society.
I see three ways we can achieve this.
First, everyone must have access to the minimum they need for a decent standard of living, regardless of their place in the economy. That is why I’ve called for a universal basic income during this crisis. But we can’t stop there. We must design policy for afterwards that guarantees security for all.
That means overhauling universal credit entirely to create a new, fair system that supports people rather than dragging them down. It means sizeable investment into our universal public services to expand the freedom we all get from greater collective support and security. It means urgent action to cut people’s fixed costs: rent, bills, fares and debt payments. And it means promoting policies that make the distribution of income, wealth and power more equal.
Coronavirus is revealing how many millions in our society are one shock away from financial desperation. Our post-crisis rebuilding will have failed if we can’t bring a sense of security to millions more of our fellow citizens.
Second, we’ll need investment at a massive scale. Only the public sector can act at the scale necessary to kickstart that level of investment and provide confidence to businesses, so they can muck in and get things moving again. We need a Green Industrial Revolution to rapidly decarbonise our economy, provide energy security and lower bills and create hundreds of thousands of skilled jobs – and, most importantly, to allow us to rebuild after this crisis is over. We have the plans and we have the technology to guarantee that the recovery doesn’t just benefit those at the very top but serves people and the planet as well.
Third, we should make sure that the enormous action the government will have to take to save businesses during the crisis ultimately helps build a more resilient economy for the future. The government could act on behalf of each and every one of us, because it is the only entity powerful enough to prop up businesses and the wider economy.
So after the crisis, we should use the support we’ve collectively given to reprogramme our economy.
Companies, banks and other institutions that have received public support should be required to operate differently afterwards. We can’t allow businesses like easyJet to take government money, and then spend it on a massive payout to shareholders. There must be a basic quid pro quo where companies agree to follow best practices in trade union recognition, pay ratios, the gender pay gap, equalities, training, tax transparency and compliance, payment of suppliers and environmental protection.
To secure public benefit and a more resilient economy post crisis, we should take equity stakes in some companies and institutions that receive our support, especially large and strategically important companies and industries. Some or all of those shares could be placed in a social wealth fund that would continue to invest on behalf of all of us, be publicly and democratically accountable, and pay out a universal dividend to all citizens. In some other companies or institutions, it will make more sense to convert the state’s equity stakes into shares for workers, consumers, local communities or local government.
If we build on the best of the values the people of this country have displayed in response to the pandemic, we can rebuild an economy that works better for everyone and makes us more resilient to future shocks.
Of course, that means that those at the very top will have less – so that everyone else can have more freedom and security. That’s what we want: it will create a happier society, where everyone gets the resources they need to lead a good life.
Throughout this crisis, people from all across the country have showed courage in extremely challenging situations. The values we have seen emerge during these trying times – solidarity, compassion, and, most of all, hope – are the foundations upon which we will rebuild the British economy when this crisis is over.
Rebecca Long-Bailey is Labour MP for Salford and Eccles. She has been shadow secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy since 2017 and is a candidate in the Labour leadership contest