Community solidarity in the pandemic recession

The long shadow of the Coronavirus pandemic stalks our future. The tragic human cost in lives, lost jobs and mental health illness will be with us for a while to come. Our NHS has operated at severe and sustained pressure for nearly a year. Health and social infrastructure will take time and need support to recover.

There was a social crisis long before the pandemic. By 2016, mitigating extreme poverty was already costing £78bn annually. The withdrawal of social safety nets combined with consistently falling pay and a housing and a cost of living crisis has pushed more working people into poverty than ever. 14 million live below the poverty line, and last year 1.5 million people went a day without food.

The stress behind these stark figures are being compounded by the pandemic’s recession and the government’s inadequate response. The most recent Spending Review projects unemployment rising to 2.6m by the summer. Businesses – especially those like high street retailers which were already vulnerable – will close. Some businesses will attempt to fire and rehire workers, or otherwise hold down pay and conditions, compounding the crisis for workers and the wider economy.

The coming years will be defined by who pays for this recession: the many or the few. The Government has already signalled its intentions through public sector pay freezes, the possibility of further austerity and a Big Bang 2.0 boost for bankers. This pattern simply builds on what has already happened in the pandemic thus fair, with the wealthiest seeing their wealth grow by a quarter while the economy shrinks, jobs are lost and businesses go to the wall. The Government has turned the pandemic into a bonanza for the already super rich, the rip off outsourcing giants like Serco and the dodgy contracts to supply PPE, free school meals and other necessities.

This blatant and cronyistic rule for the few should provide the forces of the many ample opportunity to challenge the government. Its rhetoric too opens space. Unlike David Cameron’s austerity and tax giveaways for the richest, Boris Johnson’s government claims it is spending more, levelling up and taking action on the climate crisis. The gap between rhetoric and lived reality must be actively exposed and an alternative provided.

The system’s structural short-termism, profiteering and corruption must be exposed by the pandemic. As a result of political choices, the UK went from possessing among the world’s most formidable pandemic preparedness structures to struggling with sourcing basic medical equipment within a fragmented and privatised system. This pandemic has wreaked preventable damage because health and care were not valued, ill-defined market needs were placed above the common good and we haven’t used a democratic and strategic state to make long-term plans.

The last Labour manifesto laid out many of the solutions that would reverse this tide and are all the more vital now in the the pandemic context, including:

  • Funding and renationalising health and social care, ending the NHS outsourcing regime, and providing a greater role for the democratic state in the research and development of medicines.
  • Creating good, unionised jobs with a bold plan to rebuild Britain through the Green New Deal covering transport infrastructure, broadband, housing, and public and community services.
  • Scrapping and replacing Universal Credit and restoring the social security safety net shredded by austerity.
  • Ending in-work poverty and making work pay, through a real living wage for all, a new charter of employment rights, and freeing trade unions from restrictions that prevent them organising workers.
  • Confronting the housing crisis with a mass council house building programme, rent controls and new security for tenants and ending rough sleeping.
  • Building a more democratic economy with a National Investment Bank, Regional Development Banks and a Post Bank on every high street, reversing corporate capture and taking on tax dodging, while increasing the involvement of workers in the running of their businesses, and people and communities in spending decisions that affect them.

Over the coming year, the Peace and Justice Project will build on these plans by adapting them for the post-Covid recovery and campaigning to make them a reality. This will include:

  • Looking at how to rebuild state capacity to act for the public good after 40 years of hollowing out under neoliberalism.
  • Developing plans for a fair and decent social security system that provides support and dignity for those who need it.
  • Considering and supporting the role that trade unions play in delivering a fairer economy and more pleasant work lives.

Yet the social crisis is here now and requires campaigners to address it directly and materially. Hundreds of thousands of workers have joined unions; more should be encouraged to do so. Practical solidarity with trade union action is essential, whether over job losses or safety issues like the NEU’s drive for secure schools. Services like food banks and mutual aid projects will need the support and labour of activists, who will also need to establish new resources and networks for provision where they do not exist. If campaigners build local networks that engage community organisations, unions and trade councils, and progressive activists, they will be able to undertake a wide range of social action.

There are three connecting things campaigners can do to win a progressive post-crisis reset. One involves exposing local or specific injustices and building campaigns that can highlight them nationally, as Marcus Rashford has done for free school meals. Another is addressing everyday problems through mutual aid and the combining and sharing of skills to solve practical problems.

From these two things we can build our wider argument for transformative change. With understanding and direct experience of the injustices plaguing Britain, we can bring people together around a big new vision that tackles those injustices, gets us ready for future challenges, and puts the common good at the heart of our economy.

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