A look at the unexpected impact of covid-19 on political and economic orthodoxies
By Malcolm Christie
The impact of coronavirus has turned economics upside down. Until recently, the Conservative Party stood for privatisation, cuts and balancing the books. Now public spending and state ownership top the political agenda. Our libertarian prime minister has imposed a lockdown and nationalised the railways. Rishi Sunak is paying the wages of a third of the workforce and is on course to borrow more this year than any other chancellor in peacetime. His mini-budget in July pushed the deficit forecast up to £360 billion, a figure that is six times higher than it was in March. No wonder Tory think-tanks are getting nervous. Last month, unveiling his ‘new deal’, Boris Johnson felt the need to reassure supporters, ‘My friends, I am not a Communist.’
Shocked by the inability of an incompetent government to protect them, many people have begun to wonder if the pandemic could offer a radical opportunity for change. Amid the uncertainty one thing is clear: the world will never be the same again. Only six months after a Tory landslide at the general election, a revolutionary agenda tackling poverty, inequality and the climate crisis may seem like pie in the sky. But nobody expected a lockdown, with millions on furlough or working from home, or the suspension of road and air traffic, until it happened overnight.
The evidence of a reset in rightwing thinking is everywhere because the pandemic has clearly demonstrated, even to neo-liberals like Jacob Rees-Mogg, that the state plays an indispensable role in guarding against existential threats to society at large. The value of a strong and well-funded public health system is now almost universally celebrated. Tory ministers who have spent the last decade trying to destroy the NHS now queue up to praise it. And the ‘pricing system’ of labour has been called into question because it is clear to everyone that key workers, such as doctors, cleaners or bus drivers, are more valuable to society than bankers or hedge fund managers in spite of the discrepancy in their earnings.
Inequality has been shown to be a matter of life and death – not just of statistics – with those from low-paid or disadvantaged (including black, Asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds, being disproportionately affected by Covid-19. At the same time, the heroic efforts of migrant health workers in saving lives highlighted the self-defeating nature of the government’s immigration policy.
The top-down mismanagement of the pandemic, from policy errors such as the discharge of untested hospital patients into care homes to the predictable breaches of lockdown rules by Boris Johnson’s friends and family, has underlined a crisis of public trust and infected even die-hard Tories with cynicism. But in some ways the nationwide restrictions have increased our awareness of options for the future. The pressure on international supply chains has led to a surge in demand for locally produced food, and the likelihood that post-covid consumers will be reluctant to go back to the way things were before.
Talk of a green new deal, of building back better, is now mainstream, as is an awareness of the structural changes that are needed in the energy and motor and aviation industries to reduce climate risks.
It is inevitable that the Covid-19 pandemic will lead to a period of economic recession and degrowth. The AGS has always argued against an economic policy based on unlimited growth as an organising principle. However, that does not mean we welcome a sudden, unplanned collapse. We want a balanced, carefully planned shift from overall growth to at least a steady-state economy, plus investment in sound, ecologically positive sectors (like renewable energy) and disinvestment in harmful sectors (like aviation).
It might seem quixotic when the coronavirus has caused so much damage already – and will continue to do so – for the AGS to be focusing on a transformation of political behaviour and organisation. Yet 2020 feels like a turning point in history, and unless the left rises to the challenge of shaping the post-pandemic recovery we may squander a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move towards a greener and socialist world.
Malcolm Christie is the Treasurer of the AGS