The Covid-19 emergency has brought into sharp relief the woeful inadequacies of the neoliberal capitalist system that has been favoured by successive governments for over 40 years. What it illustrates is that capitalism is a cancer and the only way to deal with cancer is to cut it out.
The last four decades in particular, have seen our public service infrastructure being rundown and used as a cash cow for faceless corporations to make a quick buck. These sharks prioritise financial gain over public service. The most worrying manifestation of this trend is the way in which the NHS has been underfunded, which is hampering its ability to respond to the challenge presented by Covid-19. The number of hospital beds is much lower than other developed countries and the number of intensive care beds is considerably lower, not to mention the lack of respirators.
But ministers have been panicked into jettisoning the laissez-faire economics that they previously espoused. This week alone, the Chancellor has announced Government-backed loans worth £350 billion to support businesses through the coronavirus upheaval, including cash grants of £10,000 to the UK’s 700,000 smallest companies. He has also said that homeowners in difficulty, as a result of the coronavirus, can obtain a three-month moratorium on mortgage payments, but offered no help for private renters. However, after being pressed on the issue by Jeremy Corbyn at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson said he would be “bringing forward legislation to protect private renters from eviction.” The precise terms of that legislation remain to be seen.
Of course, if successive governments hadn’t created the conditions that have resulted in today’s housing crisis, it would be one less thing for people to worry about as we try to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic. Well over a million families are languishing on council house waiting lists, while millions more are trapped in expensive private rented accommodation. Since the borrowing cap was lifted on the housing revenue accounts of local authorities, some new council houses are being built. But it is inexcusable that the numbers remain pitifully inadequate, and so councils must be pressured by local communities to do far more.
While the panic-stricken, haphazard Damascene conversion is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. For example, what about low paid employees ineligible for statutory sick pay (SSP)? What about self-employed workers? What about increasing the level of SSP? The current SSP rate of £94.25 per week is a derisory amount to expect people to live on, but many workers don’t even qualify for that parsimonious sum.Compared to other European countries, the UK’s response is incredibly miserly. Norwegian workers, including the self-employed will have their incomes protected by their government, Swedish workers will receive 90% of their salary and workers in Ireland will be entitled to €203 per week.
It is obvious that the Tory instincts, which infected New Labour too, do not work. Just as Churchill found in WW2, the state had to step up and take an active role in the economy to ensure the nation could rise to the challenge posed by total war. It was the legacy of that period which informed the policy agenda of the 1945 Labour government and set the parameters for the post-war settlement, that lasted until Thatcher’s government came to power in 1979.
The obsession with deregulation that gripped the Thatcher and Major governments was bad enough, but Blair and Brown went even further and cleared the way for the devastating imposition of austerity by Messrs Cameron and Clegg. The repercussions of this collective of neoliberal prime ministers has created the UK paradox, where 14 million people live in poverty in the world’s fifth-biggest economy.
Lenin was absolutely right when he said:
“There can be no real and effective ‘freedom’ in a society based on the power of money, in a society in which the masses of working people live in poverty and the handful of rich live like parasites.”
More than a hundred years later, this is exactly the situation with which we are confronted in the UK today.
What this Covid-19 crisis reveals, is that we need to force our political leaders to press the reset button.
The present system is utterly broken, so when we are through the present calamity, we need to demand a new structure that prioritises people over profit.
Article by Chris Williamson former Labour MP for Derby North political activist and commentator.