Society will change after coronavirus. But we have to fight to make it a change for the better
It can take a grave national crisis to fire a flare, revealing the ugliest features of a society defined by injustices that the wealthy and powerful would rather forget. It took the second world war to achieve what the Jarrow hunger marches of the 1930s struggled for: to illustrate the national shame that millions of people who were called upon to make grand sacrifices were afflicted by poverty and malnourishment. As child evacuees with hungry bellies arrived on the doorsteps of the relatively well-to-do, the other Britain could no longer be ignored. “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching,” declared William Beveridge as he laid the foundations for the postwar welfare state. Unprecedented state direction of the economy meant that Labour’s ambitious programme of nationalisation no longer seemed quite so scary. The old order perished in the rubble of war-ravaged Britain.
Coronavirus has done two things: it has magnified existing social crises and has proved that the government can act decisively when the will is there. Millions are only ever one pay packet away from destitution; the self-employed and gig economy workers lack security and basic rights; private tenants are at the mercy of their landlords; our welfare state is woefully inadequate; and many designated “key workers” are desperately undervalued and badly paid. Who, in good faith, can now blind themselves to these grim truths?
A party that has poured scorn on the idea of a magic money tree can uncover an entire forest of them, in the form of a multibillion-pound stimulus, £350bn-worth of support and writing the paycheques of millions of workers. A government that has overseen surging homelessness can suddenly order the abolition of rough sleeping by decree. Years of slashing the welfare state give way to unilaterally hiking universal credit, albeit from a derisory sum to one that is merely paltry; and decades of worshipping at the altar of the market abruptly cease as rail franchising is suspended – half way to public ownership – while the NHS’s fragmentation is reversed and there is even chatter about the partial nationalisation of the airlines.
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The Tories have not metamorphosised into Corbynites: these are drastic temporary measures to preserve capitalism, and state control should not automatically be confused with socialism, which is a project to democratise the economy and society. The question is: what comes next? Post-coronavirus Britain will bequeath a massive financial deficit. The Tories then have two choices. They could reject the need to balance the books through drastic cuts to public services, and thereby reveal that the post-2010 austerity was a political choice, not a necessity. The other is to reprise George Osborne’s decimation of the public realm: but, this time round, they will face profound challenges. Consent, or at least acquiescence, for Osbornomics was founded on claims that reckless spending by Labour was at the root of Britain’s economic ailments, fused with a narrative that valuable hard-earned taxpayers’ money was frittered away on the undeserving poor, the “scrounger” and the “shirker”.
But the voters who delivered Johnson his majority in 2019 in the so-called red wall areas – either by voting Tory or staying at home – are often socially conservative, but committed to economic interventionism. The Tories, therefore, have no electoral mandate for a renewed bout of austerity. Now with even middle-class people sucked into the welfare state is a renewed onslaught against social security really politically palatable?
A reshaping of British society is by no means an inevitability. Labour has just suffered a catastrophic drubbing, and an election is a distant prospect. Boris Johnson may troll Margaret Thatcher in her grave by declaring that “there is such a thing as society”, but we have been fed a diet of rampant dog-eat-dog individualism for over a generation. This is why a “blame the public” strategy has had some success: by focusing scrutiny on individuals failing to abide by social distancing rather than the government’s botched response.
Much of the left mistakenly believed that they would become the obvious beneficiaries of the 2008 financial crash, even though previous crises of capitalism – in the 1930s and 1970s – principally benefited the right. As free market economist Milton Friedman aptly put it: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.” But his caveat was important: “When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” When Lehman Brothers imploded, the left’s intellectual cupboard was bare.
It is not macabre opportunism to debate what society looks like after the gravest crisis since the war: it is a necessity secondary only to overcoming the pandemic itself. This is a social and economic crisis, so who will pay is a question that must inevitably be asked and answered. The left is battered, bruised, demoralised, but its voice must be heard in this national conversation. While the Labour left will be ejected from the leadership, the democratic mandate of the inevitable winner, Keir Starmer – who has proclaimed the 2017 manifesto as the party’s “foundational document” – is rooted in policies championed by the left in its wilderness years. There is a thriving ecosystem of left thinktanks – such as the Institute for Public Policy Research – and left economists and intellectuals.
Johnson and Dominic Cummings are wily operators, having proved that they were willing and able to raid both the rhetoric and substance of the left. Beveridge was right: these moments are times for revolutions, not for patching, and a looming danger is that the new populist right may understand this better than Labour or the US Democrats. It has taken the horror of a pandemic to expose deliberately ignored social ills. What comes next must cure them for good.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist
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