Budget: has govt learnt anything from pandemic?  

Will workers be paying the price of govt’s errors? Unite GS Len McCluskey writes

Reading time: 7 min

Budgets often only register with voters when some howler is made by the government, like George Osborne’s stupid pasty tax. Tomorrow’s is different. This government’s mismanagement of the crisis has led to the UK suffering the biggest economic hit in Europe, not to mention a tragically high loss of life. Much-trailed in the media, we’ll soon find out if this government has taken the right lessons from the past year. Will its vision help or hinder how we build out of the pandemic rubble, or will the wrong people once again be paying the price?

Unite will be represented at the TUC’s eve of Budget rally, joined by hundreds of our members, supporting the call of the unions representing six million people for a budget that recognises and repays the sacrifices of those on the frontline, from the shops to warehouses, care homes to paramedics – and acts on the incontestable evidence that this is a disease of the poor, isolated and insecure.

Throughout this pandemic our calls have been clear – and they’ll be our tests for this budget: protect health, jobs and incomes, as set out in our 10-point budget plan.

Decent, skilled jobs are the quickest way to a more equal, recovered country, but while 2020 was a year of jobs destruction, we’ve seen little appetite for making 2021 a year for jobs creation. Tired and dubious proposals on freeports, as the press predicts, may help the rich get richer and bad bosses escape labour laws but they won’t create the employment possibilities on the scale everyone agrees is needed.

Investment needed
What’s needed is investment, a programme for thriving plants not sketchy freeports, a plan to protect existing jobs as well as creating new ones. We need announcements from the chancellor that will let workers like those at Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port and GKN, fearful that their futures rest on so far elusive government engagement, despite years of talking the talk, sleep easier at night. The prize is huge – government support could give our plants life well into the 2030s. Conversely, more hand-sitting will lose the enormous opportunities of this moment.

Our ‘shovel-ready’ projects plan shows where the fastest and best returns for our people and planet are to be found. But decisions are being made now in boardrooms around the world about where new technology investments will be made.

Companies will be listening carefully on Wednesday to the words from this government and comparing them to the actual deeds and cash advanced by our competitors. On Wednesday, Rishi Sunak better be short on rhetoric and longer on action and cash because if he is not, UK workers will lose out.

And manufacturing really does matter because for every one job it creates, it supports four more in high streets and communities across the country. If Rishi Sunak is sensible then he will seize on the opportunities to revive – and, yes, level up – our economic fortunes by ushering in an era of investment in broadband, better housing and emerging technologies the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since the likes of the ‘white heat of technology’ in the sixties. Towns like Crawley where the main employer – Gatwick – has shed thousands of jobs while waiting for the promised aviation support package that never came, desperately need new employment possibilities.  Not tax wheezes and training gimmicks, real jobs that support families, communities and respect human dignity.

Extend furlough scheme
This is also why the term of the expected extension to the furlough scheme really matters.  It’s thought that the chancellor will tack a few months onto the April cut-off but that’s dicing with jobs and the recovery.  As economists, including the IFS, agree we need extension until this pandemic is under control.  Political choices made by other leading European economies provide longer furlough programmes, securing competitive advantage by protecting skilled workers and safeguarding strategically vital infrastructure. The TUC says extend the jobs retention scheme until 2022; Unite agrees.

One staggering shortcoming of this government’s pandemic handling has been its stubborn failure to help those on low and insecure wages isolate when they contract this vicious disease.  Sick pay in this country is inhumanely, disgracefully low, with the fortunate few able to access statutory sick pay expected to live on around £13 a day. From Dido Harding to Jeremy Hunt, the government has been told that those who test positive for the virus will not isolate because they cannot afford to, yet still the government does nothing.  This failure to support the low paid is a relic of ideological austerity – it has no place in managing a public health emergency and is a danger to us all.

Low pay ‘epidemic’
There is another epidemic in this country: low pay. The majority of the six million on Universal Credit are in work, just as the majority in the foodbank queues know that there’s too much month and not enough money. The idea that the £20-a-week Universal Credit top up will be cut this autumn is unconscionable. The kids won’t stop eating and growing in September which is why unions like Unite will continue to fight this cut all the way.

We know that there will be warm words for key workers from the chancellor.  They will be much deserved, but really the government has to stop clapping and start paying workers for whom it’s been an exhausting and frightening year.  Secure jobs and a wage they can live on, one that keeps pace with the increased cost of living and makes up for a decade of lost earnings, are the least they deserve.

If this government chooses instead to help the better off with more stamp duty freezes, then it’ll be clear whose side Sunak is on. It’s commonly agreed that the taxation system in this country needs a shake-up but the principle has to be that excess profits and corporation tax are where the government should focus its efforts, not the low wages of millions of public serving workers.

Rishi Sunak, a committed fiscal hawk, has been forced to masquerade as a dove for the past year – the ‘Masked Singer’ in number 11. The question is, does he choose tomorrow to whip off his disguise and reveal his true identity? Soon we’ll know the truth – is he stuck in February 2020, singing the same old Tory songs, delivering the wrong results, or will he recognise that the world has moved on and match the enormity of this moment for our people and nations?

This comment first appeared in LabourList, March 2



By Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary  

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