Has the Covid-19 crisis really given us no option other than to brace ourselves for a “necessary period of adjustment”?
Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, seems to think so but, as our class knows to its cost, one economist’s adjustment is certain to mean another person’s unemployment.
We’ve been here before, unfortunately, when Margaret Thatcher and her fiscal hawks set about “adjusting” our communities into mass unemployment, with all the attendant social ills from which many may never recover.
It is always our communities that are “adjusted,” our jobs and people who suffer.
So once again, we find ourselves in a fight for our futures.
This year’s Congress, forced mainly online, is another reminder of the hulking presence of this damned virus and all the health, economic and social ruin it trails in its wake.
The task for Congress and our movement is to push against the prevailing government tide to ensure that the many troubles before us are addressed with the principles of social justice firmly to the fore, not the opportunism of those who, to borrow from Churchill, “never allow a good crisis to go to waste.”
More than that, however, we will need to shout some sense into this government.
According to the BBC, 300,000 workers were placed on notice of redundancy in July: if November dawns with no sign of a shift in government thinking, that figure could be the low-water mark as businesses descend into a financial tailspin.
Yet still the Chancellor digs in about not modifying the jobs-retention scheme.
This is our greatest challenge, this government’s dogged reluctance to invest in our communities and industries.
We were forced to dismiss the government’s “support” for the aviation package as jam tomorrow, given its unambitious plan to build back the sector by 2025 — far too late for the workers whose jobs hang by a thread, or for the businesses that need aviation for trade.
We are also locked in an epic battle to try to persuade the government not to turn its backs on the UK’s manufacturing workers.
The signs out of government are worrying as they talk in doe-eyed terms about the high-tech R&D jobs of tomorrow, ignoring the hundreds of thousands of workers of today currently engaged in everything from aerospace engineering to vehicle manufacturing.
‘These jobs matter’
These jobs matter because for every one manufacturing job, a further four are supported in retail, hospitality, distribution — in fact right across the economy — paying the taxes that support our NHS and public services, and providing decent, stable work across the nation, a rare asset in this, the most economically unequal country in Europe. To abandon UK manufacturing is to abandon our people.
Other nations — France, Germany, Spain and even Trump’s US — understand that the scale of this crisis is such that they are maintaining their job-retention programmes well into next year.
The signal that this gives to workers and employers is important — it says we will back you up.
Contrast this economic activism with the absence of energy on this side of the Channel.
We have taken the heaviest hit in terms of deaths and the hurt to the economy, with chaotic U-turns aplenty as the government fails to offer leadership of the calibre this hour requires.
The Prime Minister’s colossal failure to step up to the task was only confirmed when he told the nation last week that, no, there would be no further jobs-retention action because an ounce of the confidence of his shambolic government is worth more than a ton of investment.
No, Prime Minister. Unite members don’t want your admiration. They want to stay at work, doing what they do to help this country recover and put food on their tables.
Your job is to make sure that they keep their jobs. Listen to the rest of what Andy Haldane says — that modification of the jobs-retention scheme should not be written off and shorter hours should be brought in to keep people economically active.
Over the summer, the consensus that there must be a new phase of investment in job retention has become fixed across our movement, the Labour Party and even business.
And it is popular with the voters too: a Unite/Survation poll found that one in two backed some form of extension, rising to six in 10 in the 18 to 54 age group.
We were promised, when this crisis took hold, that this was a time for “whatever it takes,” not ideological purity.
But unless there is a serious move from government in the next few weeks to put a solid floor under rocky workplaces, then the mass unemployment that will surely follow will be a consequence not of Covid-19 alone but abetted by Conservative ideology.
Johnson, the historian, should think hard. Is he to be yet another Tory who forces the working class into capitalism’s unstable crucible with all the destruction and hardship this brings to our people, confirming his ideological hard-right credentials?
Or will he face up to the crisis sitting on the horizon and move urgently to protect UK workers?
At Congress this week, our job is to speak as one, to say we will not let our class pay once more for a crisis not of our making.
Let’s send a message to the rogues seeking their moment: get your robbing hands off our jobs, our NHS, our public services and our wages. Never again means exactly that.
By Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary @LenMcCluskey