Richard Burgon: With the Tories U-turning, Labour must lay out radical policy

Labour must push the government into the radical solutions the country needs.

The coronavirus crisis has shone a spotlight on deep failings across our society. Weak public services, a broken social care system, a woeful lack of workers’ rights, a failing housing market and a hollowed-out social security system have left us ill-prepared to deal with both the public health and economic crisis.

None of this is just the failure of an incompetent PM. It’s the result of a rigged economic system entrenched through a decade of austerity and four-decades of neoliberalism and privatisation. These systemic failings are going to become even deeper in the coming months as an unprecedented avalanche of jobs losses hits our communities.

Talk of historic moments is often exaggerated – but we really are at one now. Given that, what is Labour going to say about that? What are we going to do about that?

The crisis is happening now and we need to act now: tens of thousands of lives are on the line and millions of livelihoods are at stake. The solutions that the Labour movement puts forward and our organising around them can make a real difference to people’s lives in the here and now. 

Dennis Skinner once said: “Of course we can’t accept the nostrum that we’ve got to wait and go to sleep for four or five years until there is a parliamentary election and then the sun will shine”. I think that’s wise advice for Labour’s new leadership to take on board.

We have to demonstrate day-after-day that we have the backs of ordinary people and have a better way forward for them. That isn’t counterposed to preparing to win in 2024 – it’s an essential part of it.  

Of course, the government has a large parliamentary majority but it is vulnerable – because it hasn’t got the answers that match the scale of the crisis. Government u-turn after u-turn shows that Boris Johnson is for turning.

But only if we turn up the pressure. If we do, Labour can force the government to make concessions in the interests of people, demonstrating through deeds that Labour is on their side.

So our party now needs to go beyond criticising the government’s incompetence – which it has done well and which is clear for all to see – and layout the policies needed to defend people hit hard by this unprecedented public health and jobs crisis.

Many of the ideas were in our 2017 and 2019 manifestos – and Keir reflected many of them in his 10 Pledges. These shouldn’t be ditched. Our election defeat was not a rejection of them, but a result of an election dominated by Brexit. The Party’s current handling of the Brexit debate at the moment is an acknowledgement of that fact. 

Now is the time to build on those progressive policies – even to deepen them – as our core values are the only ones that can address the simultaneous crises in public health, the economy, inequality and climate. 

After defeats for the Left in the leadership elections, many have asked me “what does the left do now?”. For me, the priority is to force the government to change track – by laying out our solutions to the crisis faced by millions and building the movements to win those solutions. We need to be as radical as the situation demands but with practical solutions that answer the problems people face.

To force the government to shift, we have to come up with a united programme of demands that we coordinate the whole left around: the left in parliament, the unions, the party membership and social movements across the country. The Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs will play a leading role in that alliance.  

What should such a united programme look like? Take the immediate priority – the Coronavirus public health disaster. The alternative needed to the government’s deadly failures is a Zero Covid strategy. This is about mobilising the efforts of the state to eliminate the virus – as successfully done in New Zealand, China, Vietnam and elsewhere. That will not only save lives but is essential to getting the economy going again.

It’s a progressive solution to the crisis based on mass testing and tracing at a local level with people getting a test and results back in 24 hours. That means investing in our NHS and local public health teams and kicking Serco and the like out of the failing system. It means sick pay at real living wage levels so people can afford to safely isolate. It means smaller class sizes by rehiring all qualified teachers and turning community spaces into classrooms and ensuring all children have broadband access at home. Only progressives will fight for such an agenda.

To tackle the accompanying jobs and social crisis, as well as continuing to fight for an extension to furlough, Labour needs to be proposing public works to create 100,000s of well-paid jobs including through a Green New Deal.

It must put itself at the forefront of challenging evictions, fighting for benefits that cover living costs through a Minimum Income Guarantee and trade union rights that prevent outrageous “fire and rehire” practices becoming the new blueprint for the economy.

We must also ensure that any corporate bailouts come with public stakes in those companies and are conditional on wider social, environmental and labour demands.  

Some on the Labour Left may feel despondent at recent political events. I understand that. But we don’t have time for that. People need to dust themselves down and get ready for a huge fight over the coming months to force the government to change track on health and the economy. Many lives and millions of livelihoods depend on it.

Richard Burgon is a Labour MP and former Shadow Justice Secretary

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