After the Apocalypse

“Everything we do during and after this crisis must be with a strong focus on building more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change, and the many other global challenges we face.”

This call could have come from any of the Labour Leadership candidates, but it didn’t. It was from António Guterres, UN Secretary-General. The trouble is, without any clear leadership, where will such a world come from? This is the challenge – to create a fundamentally different economy – that is now facing Labour.

This crisis will end, as all crises do. But it will plunge us all into another, of equally seismic proportions. Politically, there will be a global dog-fight over the post-war reckoning, an international stock-taking of the damage and then calls for a new economic settlement. Labour must reposition itself to address all three, and do so in the spirit of post-1945 not post-1918.

I have been astonished at how long it took for the government to face excoriating criticism of its abject failure to plan for the crisis everyone could see heading our way. Press calls for ‘medals for NHS workers’ were an embarrassing distraction. They should have called for the prosecution of politicians who sent health care staff into into the virus battle with protective clothing unfit for a bakery let alone an intensive care unit.

There’s nothing Churchillian about Johnson’s leadership. Britain has a government of First World War generals who’ve thrown front-line workers into the fray, armed with a criminal shortage of equipment to protect themselves, let alone others. Labour must force a reckoning of these failures if the next (certain) crisis is not to repeat itself.

When the coronavirus war ends the world will be a complete mess; every landscape smeared in debt and dead bodies. The best way of paying homage is to reject calls for any austerity economics that would just repeat the problem. Use the UN to create a global ‘bad Bank’, put the debts into it (much as nations did post-2008), pay it off slowly via a global Robin Hood tax, then chart a radically different course.

The trouble is that today’s international politics is bereft of intellectual leadership. Labour might have offered this, but it didn’t. Now it will have to. Forget calls for a return to centrism or Blairism. You can put go-fast stripes on a Reliant Robin but – in an age calling out for clean transport – you’d still be left with a Reliant Robin. So what must Labour do?

Internationally, we must learn from the Italian engineers who designed respirator valves that can be 3-D printed anywhere across the planet. They ran the gauntlet of infringing copyright laws in order to give people the chance of keeping other’s alive. It should be the platform for a fundamental change in WTO rules on intellectual property. Medical research demands a new era of ‘common property’, where States can fund research, and companies both collaborate and compete, but without the creation of corporate fiefdoms that hold nations to ransom.

Trade rules have to be re-written, with the benchmark being the carbon footprint involved in all movement of goods, services and people. If taxes need to be levied internationally so be it. This may be the best way to fund the UN anyway, turning its purpose into a new ‘common wealth’ of nations.

In Opposition, Labour cannot deliver this, but it could create Shadow Cabinet positions for people to directly represent Labour (even as Rapporteurs) at both the UN and the World Health Organisation. It would send our a clear message that Labour’s transformative economics is international more than introspective.

One of the clearest examples relates to homelessness. A rising tide of people sleeping in shop doorways or under arches had become an everyday feature of urban life. Attempts to tackle it were always half-funded rather than half-hearted. Then the virus struck. The homeless became a transmission vector, increasing the risk to others as well as themselves. Suddenly, towns and cities discovered an urgent need to house them. Empty hotels have been commandeered and the homeless housed. An intractable problem suddenly wasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a magic wand. There are still problems of drug abuse and disruptive behaviour to address, but these can at least be in-house rather than on-street. The contrast, though, is with Trump’s America.

One of the most shameful images of the crisis was surely the Las Vegas parking lot marked out to accommodate the homeless.

The casino State merely ‘white-lined’ boxes on the car park surface, so 500 homeless people could sleep ‘with safe separation distances’ between them. Forget the empty hotels. Forget the State’s riches. White lines was as good as it got.

Post-coronavirus politics must find a different starting point; one rooted in an unbreakable bond between the poor and the planet. That’s what Labour failed to do in the last election.

So start with housing. The UK has 30 million buildings in need of racial energy-efficiency upgrades by 2030. Give local authorities the power to drive this (backed by statutory, reducing, annual carbon budgets) and you tackle fuel poverty, jobs and skills prospects and climate stability in one go. Cancelling the roads programme would pay for it all.

Then create localised energy networks – for generating, storing and sharing renewable energy – and you do the same. Allow these networks to share their energy surpluses with socialised ‘clean transport’ systems and you have the basis of a systems change; delivering transport security, clean air and social inclusion.

All these are aspects of the more circular economics that the era of deregulated free-for-all turned its back on.

Then address UK food security. What the coronavirus crisis brought home was the extent to which free-trade obsessions ended up weakening food security. It isn’t just that Britain produces barely half its own food needs. Our food imports bill is around £50bn a year and domestic production relies on some 70,000 migrant seasonal workers (which we have come to both rely on and deride, in our descent into xenophobic populism).

What the crisis has thrown up, however, is a burgeoning network of community support groups; all collecting and distributing food, both to the socially isolated and across whole neighbourhoods. Tony Benn used to say that his vision of socialism proudly affirmed that, “Yes, I am my brother’s keeper…and my sister’s, and mother’s and neighbour’s.” Across the Land, this is what we have all begun to recall.

By the end of this crisis, millions of people in Britain will have reached out to others, in voluntary networks that ‘keep an eye’ on each other. Some involve shopping for neighbours, some offer more generalised transport of food or goods, some provide ancillary support to the NHS. We are (thankfully) remembering how to be each other’s keepers. This is the security system that ultimately holds society together.

In this, it’s worth mentioning that the Army has been brilliant. They’ve built ‘field hospitals’ in record time, providing the additional medical facilities the NHS had been starved of. Just note, though, that there has been not a single mention of new nukes or Trident renewal. Today’s threats came from elsewhere, and so will tomorrow’s.

Our next call may even be for a revived Land Army. We may need military style organisation to ensure that unharvested crops, languishing in farms across the land, aren’t left to die in the fields when they were needed to keep people alive in the self-isolation their own homes. Localities can do the distribution, but we need a different plan to address the harvesting.

When this virus-war ends we need an era of peace-building; both domestically and internationally. What Labour must assert is that this cannot be built by resuscitating yesterday’s economics.

There must be no rescue for pollution, for speculation, for those who bank offshore, for those who pay dividends but not decent wages, for those who sit on land banks but fail to build the ‘energy-plus’ buildings tomorrow needs, or for those seeking to absolve themselves from duties to put back into the planet more than we take out.

Tomorrow’s economics (and politics) must deliver both social inclusion and carbon reductions (at a rate of around 20% a year). From the Opposition benches, Labour cannot deliver such change. But it can set out the grounds upon which the coming political/existential battles will be fought.

Trump and a legion of corporate de-regulators are already seeking to kill off such transformative thinking before the debate even starts. Their rationale is simple: kill the public if you must, just don’t kill off the (corporate) profits. It is the zero-sum game humanity cannot afford to lose.

Unambiguously, and inspirationally, this is the message Labour needs to run with.

(Labour Briefing article, April 2020)


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