Stay Alert? What do the UK government’s changes actually mean?

Stay Alert? What do the UK government’s changes actually mean?

As the UK government demands its people stay alert and Rishi Sunak extends the furlough scheme, what exactly do these policy shifts mean? Luke analyses the flaws within the furlough scheme and how for many it provides increasingly little support. He asserts it is ultimately the poorest workers who are receiving a more than subtle nudge to get back to work, a display of carelessness and a seeming prioritisation of the economy over health by the government. No matter who alert you stay, having no choice but to use busy public transport leaves you incredibly exposed.  Luke therefore concludes through an exploration of a Basic Income and how it will empower workers to put their wellbeing first, and prevent both the government and employers forcing them to undertake potentially unsafe work. Putting human wellbeing before profit.

Luke Brotherdale Smith 

It both feels like a couple of days and a couple of years since Chancellor Rishi Sunak first announced furlough measures, amongst others, aimed at supporting people during the COVID-19 lockdown. Wearing his wonderful Next slim fit suit, Sunak – in an overly-rehearsed year 12 debating society kinda-way – declared “we will not leave you behind”. Phwoar. He’d practiced that one in the mirror. And you could tell, shivers up and down the country as super Sunak swooped to our rescue.

And just a few days ago, all those naysayers who claimed lightening couldn’t strike twice were made to look like right muppets, right?

So Chancellor / Comrade / Superman (interchangeable) Rishi Sunak has announced an extension to the UK’s 80% furlough scheme. It will run to the end of July, with employers having to wade in and pay a chunk from August to October (we don’t yet know exactly how this will work, he knows how to build suspense). After rumours of Sunak wanting to cut the scheme down to 60% because people had become “addicted” to staying alive, there was a fear he had lost both his Superman cape and his sickle. But alas, here he is once again, holding his red flag aloft and managing to outflank the Labour Party in progressive policies. To be fair to the new leader of the opposition, he is right in saying there is no point criticising the government for criticisms sake. So, in an attempt to channel my inner Keir Starmer I will be both forensic and constructive, charismatic (yeah right) and with combover.

To start with, in light of the potential furlough reductions being touted, this extension is good news. Trade Unions have fought for workers up and down the country, forced the government into a U-turn and won a key battle in an ongoing class war. And that’s the thing, this is a really important measure, but it’s the first few footholds on a mountain of struggle.

“Who let the marxist out” Keir Starmer cries. But this is far simpler than daft labels. This is about choices, whether to prioritise the health of working people or the health of their employers’ profits. The last few weeks many large business owning-Tory donors will have been in Sunak’s ear because without workers at work, these big businesses can’t make money. And this battle against working people’s health was almost won by this group, with newspapers suggesting a sudden reduction of furlough to 60%. However, fighting the battle on the behalf of the working classes, as they always have done, were trade unions. Insisting on an extension of furlough to prevent workers being forced back to work in unsafe conditions. Similarly, the clash between teachers and the government is reflecting the growing divide. One side wanting to protect students’ life, the others want kids back to school so their parents can trot on back to work and get the economy going again.

As I discussed in my article about key workers, working people have systematically had their wages, protections and public services stripped in order to finance tax cuts and huge profits for the elites. This hasn’t happened naturally or accidentally, this has happened due to choices made by those in power. And this time trade unions won the battle, and credit to Sunak for listening to them and choosing to provide the minimum level support they deserve. The struggle  the teachers’ union faces is another oncoming wave from an ocean of corporate interest and profit-driven megalomania.

And yet despite the small, but important victory with furlough, it’s worth analysing exactly what these measures mean. Because despite many people benefiting from the extension there are groups who are not being supported by the scheme. Many people are falling through the gaps. For those the furlough scheme has left behind and who don’t have substantial savings, the dysfunctional and paltry Universal Credit system has been the last resort.  For people with decent savings and a salary high enough, 80% is liveable. But 80% of minimum wage is hardly secure and comfortable living. Before lockdown 60% of people living in poverty had someone in their household working. So, behind the thin veil of Sunak’s cape lie various nudges, incentives and coercions for people to get back into work – these nudges are more like shoves for the poorest. Because whilst 80% furlough is satisfactory for some, lower earners will find the lifting of lockdown an opportunity to get a decent income. Again, Sunak hasn’t swept in as  savior of everyone, the effects of his measures will be felt disproportionately, with the poorest (often minorities) benefiting the least. A pale imitation of supportive measures like a Basic Income, for many low-earners there is no choice but to return work or face deprivation. Starvation or risk of a deadly virus – what a choice.

Make no mistake, this entire pandemic has sparked conflicts and struggles between workers who make the money and business owners who profit from them. Just think about it for a second. Boris’ deliberate incompetence’s have sought to confuse and distract and shift responsibility onto businesses and individuals.

“If you can work from home, do”….”If you can avoid using public transport, do”…”and whatever you do, stay alert” 

Not everyone can work from home, or avoid public transport and I don’t have a clue what being permanently alert looks like. 

It is ultimately the poorest who have no choice. It is the lowest earners who are most exposed to the virus. By lifting lockdown for workers and sustaining low levels of income flows, you flood the worker ants back to their employers just in time to start making their bosses money again. And no level of alertness is going to protect you on a rammed tube. 

Business owners aren’t the ones who are desperate to get off furlough and earn their full wages in order to pay their rent (which still hasn’t been cancelled – thanks to pressure from the leader of the opposition). Privileged groups aren’t the ones who have no choice but to be rammed in trains or buses on the way to work. It is a good thing that some people can choose to avoid risk. But the finger should point squarely at a system which is grossly unequal in power and wealth. A system which relies on working people and forces them to face these risks to create profits. This is pointing the finger at choices made in government that recklessly opened the doors for working class people to go back to work, with no preparation, no safety measures. Inevitably sentencing many more people to death.

Is that taking it too far? Maybe. But thousands of families are grieving, saying goodbye to loved ones over FaceTime and are unable to attend their funerals.  The lack of care over wellbeing and lives of human beings is unforgivable.

“But what is the alternative?” is the usual cry whenever the status quo’s blatant inadequacies are pointed out. The alternative is choosing to protect people’s lives, putting their wellbeing and safety ahead of getting the economy up and running again. Because this is all down to choices. “But people’s livelihoods depend on the economy”, the usual response. Of course they do – to an extent. But the people’s livelihoods who really rely on whatever ‘the economy’ is, is your Richard Branson and Mike Ashley types who desperately need workers to get back and start making them money again. 

So how about this for an alternative to coercing people back to work without safety measures for the sake of ‘the economy’. Rather than using the strange monolith of ‘the economy’ to indirectly improve people’s lives, or using furlough schemes to support people through their employers, we put money in people’s hands. ‘The economy’ is in free fall meaning many jobs may be lost, and therefore people’s income flows more than being reduced to 80% of normal, may be completely halted. Let’s give people money directly, not simply as a safeguard against deprivation, but also as a demand-side boost to support small businesses as they slowly reopen. And of course, a Basic Income won’t just bring these benefits. If you as a worker have an unconditional income, you have something to fall back on, you genuinely have power and freedom. So when your boss tells you to get back to the factory where you’re rubbing shoulders with colleagues for 10 hours and you’ve been provided with no protective equipment, you can rightly tell him to do one. Because a Basic Income gives workers bargaining power when faced with exploitation and enables people to say no when their health and wellbeing is put at risk.

Plans for a recovery Basic Income to support us out of this crisis are being worked on, and many proposals have already been published.

“But how are we going to pay for it!?” A very common response when a Basic Income is mentioned, let alone in the midsts of an economic recession. Well I choose to answer this question in a way which you will either love or (most likely) hate:

We are paying right now for not having a Basic Income. Financially insecure people are being forced back to work without having the power to say no, because they don’t have a Basic Income. Millions of people have been forced into deprivation and precarity before and during this crisis, because they don’t have a Basic Income. And as we move out of this crisis, people will lose their incomes and ability to spend money and live freely.

A Basic Income will pay for itself in its prevention of poverty, empowerment of workers and recovery of ‘the economy’.

Without doubt, this crisis is yet another battle in the same class war which saw the banker-created 2008/9 financial crisis paid for by working people through cuts to public sector wages, education, social security and the NHS. All at the same time as the Westminster elite bailed out those very bankers and cut taxes for the richest – see, they were on the right side on the class war, sadly cleaners and nurses were not. And as we emerge from this crisis, once again the government will seek to make working people pay the costs. Already newspapers are talking of cuts and pay freezes for the very NHS staff who have risked their lives to save the lives of others. But unlike in 2008/9, we need to be ready for the incoming assault on working people and the unions who seek to protect their livelihoods. We must resist the narrative that the government’s keeping people alive during the crisis is “too costly” and needs to be “paid back”. Most of all we must remember our lived experiences of the biggest crisis in a generation. We must remember the countless acts of compassion and love within our communities and we can’t forget about the people who have kept society running and kept our loved ones safe.

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