Ruling elites are already debating among themselves what the new economic reality should be. Working class people should establish their own recovery plan, and organise for its implementation argues Sean Baille.
Each morning an army of underpaid key workers rise, wiping the sleep from their eyes. They limp into their kitchens, bodies aching and rubbed sore from scavenged PPE and disinfectant, force down some breakfast and prepare for the day ahead. Heading out in the morning spring sun, they face risking their lives to look after our sick and elderly, keeping our streets clean and ensuring the functions of the state tick over. Fumbling for their car keys and running for their bus, they pass the homes of millions of recently unemployed and furloughed workers.
These workers wake weary from a stressful, restless sleep. The worry of debt piling up, the morning coffee only adding to a nagging anxiety over the rent, the mortgage, the car loan and credit cards that need paid. How can we keep a roof over our heads and feed the kids, what about gran and grandad in the care home? Are they safe, will we get a chance to see them again? The spring sun seems little consolation to a population locked within their homes only venturing out to take on some of the most physically and emotionally draining work in society.
We are living through the worst global health crisis most of us have seen in our lives, we are already seeing an endless list of political and economic figures lining up demanding to see an exit strategy. Whilst thousands are dying trapped in commercialised care homes, we have Tony Blair and Keir Starmer attempting to land a punch on the government by appealing for support from business in a bizarre attempt to appear credible.
In this context it is no surprise to see the chief architects of austerity (the programme that left vital services chronically underfunded and unable to cope in this crisis) arguing the need for a renewed austerity programme in order to pay for the relief and reconstruction of our economy. Former chancellor George Osbourne spoke to business leaders during lockdown, saying that the UK faces “going back into a period of retrenchment and trying to bring public sector debt down”. With fellow conservative Michael Gove warning that the governments relief packages will need to be paid back. Further afield the German economy minister Peter Altmaier spoke of a “return to austerity policy and, as soon as possible, to the balanced budget policy”.
The Scottish Government announced an economic recovery group naming its first two participants as Benny Higgins the chairman of Scotland’s private biggest landowning body Baccleuch Estates, previously holding senior roles in RBS and Tesco Bank, and Sir Anton Muscatelli, Vice Chancellor of Glasgow University, senior economic advisor to the First Minister enjoying a salary believed to be in the region of £340,000. A crowd of similarly establishment personalities soon joined the committee.
Economy Secretary Fiona Hyslop MSP enthusiastically tweeted that Charlotte Street Partners (a corporate lobbying firm with a secretive list of clients) founder Andrew Wilson had published a blog detailing an adaptation of her ‘4 point recovery plan’. Wilson, the chair of the SNP Sustainable Growth Commission, published a report in 2018, which received considerable critique for recommending policies that would lead to prolonged austerity measures. In his blog Wilson warns against the risk of inflation “if a populist resurgence dominates”. A thinly veiled threat that any popular relief measures must be strongly guarded against in the long term.
The left and working class capacity to respond to the crisisa and the resulting economic shock, has been hampered by the failure to recover from the decades old effects of de-industrialisation. We have lost a massive amount of political agency built up through the trade unions, political and community organisations that once thrived in industrial communities.
Hope is, however, not lost. Recent events have shown that there is a massive public enthusiasm for progressive advance when opportunities present themselves. The Yes movement and the massive influx of new members into the Labour party under Corbyn, highlights the potential for mass political engagement in bold and transformational political projects. Already within the current crisis we have seen the explosion of local community aid groups, and record numbers of people hanging out windows and taking to the streets every Thursday evening to clap in support of the NHS and care workers.
Mass movements built up around Scottish independence and Corbyn have given life to a flurry of new media platforms and think tanks, providing important alternative forums of discussion and breathing fresh life into debates around policy. This however has not been reflected to the same extent in the creation of mass, self-sustaining working class organisations, independent of political parties but capable of exercising political power and agency.
Both movements have to varying degrees been swallowed up by major political partys, restricting the development of independent working class political agency that is capable of long term growth. The absence of a strong independent power base outside party machinery has enabled the lobbying of ruling class influence. This is evidenced by the apparent influence both the Tony Blair Institute and Charlotte Street Partners seem to have on the leaderships of both Labour and the SNP.
Whilst not comprehensive, there has been an increased focus on workplace organising in the hope of reigniting the potency of trade unions and increasing the scope of lay member engagement, allowing members greater ability to influence direction at least on a shop floor level. Groups like Living Rent and ACORN are beginning to provide a model for sustainable neighbourhood organisations that can challenge power whilst developing community agency missing for a generation.
In order to respond to, and defeat renewed drives for austerity in the wake of the coronavirus we must bring together all of our independent organisations of political power, old and new, infusing them with the ideas and platforms provided by new media outlets to create our own Economic Recovery Plan.
This plan could be backed up by a combination of big, distributed organising programmes that have had some success through the work of groups like Extinction Rebellion. This could be followed-up with the more traditional 1-1 ground game perfected by organisations like ACORN (who once boasted of 500,000 members in the United States) and practised by tenant unions like Living Rent to build a grounded organised political base in our neighbourhoods.
Local, regional and national forums of ‘alternative’ economic recovery groups will have to be established, not only to meet the needs of a working class response to the immediate impacts of the pandemic, but to begin creating a vision of a recovery in our interests, and the organisations capable of forcing through the implementation of this vision.
The task ahead for all trade unionists, community activists, anti-capitalists, think tanks and new media outlets is to come together and develop the steps necessary to reconstruct our whole political and economic system in the wake of this virus. It must be the catalyst for sustainable and independent mass organisations that working class people have ownership over and that can forever defend and fight in our own interests, regardless of the political party in power.
Image: Tim Dennell