Out of the coronavirus crisis, a new kind of Britain must be born | John McDonnell | Opinion

As the personal tragedies arising out of this crisis mount up, of course our energies must be devoted to saving lives, and comforting and caring for one another.

The early equating of this crisis to wartime never really took hold for me and many others, especially younger generations. But it did remind me that even in the depths of the second world war, many like Orwell, Laski, Bevan and Attlee looked back on the experience of the 1930s and said, “Never again.” They started dreaming, describing, debating and planning the society they would construct for the future. That is the vital role the left and progressives can play now.

Even the most diehard Tory neoliberal free marketeer would acknowledge that if the crisis has taught us anything, it is that anything is possible. There is no dogma that cannot be thrown overboard. The crisis has taught us what values we cherish the most, and which we would want to build society upon after the crisis.

We all uphold individual freedom, but in this crisis most have recognised that it is collective action and solidarity that has held us together. It has been the collective action embodied in public services provided by the state that is seeing us through the crisis. It is the public servants – for a decade denied adequate support, decent wages and then threatened with privatisation – whose sacrifice is protecting us.

If we are to build the resilience to cope with any further waves of this virus, or other future unknown threats, our new society needs to be built on fully funded, publicly owned and democratically controlled public services.

Let’s acknowledge that there are services such as rail transport that the private sector has proved incapable of sustaining in this crisis, and that there are new services such as broadband that have become essential to modern life and should be classified as a universal basic service.

What this crisis has also exposed is that so many of our fellow citizens and their families do not have the financial resilience to deal with an unexpected hardship imposed upon them. Our new society must eradicate the individual economic insecurity that comes from low pay, precarious work and the employment status, for many, of being little more than a chattel, capable of being discarded with no say and no control.

The crisis has meant that many who have never experienced our social security system previously have suddenly discovered how brutally inadequate it has become after 10 years of austerity and targeted attacks on the unemployed, the poor, children, disabled people and others. The appreciation that anyone can fall, and therefore everyone needs a safety net, has made intensely relevant the design of a minimum income guarantee or universal basic income.

The threat of recession hangs over our economy. There are still those who will argue that another period of renewed austerity is the solution, and as always that will mean the heaviest burden falling on working people. Austerity never worked in tackling the impact of the banking crisis and it won’t work in addressing the consequences of the coronavirus crisis either.

Plus we have the greatest crisis of all facing us: the existential threat to human existence from the climate crisis. That’s why we need to rebuild our society post-Covid-19 not with another decade of austerity, but with a decade-long programme of intensive investment in our social and physical infrastructure to end our dependency on fossil fuels once and for all, and construct a green economy, sharing the wealth and quality of life that it engenders.

We pay for it by introducing an immediate windfall tax on the banks and finance sector that we bailed out when they brought about the crisis more than a decade ago. Combining this with a wealth tax on the richest within our society and a tax on multinationals, we can demonstrate – just as the current government has demonstrated – that when we need the resources, they can always be found.

We will only be able to deliver and secure our future to guard against future crises if we ensure our new society is founded on a participative democracy blossoming within our communities but also within the economy and at work, buttressed by a media whose ownership is more democratically dispersed and effective in speaking truth to power.

As we enter possibly a longer and more distressing period of this pandemic, we must give people hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that together we can make it a bright one. We will never let our eyes become accustomed to the dark.

John McDonnell is shadow chancellor of the exchequer

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