‘Normal’ life failed us. The coronavirus crisis gives us the chance to rethink a new economy | John Harris | Opinion

About a month ago, many people I know on the political left were brimming with the belief that the Covid-19 crisis opened the way for a watershed conversation about deep social change. Now, as the full horror of the UK’s coronavirus experience becomes clearer and we begin to understand an all-enveloping crisis whose effects will be felt for years, that mood seems to have been supplanted by a pained mixture of anxiety and fatalism. On a bad day, our national nightmare now appears so deep and complex as to feel not just depressing, but insurmountable.

But from a somewhat unlikely source, there was recently a note of hope. Around the time of the recent VE Day celebrations, the journalist and historian Max Hastings – something of a freethinker, but also someone with a classic establishment background – wrote a piece for the Times. His jumping-off point was the social revolution that began in 1945, but he quickly moved his focus to 2020. “The present crisis seems destined again to change the face of Britain, unleashing demands for social, political and economic reform unprecedented in our memories,” said this one-time editor of the Daily Telegraph. To him, the immediate future was clear: “The polo season, figuratively speaking, is over.”

But is it? Last week brought the awful symbolism of golf and tennis clubs reopening for business and the employers of nannies being given the green light to bring them back into their homes, just as many of the people told to return to work were grimly crowding on to public transport. On Wednesday, the Telegraph published details of internal Treasury documents proposing a two-year public sector pay freeze; the next day, the Guardian highlighted the huge shortfalls now facing English councils. Boris Johnson may have recently held out the prospect of a post-crisis Britain that would be “more generous and sharing”, but these auguries are hardly promising.

And so, as always, attention turns to the Labour party. Judged by the criteria of the weekly political cycle and the ritual of prime minister’s questions, Keir Starmer is so far doing very well indeed. For what such things are worth, his recent net approval rating exceeded Boris Johnson’s, which has seemingly encouraged the age-old Labour belief that the first prerequisite of serious politics is the appearance of measured statesmanship.

That is true, as far as it goes. But Labour’s history suggests that a fixation on respectability often blurs into a reluctance to embrace any thinking deemed too adventurous. This instinct may have returned in the wake of a historic election defeat centred on a campaign that presented political ambition as an incoherent splurge, and the kind of radicalism that blurred into the obnoxious fringes of the ultra-left. It is still too early to tell, but the result may yet be a leadership clinging to safety, when the moment will sooner or later demand something much more thoroughgoing.

The basics hardly involve a huge leap of imagination: to some extent, they mix what might be salvaged from recent Labour politics with ideas that have long been in circulation way beyond the traditional left. The lives of people at the bottom of most socio-economic hierarchies will soon need to be lastingly improved, perhaps via an initial minimum income guarantee of the kind embraced by the coalition government in Spain. Given that we are unlikely to be able to revive a featherweight labour market based around retail and services, the time ought to be ripe for the economy to be pushed at last towards a green new deal, and the revival of manufacturing.

The dysfunctional centralisation of power in England, a blind spot for both the left and right, needs to be reversed; austerity needs to be conclusively nailed as the dogma of self-harm it always is; and we need to deal, at last, with the deep structural racism towards the people most severely affected by the virus. As crucial as all those issues focused on hospitals and care homes remain, the fundamentals of public health are always about much more: the way that institutions often reflect deep-seated prejudice, and basic matters of what some people call political economy.

There is rising noise about many of these things. In the last week or so, I have read promising thinking about the politics of the crisis from Medact, which gives a voice to health professionals focused on deep social and economic questions; and from Every Doctor, a campaign focused on the needs of the NHS. The Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank is doing strong work about how bailouts for companies should necessitate action on their social responsibilities, and thereby trying to open a conversation about a more moral economy. Green New Deal UK is now pouring its energy into a campaign titled Build Back Better, aimed at a new political settlement that “prioritises people, invests in our NHS and creates a robust, shockproof economy that is capable of tackling the climate crisis”. From 25 May, players including the left pressure group Compass and the New Economics Foundation will launch a new initiative aimed at maintaining the pluralism and spontaneity of all this activity, but somehow channelling its energy into a clear policy platform.

Of course, there is still a yawning gap between these efforts and the places where this crisis is most vividly playing out. But in an age in which new political developments can ignite at speed, they ought to give us at least qualified hope. The ideal, perhaps, would be for a new agenda to acquire such momentum that it has to be taken seriously, even by the most cautious politicians, as a question that hangs over us finally demands an answer: if any return to the “normal” that has so horrifically failed us is unthinkable, where does the future begin?

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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