Major social upheavals like the Covid-19 pandemic can lead to fundamental and long-lasting changes in society. But will we find the right methods to us the experiences of this crisis to transform our societies for the better?
Covid 19 is a challenge to which we are all seeking to respond. Some major social upheavals lead to fundamental and progressive shifts, think for example of the way the AIDS crisis accelerated the fight for LGBT rights; while others, most obviously the global financial meltdown of 2008, fail to precipitate major reform despite causing immense hardship. Indeed, the widespread assumption on the left that the financial crisis would lead to a reaction against inequality and global finance was not only disappointed but confounded as the political momentum was, in many countries, seized by nationalist populism.
Of the conditions that turn an immediate crisis into long term change, three stand out, all of which need to be in place:
- Latent potential, an underlying desire and logic for things to be different;
- Precipitating factors, events that create momentum for change;
- and Workable mechanisms, concrete ways of embedding change in social structures
Where might be the spaces in society and policy areas where these conditions could apply?
Let’s start with inequality and insecurity. Overall, there has for some time been a strong public feeling that inequality is excessive. Even politicians on the right have accepted the problem of real and perceived unfairness. The pandemic doubly amplifies the inequality story. On the one hand, it reminds us of our common humanity and vulnerability, on the other, it brings into sharper relief how much more vulnerable are some citizens whether it’s casual workers, children in poorer families, isolated older people or even prisoners.
The pandemic doubly amplifies the inequality story. On the one hand, it reminds us of our common humanity and vulnerability, on the other, it brings into sharper relief how much more vulnerable some citizens are.
The first two change conditions apply but the hardest and most contested is the third. The right and left might agree that inequality is problem, but they have very different ways of responding. Which is why the time for exploring Universal Basic Income may have come. Remember that UBI (or its close relation ‘negative income tax’) has historically had as many supporters on the right (including Milton Freidman) as the left. It is also worth noting that in the UK, we already effectively have a minimum income guarantee and that, even before the crisis, the Government had started to scale down punitive conditionality in the benefit system as Universal Credit shifted attention from getting people into work and towards supporting progression.
There are many disagreements between advocates of UBI, both in relation to advocacy and implementation. To turn the dial we need to make the right case. First, UBI should start off very modestly. Not the fantasy that everyone can have a comfortable life without working, but the practical argument that all but the richest could have a base-line which offers them greater security, strengthens work incentives and gives people some scope to enhance their human capital through retraining or, perhaps, trying to set up their own a business. Opponents of UBI may argue that on its own it does little to address inequality, but this depends partly on how it is funded (wealth taxes being the obvious source) and also fails to appreciate that felt inequality is not just about money but also about dignity and security, both of which would be significantly enhanced if every citizen had the means to basic subsistence as a right.
If the crisis does reinforce a latent commitment to the principle of good work, what are the means to embed change?
A second, related, opportunity for change concerns working lives. Ever since I published my report of modern employment for Prime Minister Theresa May in July 2017, I have been struck by how almost everyone signs up to the goal I laid out on the first page of the report; namely; that every job should be ‘fair and decent with scope for development and fulfilment’. The current crisis has led us to recognise the vital importance of jobs which might previously have been seen as low status as well as low paid; from social carers, to supermarket workers to delivery drivers. We have also seen the wide variation in how employers have responded to the crisis, from those who have engaged staff and gone out of their way to be fair to those who have acted unilaterally and ruthlessly. And we have been made aware of the profound insecurity of those who are on low-incomes and self-employed or in casual work.
If the crisis does reinforce a latent commitment to the principle of good work, what are the means to embed change? First, the Government could recommit to the objectives of my Good Work plan. It could get behind and strengthen legislative changes to be implemented in April which make it much easier for employees to demand independent representation and rights to information and consultation at work. Worker engagement is the critical factor in determining not only whether employers behave fairly but also whether organisations adapt and survive.
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Boris Johnson’s ministers could also be bold in their forthcoming Employment Bill in areas like employment status and enhancing the protections for casual workers. They could commit to adequate funding and enhanced powers for the proposed Single Enforcement Body. They could take forward the idea of a universal employability framework to boost transferability of skills and promote the ideal that every job should be a learning job.
Although it has now put in place a largely sensible package, the UK Government found it hard to respond to the plight of casual workers and the self-employed. I am told the Chancellor of Exchequer was surprised and concerned by the scale of this problem and how the growth of non-standard work has embedded insecurity. Perhaps the door may be open to an idea which was too bold to be more than hinted at in my 2017 plan. For almost entirely historical reasons, we continue to tax labour very differently depending on whether it is provided by employees or the self-employed.
There is the willingness of both individuals and communities to do the right thing in supporting the system.
Conversely, the self-employed lack the entitlements that come with conventional employment. This creates incentives for bogus self-employment and a loss of tax revenues. The simple solution is to move towards all labour being taxed at the same level, with the additional revenue raised being used to provide the self-employed with sickness insurance as well as incentives to train or save for retirement. Particularly with new forms of work in mind, it is time to repair and widen our welfare safety net.
A third area for reform may be health and social care. Public support for the NHS is unwavering and there is a widespread recognition that the crisis in social care is a scandal not only in itself but as a driver of pressures on the health service. Beyond this, experts, professionals and concerned citizens recognise the need and scope for a deeper rethink of our systems reflecting the importance of public behaviour and expectations, on the one hand, and technological innovation on the other.
The Covid 19 crisis has amplified all these sentiments but also provoked other responses. There is the willingness of both individuals and communities to do the right thing in supporting the system whether that’s self- isolation, coming out of retirement to work in the NHS or establishing community support networks for vulnerable local people.
What is to be done to turn this energy into lasting change? First, vivid evidence of the frailty of our social care system should, at long last, provide the impetus for a fair and sustainable funding solution, an issue which has been dodged by successive Governments for over two decades. Second, could the crisis enable a more profound rethink of public services, not as goods to be ‘delivered’ but as relationships to be nurtured; a model that puts the empowerment of individuals and the building of community capacity at the forefront of service design and delivery? Third, given the surprise expressed by many people who have tried to support the NHS about its fragmented structure of decision making, can we be more ambitious in developing and enacting system-wide solutions that exploit the transformative potential of big data and technology? In each of these areas the problem has up to now not been a lack of solutions and potential but the absence of political will and public consent.
There are many other changes that could be hastened by the crisis; from greater home working to confronting the terrible state of our prisons. But those hoping for progressive outcomes from the crisis are aware these are only possibilities. Learning again from what failed to happen after 2008 reformers should develop new and broad alliances , co-design practical solutions and realistic, even if incremental, models of implementation , and aim to go with - not against or too far beyond - the tide of public sentiment.
This time let’s not let the crisis go to waste.
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