openDemocracyUK: Opinion

We already have what we need to re-imagine the British economy

Ask the British people what a minimum standard of living looks like, and there is a surprising consensus. Yet far too many fall below it.

Duncan Exley
17 April 2020, 3.22pm
Keir Starmer
Wikimedia Commons

We’re going to have to re-imagine the economy” Keir Starmer told the Today programme earlier this week. “We can’t go out clapping our key workers… and then return to business as usual at the end of all of this. Most of those key workers are underpaid and undervalued… we’ve got to have a vision of a better society coming out of this, not only for those who are literally keeping our country running by putting their lives on the line but for the whole country”.

If we are to treat our key workers with the respect they deserve — the respect we all deserve — we don’t just need a vision of a better society, we need a vision of a much better society. But making meaningful change happen is always challenging, especially in our often-hostile political and media environment, so we also need a realistic plan for delivering an ambitious vision. Luckily, three lessons from modern history suggest we already have much of what we need to develop and deliver that vision:

1) A proposition everyone can agree on (or, more accurately, a proposition that any reasonable person would be embarrassed to publicly disagree with).

Take for example the last Labour government’s pledge to end child poverty by 2020. You may have noticed that it is now 2020 and child poverty has not ended, but hundreds of thousands of children were raised out of poverty between 2001 (when the pledge was made) and 2010, when the Child Poverty Act was passed with cross-party support.  The charities and campaigners who lobbied for the pledge deliberately chose ‘child poverty’ rather than just ‘poverty’. Myths about the ‘undeserving poor’ or ‘encouraging dependency’ are effective in manufacturing opposition to poverty-reduction measures in general (myths that have thrived, despite well over a century of countervailing evidence) but almost no-one will publicly say that children deserve to brought up in poverty, and measures to reduce child poverty also benefit adults. 

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There is now an equivalent proposition: that whether we are a company director or a care worker, we all deserve enough income to live a dignified life and a decent place to live. There is a risk that this proposition will lose power as memories fade of the everyday heroism of undervalued workers (given the superhero name “The Indispensables” by working-class campaigners at RECLAIM), but we can guard against that. Campaigners in politics, civil society and the progressive media have a responsibility to constantly expose examples of key workers who, in and after the crisis, are rewarded with poverty pay, humiliating treatment or inadequate housing meted out by employers, the DWP or landlords. We also have a responsibility to constantly link this to the key message that we all deserve a dignified life and a decent home. The political right are very effective at doing this, establishing a united front, all repeating the same idea until it sticks: it’s how they manufactured consent for austerity, by repeating the (nonsense) message that the previous financial crisis was caused by overspending on public services. 

2) A specific, measurable objective

Here’s an example of an ambitious vision, laid out by John F Kennedy: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”. The lack of ambiguity — about what should be achieved and when — meant everyone at NASA understood exactly what was expected, and failure couldn’t be passed off as success.

One of the problems with ‘a dignified life and a decent home for everyone’ is that it is ambiguous: dignity and decency mean different things to different people. We need specific objectives to supplement the slogan. Luckily, some more specific objectives have already been defined. One of these (“enough income to live a dignified life”) is the Minimum Income Standard, calculated by the Centre for Research in Social Policy, which “produces budgets for different household types, based on what members of the public think you need for a minimum acceptable standard of living in the UK”, covering everything from food and accommodation to internet access and cards for relatives’ birthdays. Another (“a decent place to live”) is what Shelter call the ”Living Home Standard”, covering affordability, decent conditions, space, stability and neighbourhood. Both these standards are defined by the British public, via discussion groups, workshops and quantitative surveys: they are the minimum that British people think British people deserve, i.e. a proposition we can agree on.

3) Making a challenge motivating rather than despair-inducing

Despite the Minimum Income Standard and the Living Home Standard being minimums, we are a long way from achieving them. Even before the Corona-crisis hit, nearly three in ten of us — and rising — had household incomes below Minimum Income Standard (29%), and almost half (43%) our homes don’t meet the Living Home Standard. It won’t be easy. But good politicians and campaigners know how to use a challenge to motivate.

To quote Kennedy again, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”. When Kennedy made his speech in 1961, NASA wasn’t able to put someone on the moon. There were steps they could take immediately and others they had to figure out.

Likewise, there are measures already available to us. We can put the so-called National Living Wage on a trajectory towards the Real Living wage and give all landlords a deadline by which they will have to adhere by Living Home Standard (which would force some landlords out of the market but, as I’ve said before “anyone unable to provide safe, secure, healthy, promptly repaired and dependable homes is unfit to be a landlord and should sell up to make more homes available for aspiring owner-occupiers”). 

There are also huge challenges (although they could hardly be described as asking for the moon, and when Kennedy asked for the moon, NASA actually delivered it, five months before deadline). One such challenge is that even the Real Living Wage will never be enough to live on for those times in our lives when we can’t work enough hours (due to, say, parenting responsibilities, or losing work as a result of the changes arising from Brexit, accelerating automation, or a ‘new Corona’ unleashed by the coming antimicrobial resistance crisis). This requires modernising our social security system from its current mode of hostile inadequacy to one that gives us the resilience to recover and retrain, which in turn requires a shift in the narrative about social security. This really is a challenge, but one we currently have an opportunity to conquer, given that large swathes of ‘middle Britain’ are being exposed to — an albeit softened version of — the benefits system (this will be easier if, as suggested above, we expose examples of key workers who, in and after the crisis, are rewarded with the poverty, harassment and humiliation meted out by the DWP). 

The current crisis creates, as Keir Starmer said, both an obligation and an opportunity to re-imagine the economy, but unless he and others can develop and deliver a vision of a better society, then we’ll “return to business as usual at the end of all of this”.

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