How should civil society respond to Covid-19?

Can solidarity be used to guide the post-crisis recovery so that the economy works better for all of us together?

Alex Jacobs
2 April 2020, 12.11pm
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

The UK is tackling the coronavirus crisis with a dramatic upsurge in solidarity. Our Conservative Prime Minister tells us “we will beat it together” and “there is such a thing as society”. Can that solidarity be used to guide the recovery so that, after the crisis, the economy works better for all of us together?

The Conservative party has thrown their economic orthodoxies out of the window. Now we are at a crossroads. The government could take us back to the way things were before, or turn the economy in a more responsible and sustainable direction.

It only took a few months after the 2008 crash for the idea of austerity to take hold. Then it guided a decade of government policy. Today, we’re in a similar, rare, short time of flux.

Many people are working on these critical questions. Here is a contribution to the debate: a comment on the political earthquake and three implications for civil society.

Political earthquake.

Covid-19 has transformed UK politics.

At the government level, Conservative ideas have been shaken to the core. Central spending has gone off the charts, with vast sums shattering the myths of fiscal rules. The crisis has proved that only government can organise a national response to critical social issues, not the free market. The conceptual basis of austerity and the free market have come apart like tissue paper.

As Matthew Parris put it “the lamps are going out right across Tory philosophy”. The Overton Window has been flung wide open. Policy ideas that were impossible yesterday are possible today.

At a personal level, almost all citizens have willingly sacrificed private freedoms for public good. The crisis has brought neighbours and communities together to care for each other. It has tapped a deep narrative of solidarity in the face of adversity. The symbolism of people across Britain clapping for NHS staff is a powerful expression of national unity, in direct contrast to the divisions of the Brexit debate.

Many vulnerable people are not getting the help they need. And many more families will be struck by grief.

But core values have come back to the surface: putting people’s human needs first, community and caring for neighbours. Stevenage football club is far from alone in turning its talents to delivering sandwiches and food bank drops.

Individually and collectively, we have shown that we are more than a society of profit-maximisers. There’s a heightened sense of justice, of what’s right and what matters. This is an extraordinary groundswell to build on, countering the values of: putting profits first, individual gain and division.

As the next phase of the crisis takes shape, that could provide the basis for a new, equitable social contract. We will have to decide where the tax bills should fall and how to provide public services for all and opportunities for the next generation. Business’s social license to operate should be re-examined and climate justice come centre stage. As a whole, the package could decisively upgrade how we manage capitalism.

How this plays out internationally is still to be seen. But our domestic decisions will have a huge influence on the role Britain plays in the world.

Civil society’s response.

Here are three implications of the earthquake for civil society.

First, the space has radically shrunk to advocate for policy changes. The crisis and its aftermath will dominate government and media attention for months and years. It’s unclear how Brexit negotiations will go ahead. The government will be under pressure to get businesses working again quickly, rather than introduce new regulations. Campaigners and funders may have to consider re-prioritising some reform efforts.

Second, civil society will need to watch the government’s response. The crisis will create winners and losers. While digital companies may emerge stronger than ever, many people will be excluded. Government bail outs may create risks or be misdirected, like the US “$170bn tax break for real estate tycoons”. All of this will need independent scrutiny for the public good.

Third, there is an extraordinary opportunity to help build the new political narrative, after the earthquake. This narrative about how we recover and rebuild will be enormously influential in government and beyond. Civil society could do all it can to set us on a course for the decade ahead that springboards from the current solidarity to a new approach that is fair, responsible and sustainable. It’s the biggest campaigning prize of all.

Here are three more suggestions about how that could be achieved.

a) The new narrative will be defined and implemented by the leaders of the Tory government, with its 80 seat majority. The ideas that stick will be those that are presented in ways that appeal to Conservative values and their political influences, such as business. The government has already shown that it can adopt radical ideas. They just need to be presented as common sense, pragmatic approaches – and with an awareness of the government’s political realities. The centre right, inside and outside parliament, will play a pivotal role in helping to sideline the extremists.

b) We need a collective effort. Civil society will achieve vastly more if we can come together around some foundational ideas. We need leaders to step up and everyone to be prepared to follow and make compromises for the common effort. Funders need to play their part. Maybe this is already happening. It would enable complementary insider & outsider strategies. It would also mirror the way that neoliberal activists have been so effective.

c) Different fields could act now to identify and promote the top breakthrough policies that broadly align with the overall narrative. Each set of policies could help build and shape the bigger picture. Like bricks in an archway, they could be refined to be mutually reinforcing. They should be truly ambitious, to make the most of this exceptional time.

For instance, the Tax Justice Network has outlined what’s possible from a tax perspective. The shift to stakeholder capitalism could be accelerated and deepened. Enforcement agencies could be properly resourced and loopholes closed, so that rules are applied equally to all. Investment and business could be decisively aligned with the Paris Agreement.

Maybe it’s pie in the sky, but could groups from all walks of life come together into the broadest coalition possible to influence the government now and change the direction of capitalism for good?

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