Pippa Fowles /No 10

Only Scrutiny Will Keep This Government on the Right Path

by James Meadway

@meadwaj
21 March 2020
  • Estimated read time: 3 mins

After weeks of inexcusable delay and half-measures – and when the crisis passes, there should be an immediate, independent public inquiry – the British government is finally starting to give some sense it understands the gravity of the situation we are now in.

Unfortunately, it will not yet be enough: the government is still running to catch up with the brutal, biological reality of a pandemic with an infectious and socially destructive virus at its centre. Exponential growth is an unpleasant thing to be on the wrong side of and, as country, we are well and truly behind the curve, the pace of mortality here now even higher than in Italy. More will still need to be done to protect public health and put the economy securely into hibernation mode.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement of a comprehensive package of support for those in paid employment is to be welcomed, and the promise to cover 80% of wages for the next three months is of the scale that is needed – and was needed at least a month ago.

The labour movement should be congratulated for putting the case forcefully and effectively for protections on this scale: be in no doubt, this government would not have moved like this without that additional pressure. It is, as the press report in awed tones this morning, perhaps the largest peacetime economic intervention ever undertaken by a British government. It shows the scale of what can be done, once the stupidities of market-worship and laissez faire are abandoned; it should act as a measure for what can be done in the future.

But it is not and will not be enough.

The measures do little for those outside of conventional employment: the self-employed are left to fend on sick pay, now revised to the inadequate levels of statutory sick pay at £94.25. There are now more than 5m self-employed in Britain: what they have been offered is inadequate. And whilst those paying mortgages have been offered a three-month payment holiday, if needed, those paying rent are left with a complex and entirely inadequate set of benefits to rely on, now (oh so generously) including housing benefit revised to 30% of market rent levels. The ban on evictions for three months merely kicks an eventual eviction down the road.

Without addressing the need to ensure that everyone can effectively socially distance themselves, we will not be on top of this crisis, or even close. Support for businesses, announced earlier in the week, is centred on the provision of loans: hardly ideal for companies facing serious cashflow difficulties.

Given the accelerating pace of the crisis, including the first report of what we must now fear will be many overloaded intensive care units, the economic measures announced last night will not be the last. It is essential that all necessary pressure is kept up on this government; the public outcry has shifted them, in the course of a week, from a criminally negligent position to one where even Boris Johnson himself – not so much the Übermensch as the Last Man, blinking in the TV spotlights – has had to shift from his customary lethargy.

To describe Johnson as failing to rise to the occasion would be to give him too much credit: he has revealed himself to be profoundly incompetent, although in a sense he is merely reflecting the institutional lethargy and incompetence of the British body politic, from a national political leadership that fails to meet the crisis, to a supine media that has (largely) failed to scrutinise them. If the government are under pressure – and they are, and they should be – it has come from elsewhere. It is the scrutiny of the public, the condemnation of the professionals, the lobbying of unions that has forced them to move, and therefore to save lives over the coming weeks and months.

This is why it is so important to maintain fundamental democratic freedoms over what will be a grim period ahead.

There are emergency powers due to come into force on Monday. There should be no doubt that people will respond to the scale of the emergency once a clear direction is set from government, and if that requires the closure of pubs, theatres, and any other space for communal gathering, then so be it. It’s not nudge unit thinking, which is the reductio ad absurdum of the belief that people can only ever and will only ever behave as atomised individuals – just not especially rational ones – but I don’t doubt that people will understand the situation and behave appropriately, if they are supported to do so: give cash to everyone, freeze rents, freeze bills – with clear, specific communication from government.

But if we want to keep this government – especially this government – on the path they are groping towards, it is essential that this scrutiny and criticism continues.

James Meadway is an economist and Novara Media columnist.

Published 21 March 2020

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