The coronavirus has done two things: it has amplified existing social crises and has proven that government can act decisively when the will is there. Millions are just one package away from misery; self-employed workers and workers in the concert economy lack security and basic rights; private tenants are at the mercy of their owners; our welfare state is woefully inadequate; and many designated “key workers” are desperately undervalued and poorly paid. Who, in good faith, can now blind these sinister truths?
A party that has scorned the idea of a magic money tree may discover an entire forest, in the form of a multi-billion pound stimulus, 350 billion pound aid and write the paychecks of millions of workers. A government that has overseen the rise in homelessness can suddenly order the abolition of brutal sleep by decree. Years spent reducing the welfare state give way to a unilateral increase in universal credit, albeit from a paltry sum to a paltry sum; and decades of worship on the altar of the market come to an abrupt end as the rail franchise is suspended – halfway through public ownership – while the fragmentation of the NHS is reversed and there is even talk of partial nationalization airlines.
The conservatives have not turned into corbynites: these are drastic temporary measures to preserve capitalism, and state control should not be automatically confused with socialism, which is a project for the democratization of the economy and the society. The question is: what comes next? Post-coronavirus Britain will experience a massive financial deficit. The Conservatives then have two choices. They could dismiss the need to balance the books with drastic cuts to public services, and thus reveal that post-2010 austerity was a political choice, not a necessity. The other is to resume the decimation of public space by George Osborne: but, this time, they will be faced with profound challenges. Consent, or at least acquiescence, for Osbornomics was based on claims that the irresponsible spending of Labor was the cause of Britain’s economic ills, fused with a narrative that the precious money of hard-earned taxpayers was wasted on the poor who did not deserve it. And the “shirker”.
But the voters who gave Johnson a majority in 2019 in the so-called red wall areas – by voting Tory or staying at home – are often socially conservative, but committed to economic interventionism. The Conservatives therefore have no electoral mandate for a new wave of austerity. Now, even with middle class people sucked into the welfare state, is a renewed assault on social security really politically acceptable?
An overhaul of British society is by no means inevitable. The job has just suffered a catastrophic beating, and an election is a distant prospect. Boris Johnson can drag Margaret Thatcher to her grave saying “there is such a thing as society,” but we have been fed a diet of creeping dog-eat-dog individualism for more than a generation. This is why a strategy of “blaming the public” has had some success: focusing the examination on individuals who do not respect social distancing rather than the sloppy response from the government.
Much of the left mistakenly believed that they would become the obvious beneficiaries of the 2008 financial crash, even if previous crises of capitalism – in the 1930s and 1970s – mainly benefited the right. As the free market economist Milton Friedman put it so well: “Only a crisis – real or perceived – produces real change. But his warning was important: “When this crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas lying around. When Lehman Brothers imploded, the intellectual closet on the left was naked.
It is not a macabre opportunism to debate what society looks like after the most serious crisis since the war: it is a secondary necessity only to overcome the pandemic itself. It is a social and economic crisis, so who will pay is a question that must inevitably be asked and answered. The left is beaten, bruised, demoralized, but its voice must be heard in this national conversation. As the Labor Left is expelled from the leadership, democracy The mandate of the inevitable winner Keir Starmer – who proclaimed the 2017 manifesto as the party’s “founding document” – is rooted in policies defended by the left in its savage years. There is a thriving ecosystem of leftist think tanks – like the Institute for Research on Public Policy – and leftist economists and intellectuals.
Johnson and Dominic Cummings are clever operators, having shown that they were willing and able to loot both rhetoric and stuff from the left. Beveridge was right: these moments are times of revolution, not patchwork, and an imminent danger is that the new populist right may understand this better than Labor or the American Democrats. It took the horror of a pandemic to reveal deliberately ignored social ills. What comes next must heal them for good.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist