The outbreak of coronavirus is the most serious crisis that this country has faced in many of our lifetimes. Over 1,000 people across the UK have died having contracted the virus so far, and more deaths are expected in the coming weeks. Stories of young and otherwise fit and healthy people losing their lives in particular will have shocked us all deeply, but every death is a tragedy and will leave loved ones grieving.
Alongside the public health crisis, we are seeing a social and economic crisis unfold. Millions who are sick, self-isolating or who have seen work dry-up now face immediate hardship and uncertainty over their jobs, homes and incomes. With the country under partial lockdown, we don’t know how long this will last, when we will return to normal or even what a new ‘normal’ may look like – and we don’t yet know the toll that the lockdown will take, particularly for those in cramped conditions and vulnerable circumstances.
For many of us, having to deal with this situation without loved ones or friends around us makes it all the more difficult. It underlines what is really important in life. In other ways, too, the crisis is highlighting just how inter-connected we all are and the true value of solidarity and collective action.
We saw this on Thursday night, when the country came together to applaud our NHS workers, carers and those who are putting their lives at risk to get us through this. We’ve seen it with more than 700,000 people having signed up to volunteer as part of a national effort in less than a week. And we see it in community groups spontaneously taking root across the country. I’m immensely proud of the Spirit of Salford initiative in my own local community, bringing together hundreds of volunteers to make deliveries, act as emergency responders and support local food banks.
In such a time of crisis, it would be easy to think that politics becomes irrelevant. But if anything, it’s become more important than ever to stand up for our values of solidarity and collectivism. It is unacceptable that NHS workers are still being forced to put their lives at risk because they don’t have proper personal protective equipment or that millions will have to get by on statutory sick pay or the standard Universal Credit payment of just £94 a week – a sum even government ministers accept they could not survive on.
We also need to be clear that the emergency steps the government is now having to take expose the realities of a deeply unequal economy that leaves too many behind: a “flexible” labour market that means millions are just one pay cheque from disaster; a punitive social security system that pays too little, too late; the insecurity faced by millions of tenants fearful of being evicted at the drop of a hat; the strain on our NHS, local councils and care services after a decade of austerity that has left them struggling to cope even in normal times.
Throughout the Labour leadership election, I’ve said that we must not fall into the trap of abandoning our values or socialist agenda, and that we must not resort to defending the status quo. Over the past two and a half weeks, it has become increasingly clear that the question being posed by the whole country will be how we remake it. In the final few days of the campaign, my message to Labour members is that our answer must be rooted in our values of equality, solidarity and collectivism.
Now more than ever is the time for big ideas, and to be confident in our conviction that a more equal society is a stronger and more resilient one. Public ownership, public investment, trade union and employment rights, a mass programme of council house building, a national care service, a Universal Basic Income and a national education service – just as it is collective institutions that will see us through the crisis, these policies must be the building blocks of a society that guarantees everyone security and a right to realise their aspirations in the future.
When we do emerge from the current crisis, we will also need a major national effort to rebuild and recover from a deep recession. Again, we need to be ready with the answer and have the confidence of our convictions. Our plan for a Green Industrial Revolution should be at the heart of a national mission to build a more equal economy by delivering good unionised jobs, bringing wealth and industry to areas that have seen decades of de-industrialisation, and making us a world leader in green technologies.
We should also channel our values of equality, solidarity and collectivism and the spirit we are seeing in communities across the country in two other ways. Firstly, we should promise a democratic revolution, ending the gentlemen’s club of Westminster that has failed us, by replacing the House of Lords with an elected Senate outside of London and devolving power and resources to a local and regional level.
And secondly, we should open up our party and empower our members with open selections, a programme of political education and by organising in workplaces and communities to build a mass movement that can become part of the social fabric once again. Mutual aid groups, volunteers and new forms of solidarity all across the country show just what is possible when we come together, and as Labour leader I would embrace this.
These are all things I have been arguing for in the Labour leadership election, and I believe they can be our path back to power. In a time of crisis that has exposed deep inequalities in our society and economy, but also revealed a spirit of solidarity and collectivism, we need to grasp the scale of the moment.
At times like this, we think of the things that are important to us. I always find inspiration from the strong community I’m proud to be part of in Salford, where the coat of arms reads ‘the welfare of the people is the highest law.’ If this had been the guiding principle of the past decade, millions of people would not now be facing the hardship they do. The spirit of solidarity and collectivism will get us through this. If I’m elected as leader of the Labour Party, it will be my mission to channel this determination to build a more equal, more resilient country for the future.