Life has changed beyond recognition. We keep being told that soon we will enter a ‘new normal’, but what that means is never really discussed. Having lived through this extremely rapid period of lifestyle change we need to talk about what the new normal could and should be. But already, there are attempts to stop the debate – those expressing ideas about treating essential workers better are accused of politicising the argument, or told that now is not the time.
But history tells us that this is exactly the right time – because it is periods of disaster, unrest and unprecedented collective experiences that often lead to the biggest social change. The two clearest examples of this in our history are the world wars. In 1918, after the loss of 700,000 men, and with women having taken over the workforce completely in the preceding years, changes were inevitable. Society was changed forever as some women and working class men were finally given the vote.
Education, health and housing became part of the political agenda for the first time. The Education Act 1918 changing the compulsory school leaving age to 14 and introduced school meals and health checks. Shortly afterwards, legislation in 1919 established a Ministry for Health, and the Housing and Town Planning Act provided subsidies for local authorities to build housing. It is undeniable that these developments all changed life in Britain for the better. Many of them would have been unlikely without the war.
In 1945, the Clement Attlee government picked up the ashes left from world war II and built the welfare state, the NHS and 6.5 million council homes. Now whilst I would not want to compare our present situation with a world war, it does have a commonality in that every person in the country has been impacted in some way or another. Whilst the impact is not consistent across the population, there is some level of shared experience – it’s best summed up by the phrase ‘we may not all be in the same boat, but we are in the same storm’.
The three years preceding this crisis, since the EU referendum, were the most divisive I have known – and only a few months ago it was hard to imagine how the nation would ever get over the discord and division that existed. Now I really believe that there is an appetite for more compassion and cohesion. We must fight for this to be realised. So now is the time for us to argue for the kind of society we want – because if we don’t, others will step in.
The example of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina must serve as a lesson to us all. In 2005 the deadly storm killed 1,200 and caused $125bn in damage. In the days that followed, hordes of private military contractors descended on the flooded city to find ways to profit from the disaster. Naomi Kline coined the phrase ‘shock doctrine’ to describe the brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock to push through radical pro-corporate measures.
We must not let that happen here when the lockdown ends. The idea that now is not the time to discuss the future is naive and dangerous. We must dispel the argument that we cannot afford compassionate and radical policies. It is simply not true. In 1945, amid a backdrop of bankruptcy, the Labour Party made and won the argument under the slogan of “Now Let’s Win The Peace” that a better world was possible, and that now was the time to get it.
What’s more, this was done with the Conservative Party having the most popular leader in history. Lots has been written about the ill effects of the lockdown – and I would not want to pretend that there are not many of them. But, as with the wars, there have been some unplanned benefits, which we should not discard without a thought when this is over. For example, workers, like care workers, bus drivers and hospital porters – so long in the shadows – are being talked about as heroes. Now is the time for us to argue for the pay and conditions that they deserve.
The school curriculum, so long seen as sacred, has been completely abandoned. Things like SATs, so long the focus of our education system, are now cancelled. Now is the time for us to argue that there should be more to school than testing. For some children – and I appreciate only some – this has been a joyous time where they have built forts in the garden, planted vegetables and drawn chalk drawings on the pavements. Things reminiscent of the childhoods their great grandparents described. Now is the time for us to investigate whether there have been mental health benefits of this.
Where people once decreed that ‘no one knows their neighbours’, people now look forward to joining their neighbours on the doorstep every Thursday and rely on them for help and support with shopping and all sorts of other things. I personally now know everyone in my part of the street and speak to them everyday through Whatsapp. Following our socially distanced VE Day celebration, we are all talking about a big post lockdown party – and our experience is replicated in streets across the country. Now is the time for us to argue the case for funding for community support projects and to ensure community is a force for good.
More people are walking and cycling than ever before. In Dartford, where I live, traffic jams and commuting problems were once the main sources of difficulty, complaint and conversation. But they have now all but disappeared. Of course the reasons for this are scary and awful – as people are not working – but it has meant that we have experienced a way of living we never thought possible. Now we must go out and argue for safer streets and roads for pedestrians and cyclists, as opposed to them just being an afterthought after cars.
And having previously been told that flexible and home working were impossible by their employers, many people across the country are now doing exactly that. This has potentially great benefits for family life, and we must make the argument for that to continue.
The Labour Party must be at the forefront of putting forward the arguments for a better way of life for the people of this country. We must ensure that we win these arguments and show people that a better way of life is possible after all.