I represent Alyn and Deeside in the Senedd – for those who aren’t up to speed on devolution, that’s the body that was called the Welsh Assembly until recently. My constituency last year became the only seat in north Wales to elect a Labour MP. It is largely a manufacturing community that has living memory of what unmanaged economic change can do to an area. My town is Connah’s Quay and its moto is ‘success through industry’.
Coronavirus has affected us all, but I am deeply concerned about the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis on communities like mine. I am determined, however, that people will not have to rethink their dreams and abandon their hopes because we didn’t adequately plan our way forward.
We cannot repeat the costly mistakes of the past. 40 years ago, we saw large scale de-industrialisation and the government chose to pursue an economic policy that transferred much of the country’s wealth to the south east of England. My constituency lost 6,500 jobs – the biggest mass redundancy in a single day in western Europe. The wounds inflicted by these policy decisions have never really healed.
12 years ago, we experienced a financial crash. While there was an initial attempt to stimulate growth and protect communities, since 2010 the main policy solutions have been to cut budgets and print money to pump into large financial institutions. Even by the limited criteria for success at the time, this solution has failed many in my community. It has rewarded those who already had significant capital assets, mainly living in already prosperous parts of the UK, and created larger problems of inequality, increasing numbers in poverty, whilst doing nothing about the precarious nature of many people’s lives.
Despite the Welsh government using its economic levers aggressively to promote growth in Wales, the overall UK picture is a difficult one. Working people have seen stagnating wages for ten years. In-work poverty is rising, and the sad fact is that working is no longer a guarantee of being able to afford enough food to eat.
Against this backdrop, it was always going to be hard to cope with the consequences of a pandemic-induced downturn. But we have had ample warning of the two other major economic challenges that face us: climate change and the rapid roll-out of artificial intelligence and robotics. Jobs will be lost as a result of the coronavirus and due to the rapid growth of automation, while climate change endangers far more than employment.
The task for those of us who want to meet these challenges by tackling poverty and increasing opportunity is to bring about change that communities feel they have “control” over. We will never be successful if we don’t recognise why “take back control” was such a powerful message. The problems we face require bold solutions that directly address the issues faced by communities.
How do we put money in people’s pockets and avoid the catastrophic consequences of poverty in a nation whose economy is changing rapidly? How do we grow an economy for us all, when jobs would have disappeared without the coronavirus crisis and simultaneously give people more control of their own lives? How do we learn the lessons the last few months have taught us?
I want these three policies to be a part of the solution:
- Trialling a universal basic income;
- A green new deal trusting communities to build infrastructure and create support growth by handing them significant budgets to do this;
- A Welsh government push towards a four-day week with no loss of income or rights.
A universal basic income (UBI) not only guarantees that people can live rather than exist. It helps to address broader problems – precarious housing or indeed homeless, a growing mental health pandemic, huge increases in poverty, food poverty and growing levels of unsecured debt. These are issues that will be amplified by the coming global downturn.
UBI is not just about tackling poverty and its related ills – it is about creating opportunity. It is not a ceiling but a firm base from which to achieve our ambitions. If Wales is to compete, we cannot afford for the challenges of a global downturn, climate change and automation to significantly further suppress social mobility. The UK is already a country that gifts opportunities to the children of elites. Instead of allowing this to worsen, let’s introduce a base level income that gives everyone the chance to fulfil their ambitions.
It is important to be realistic when making such policy proposals. A UBI could not be afforded by the Welsh government: the Barnett formula simply does not allow for such large financial investments to be made from Cardiff Bay. Only the UK government has the fiscal strength to introduce a Universal Basic Income. However, the coronavirus job retention scheme shows a willingness from the UK government to intervene in a major way economically.
I am proposing that we trial a UBI in Wales and we do so in a community like mine that could have the most to lose from the challenges we face. I know many in Welsh civic society are attracted to the idea of trailing it in Cardiff, but I am yet to understand why. This Cardiff-centric approach could have the problem of angering much of the rest of the nation, who would see an attempt to protect the most economically secure part of Wales. It may be held up as further proof that devolution stops at the M4. Far better for those already campaigning to join me in trying to bring together a far more geographically and socially diverse campaign.
Before Covid-19, much had already been said about the benefits of a green new deal aiming to address both climate change and economic inequality. I am a big supporter of the concept, though I have concerns about how we bring communities with us. While nearly all of us accept the existence and severe consequences of human made climate change, people are not necessarily on board with the rapid pace of change that is needed. That is why I want green infrastructure decisions like transport and renewables to be taken by the communities they affect. This calls for regional budgets. The alternative is to once again allow the opponents of progress to wield the argument that decisions are not made by those who bear the consequences. We have already seen the benefits of transferring to communities and have a north Wales minister in the cabinet – let’s make that role meaningful.
Alyn and Deeside is no closer to Cardiff than it is to London, and that reality must be reflected. As we build the new greener infrastructure to serve our community, budgets must be given to them to shape what this looks like.
One argument that this crisis has put to bed is that employees can’t be trusted to shape their own work-life balance. People have coped well with very different working arrangements and the stresses of having their lives turned upside down. Delivering for their employer in an unusual environment with significantly increased care responsibilities and limited resources has become the norm for many.
A four-day working week recognises this reality and brings benefits for the individual, our communities and the economy. The economic advantages are obvious in an economy that has such a large service sector: freeing people up to pursue their own interests could be of huge benefit to tourism, events, hospitality and the creative sector to name a few. There are also significant costs savings to employers, as well as the environmental benefits of less travel.
A basic income gives people more control over their lives, with the accompanying positive effects on mental health, which would help to address the pandemic of poor mental health that already exists. If we fail to act, our increasingly poor work-life balance and precarious employment will cost our communities and the economy dearly.
There is an additional benefit. A four-day week gives us time to work for our community, and one of the positives to emerge from the coronavirus crisis has been the way people have supported each other. Across Wales, we have seen mutual aid groups develop, helping people not just with shopping but also loneliness. A four-day week would give us the breathing space to continue and expand this work with much more robust and perhaps formal structures. If we are serious about building kinder communities, I am conscious that people need the time and space to play their part. In an ever-changing economy, we also need to give people the time and opportunity to retrain and up-skill.
Alyn and Deeside is a better place than most to embrace the changes I have suggested, few localities have a workforce so well trained with the skills to deliver a green new deal. Get it right and we can build much of the infrastructure needed, but this must be managed in a way that protects people. Coupling a green new deal with a UBI gives us the space to do this and to manage the impact on people’s lives.
As we build this new infrastructure in Alyn and Deeside, we should be shaping how it is deployed, literally on our streets. Regional budgets controlled by communities will strengthen support for change in a way that London- and Cardiff-based control never could. Along with a four-day week, these proposals could have a positive impact on government budgets as well, by addressing problems that if allowed to go unchecked will be hugely expensive to deal with.
Whilst I hope Welsh Labour will lead the way in pushing for innovative policy solutions for our post-pandemic world in the lead up to next year’s Senedd elections, the party in Wales cannot achieve these changes alone. Collaboration within and between parties right across the UK will be required to ensure stimulus money is delivered to the devolved administrations.
Labour has met the challenges of unprecedented crisis before. Following the war, we embarked on a bold programme to deal with problems that seemed too great to overcome. Imagine the mess we would be in now if we had thought those reforms were unaffordable and had resisted change. A basic income, green new deal and four-day week are not ideas of my invention and there is already growing support for them, but it is my intention to help lead the campaign to make them a reality. Together, we can deliver a fairer, greener future for all.