As we emerge out of this pandemic and look towards economic recovery, it is clear that we cannot go back to business as usual. After the global financial crash in 2008, our economy was adept at creating a lot of jobs with unemployment at historic lows as the pandemic hit. However, these top line figures papered over what were fundamental cracks in our economy. Many of those new jobs were poorly paid and insecure. To build a stronger economy, the question we have to tackle is not just how we create jobs, but how we ensure good work for all.
The Conservatives have presided over record levels of in-work poverty. One in every eight workers is living below the poverty line, an increase of two million people since 2010, while three quarters of children living in poverty are in a working household. That level of need amongst working people is simply incompatible with a productive economy. The reality is the Conservatives have broken the link between work and prosperity.
Even when faced with indisputable facts, the government keeps returning to a false refrain – that people can work their way out of poverty. If that were the case, two million people workers wouldn’t be receiving Universal Credit to top up low wages. The question for every Conservative minister must be: how have you presided over record employment levels and rising levels of poverty? An economic recovery led by the kind of low-wage, insecure work that we have seen boom in the last decade cannot be the legacy of this pandemic.
Labour doesn’t accept the Conservative assumption that most people don’t want to work and need to be forced into it. People want to work, and the Labour Party will ensure work always pays. That doesn’t mean pushing people into poor-paying jobs that need a top up from the state. It means providing a genuine safety net with a route to prosperity through secure, well-paid jobs. And if we are to end in-work poverty, there must be a better link between wages and social security.
Universal Credit has failed on its own terms, trapping people in debt and low wages. Rather than incentivising people to work, it is sanctioning them into destitution. Rather than supporting people to take more hours, it doesn’t recognise the financial benefit working more hours should bring. Universal Credit as it stands is simply incompatible with making work pay.
Of course, we must create better paid jobs, but we also need to ensure the millions of people claiming social security can keep more of what they earn. At present, those on Universal Credit effectively have a higher rate of tax, losing 63p out of every £1 earned, than someone earning £150,000 a year. That’s why we will look at the taper rate and second earner allowance to ensure people keep more of the money that they’ve earned.
The number of people searching for work on Universal Credit is at its highest level since the start of the pandemic, more than double pre-crisis levels. Supporting millions of people into good work is an immediate crisis facing our economy. Politicians are great at talking about jobs of the future, but we must have a plan for how every job can be a good job now. It cannot just be industries that are seen as fashionable that get the attention. All jobs must have wages people can live on, hours people can rely on and a way to progress in your career.
We will not achieve an economy driven by good work without working hand-in-hand with both trade unions and good businesses. The unions have been instrumental in tackling insecure work and exploitation in the courts, with a series of landmark legal cases particularly in the gig economy. Our job in parliament must be to match this work with our political ambition. At the same time, we must recognise those businesses that do the right things: that means rewarding businesses that do pay a living wage and recognise independent representation for their workforce.
Throughout the pandemic, there has been a worrying drop in the number of self-employed workers as many were left excluded by government schemes. Labour will be the party that champions self-employment and we will be looking at ways to ensure self-employed workers retain autonomy whilst guaranteeing access to a proper safety net. As businesses reopen and hope begins to return, we cannot forget the scale of the challenge facing our economy. Labour is ready for the challenge ahead, building an economy where work genuinely pays for all.