We desperately need an alternative to the orthodox economic consensus

© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

As we emerge from the end of the pandemic – to the extent that there will ever be an end to it – we find ourselves in an economic crisis unprecedented in recent history. This crisis is not abstract, and neither is it like the weather: our living standards are declining rapidly with millions likely to be plunged deeper into poverty, and this situation is the product of political choices made by politicians on behalf of the rich and big business over the course of many decades. There is a desperate need for an alternative to the orthodox economic consensus.

On Saturday, I along with around 500 other people attended a conference that aimed to provide that alternative: the Progressive Economy Forum’s first Progressive Economics conference, jointly organised with the University of Greenwich’s Institute of Political Economy, Governance, Finance and Accountability. In my contribution, I spoke about the economy and social care, and drew on my experiences as a social care worker – both before becoming an MP and when I returned part time during the pandemic.

Often when talking about social care, we begin by talking about the high policy and the architecture of the sector – but the experience and conditions of rank and file care workers also needs to be a starting point. That isn’t just because care workers and care receivers would, if empowered to do so, run a much better care service than profit-making companies – it’s because we aren’t going to get anything like the quality and capacity we need in social care until we stop making care workers work in Dickensian conditions.

Superficially, everyone seems to agree that social care is a priority – but the Tories remain addicted to a regime of private providers, low pay and precarity: the average hourly wage in the sector last year stood at £9.01; 71% of all care workers earned less than a living wage; and zero-hours contracts are the norm.

The alternatives to the system we have aren’t half-baked or abstract – they are fully costed. The manifesto that I ran on in 2019 was probably the most radical proposition put to the English electorate on social care: it aimed for the creation of a National Care Service, free at the point of need. Within the first term, we would have injected public money, expanded council capacity for care, and made care free for the elderly. I’d like to think that might give some of the right-wing pundits who talk about what a disaster Jeremy Corbyn would have been in No 10 during the pandemic pause for thought, but I’m unsure if they’re capable of either pausing or thinking.

Even more immediately, the Scottish government is about to make its first legislative move towards introducing a National Care Service in Scotland, and while the detail remains unclear for the moment, the broad shape of it is streets ahead of what is on offer from Westminster. The Scottish government has already pledged to bring pay and conditions for nursing staff in social care up to the same level as NHS nurses, and to introduce national collective bargaining for the first time ever.

I don’t think I’m alone in worrying that Labour is not being vocal or ambitious enough with its policy offering. It was good to hear Ed Miliband speaking at the final plenary of the conference on Saturday reaffirming his commitment to the £28bn annual green investment pledge, and saying clearly that “going big” is the key to electoral success. But more broadly, the Labour leadership has been backing away from the bold visions of the Corbyn years. Our 2019 pledge was a fully costed transformative vision for social care, and in 2021 Labour conference passed a very similar policy, but it’s unclear what the leadership’s stance currently is.

The crisis in social care is a crucial fork in the road for the Labour Party, and which way we go on it will reveal a lot. This is a sector in which a £15 minimum wage – a policy that was also democratically supported at party conference – would make a monumental difference. And in many ways, what we are running up against is an issue of structural sexism: that women’s work – caring work and social reproduction – has been systematically devalued by capitalism.

It has been a difficult few years to be on the British left, with a big Tory majority and successive lockdowns hampering our ability to collectively recover from the end of the Corbyn project. What the PEF conference neatly showcased is the fact that we have no shortage of ideas and policy programmes, and that we have identified the right targets in rentier capitalism, climate apocalypse and the legacy of neoliberalism.

We must now be willing to turn outwards, into a campaign of social and industrial struggle, and to direct people’s anger when the cost of living crisis exposes our ruling class. The crucial question will be whether we can turn the intellectual energy I witnessed on Saturday into a broad, pluralist movement that can wash them away.

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