Prime minister Boris Johnson’s speech promised to “build, build, build” as he invoked the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt, but his plans fell far short of matching the US president’s legacy. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on Britain’s longstanding problems. Vital frontline services such as health and social care have been stripped bare, our weakened social security system has left millions without an adequate safety net, and the contributions of key workers have been underpaid and devalued. None of this was addressed in Boris Johnson’s speech.
Instead, he reheated announcements on infrastructure spending designed well before the pandemic hit. Some pledges are taken out of the £600bn-plus capital investment that the chancellor outlined in the March budget. Others, such as the £12bn for affordable housing have already been announced. Even on their own terms, the sum of £5bn is paltry: Germany’s stimulus is worth €130bn, it’s seven times smaller than the UK’s investment stimulus response to the financial crisis in 2008, and a 200th of the size of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Before the crisis hit, activists and politicians were calling for a green new deal to tackle inequality and the climate crisis. Coronavirus made this all the more important – as a result of the widespread job losses, more than ever we need a government programme to train people and create jobs in green industries. In the short run this would help stimulate the economy, and in the long run prepare us for the next crisis. We’ve seen what happens when we fail to act in time and build resilience into our economy – let’s not repeat the same mistakes.
Johnson said that we need to “build back better”, but the most important part of that phrase isn’t the “building” part, it’s the “better” part. In order to respond to the crisis at hand, the government must commit to protect people facing real hardship by beefing up our social security safety net and investing in vital public services like health, social care and housing. Against the backdrop of estimated unemployment levels not seen for 25 years, the government could bolster our social security system with a minimum income guarantee. It could stem the crisis in our social care system and bring forward reforms to create a national care service – comparable to the NHS – providing high quality care for all, free at the point of use.
The government will need to take decisive action to tackle inequality between people and places – including by creating well-paid, decent jobs for the swelling numbers of unemployed. A green fiscal stimulus of at least £20bn a year, investing in low-carbon energy, transport and technology could create hundreds of thousands of jobs, while helping us achieve net zero carbon emissions.
We are at a moment of real change where we need to see meaningful action from the government to fulfil the promise made at the election and to make all our lives better. The vulnerabilities that have been laid bare by this pandemic are forging a new consensus for the need for change. A new poll shows that only 6% of the British public want the economy to be run how it was before the crisis with nearly 60% wanting to see changes in how the economy is run. There is also support from business, trade unions and civil society for change. And so there is, in the midst of a crisis that has shown us both what was broken and what is possible, a growing sense that we must not go back to the way things were. The one thing Johnson got right – when he talked about the New Deal of the past – was to recognise the scale of the change we need to see.
• Miatta Fahnbulleh is chief executive of the New Economics Foundation