When Nadia Whittome dropped out of university and became a care worker, she kept being asked when she planned to get a “proper” job.
But as she ruefully puts it, “Nobody’s saying that now.” Suddenly her long-overlooked colleagues are on the frontline of fighting coronavirus, looking after elderly people in what may be their last hours. And Whittome, who these days is the 24-year-old Labour MP for Nottingham East, is pitching in by returning to weekend shifts in her old job.
“I think we’re learning who the key workers are and have always been, and it’s not the stockbrokers,” she says. It’s nice that her colleagues’ worth is finally being recognised, she adds. “But the best way to value care workers is by paying them a living wage.”
There’s no such thing as a silver lining to an epidemic that is killing a thousand Britons a day, and dragging the world into recession. But it has undoubtedly changed the way people value everything from public space to the army of supermarket cashiers, cleaners, hospital porters and bus drivers risking infection to keep society ticking over. And it’s shown us that, in a life or death emergency at least, another world is possible.
When Tory ministers mutter they’ll end up implementing much of Jeremy Corbyn’s programme at this rate, they’re only half-joking. The covid-19 outbreak has seen rough sleepers rushed into emergency housing, benefits raised overnight in what looks suspiciously like an admission they were too low before, and the Conservative right’s dream of an ever-shrinking state unceremoniously binned in favour of a massively expanded state guaranteeing 80% of wages for people whose jobs are put on ice. Anger at employers seen as shirking their social responsibilities during the crisis is rising; after Wetherspoons’ boss Tim Martin suggested his bar staff should go and work in Tesco instead, the words “pay your staff” were spray-painted on the windows of one of his pubs. Oh, and Brexit will almost certainly now be delayed beyond its December deadline. The virus seems to have shunted politics to the left as a shared threat breeds solidarity in response, with even Boris Johnson conceding that “there is such a thing as society” three decades after Margaret Thatcher famously suggested there wasn’t. But when the days of clapping for the NHS every Thursday are over, will this last?
Senior Labour figures predict we’ll emerge from this crisis craving security. After months of living in fear, people won’t want to fall back into a precarious world of underfunded public services, dodgy landlords and insecure work. New leader Keir Starmer will present himself as a safe choice who doesn’t frighten swing voters, but will ensure people are treated fairly. His new chancellor, Annelise Dodds, hinted as much when she said the virus had exposed a “fragile labour market” which couldn’t continue as it was.
But the government is likely to evolve in response, too. Torsten Bell, chief executive of the low pay think-tank the Resolution Foundation, says generous minimum wage hikes are now virtually inevitable given the debt the country owes essential workers. “The government are already more or less committed to trying to get rid of low pay (defined as 66% of typical earnings) by 2024 and this will make that impossible to row back from,” he predicts, alongside a renewed focus on the structure of insecure jobs. “It’s mad that we still have no regulation that says, if someone changes your shift at very short notice they don’t have to pay you, for example.”
There’s broad acceptance, too, that when the multi-billion pound bill for the bailout eventually lands there can be no repeat of what happened after the banking crash. Then it was the low paid who suffered disproportionately from austerity measures like welfare cuts or a public sector pay freeze; now even the City’s favourite paper, the Financial Times, backs wealth taxes on the rich to balance the books. Unveiling his financial rescue package, Boris Johnson insisted the Tories had “learnt the lesson” of 2008 when the banks were bailed out but ordinary people got hurt. That was seen as a recognition that the Tories can’t be seen to favour the rich if they want to stay in power.
For the lesson from past national crises is that once the worst is over, voters often turn on their exhausted leaders. Gordon Brown’s decisive response to the banking crash may have helped avoid a 1930s-style depression in 2009, but by 2010 he was gone. Johnson’s own idol Winston Churchill was revered in wartime but lost to Labour’s Clem Attlee in 1945. Johnson needn’t, in theory, face an election until 2024 but if voters begin seriously questioning his handling of the epidemic then things could quickly unravel.
Yet anyone thinking the pendulum now swings automatically to Labour has a short memory. At the 2015 election, its then leader Ed Miliband gambled on the banking crash having moved politics to the left and lost. Jeremy Corbyn banked on it having moved even further left, and lost twice more. It was Brexiters in the end who benefited from a post-crash resentment against elites, just as Donald Trump not Bernie Sanders benefited in America; rightwing populist movements around the world surged as voters swung left economically, but sharply right on social issues like immigration.
Having worked at the Treasury during the banking crash and then for Miliband in opposition, Bell understands the dangers of the left believing its own hype. But the difference this time, he argues, is that the economy wasn’t blown up by rogue bankers but deliberately shut down to protect us all – which implies we should all ultimately share the cost.
“Everyone keeps saying ‘this is like a war’ and it’s not true in some senses, but what is true is that it was a collective decision to do something to ourselves. The sense of solidarity that we see coming out of all big wars is true here and that’s what is different,” he says.
And it was that postwar longing for solidarity that gave Attlee space to found the NHS. If lockdown exposes all society’s divisions, maybe it’s still not too late to come together in recovery.