By Matt Trinder
Government’s role in society will be under the spotlight as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, a leading trade unionist told Redaction Politics.
Petros Elia, executive committee member of the United Voices of the World (UVW) union, argued questions will be asked if world leaders fail to protect public health and jobs as the virus spreads.
He said: “Maybe people will say what is the point of the government? Then what should it be? Hopefully it will lead to a proper discussion about the role of government in society.
“Not just have it as the protector and defender of markets, but something that should be used for the interests and benefits of people.”
Massive state intervention in economies have suddenly become the new normal, with the UK government’s £330bn economic stimulus package one of several around the world designed to protect businesses from a catastrophic drop off in demand as millions stay home.
But many are now demanding direct financial help for individuals, with some US lawmakers, including former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, calling for the provision of a universal basic income.
Mr Elia said: “It will now be easier to strengthen the case for a proper socialist economy to manage crises.
“Economic inequalities and injustices have always existed, but there is a large proportion of the population that don’t know about them.
“I don’t want to let them off the hook because they bloody well should have known. Perhaps they didn’t quite get the difficulty of low pay, of not having sick pay, or zero-hour contracts.
“But there’s an opportunity, unlike [the] 2008 [financial crash], to get the argument across as this crisis will be much deeper.
“People need job and home security, decent wages and sick pay, so that they can better manage future crises that come along because of viruses or economic downturns.”
Mr Elia did expect pushback, however.
“I think governments will try and resist any measures which redistribute wealth and power, or reshape, even temporarily, the economy in such a way as to protect and embolden workers,” he said.
“Neoliberalism and capitalism are predicated on the notion that this is the natural established order, divinely created, immutable and not to be challenged.
“I think on an ideological level, they’ll be quite wary of wanting to actually let the economy be run in a way which does away with the usual rules.”
Evolving policy over rented properties in the UK is a good example, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson introducing a three-month suspension of evictions from rented properties as a result of coronavirus-related financial difficulties on March 18 following pressure from the opposition Labour party.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak then announced a £1bn increase in housing benefit payments to help cover 30% of rent costs two days later.
But no ‘holiday’ from paying rent has yet been introduced as it has for mortgages, and the UVW, which supports low-paid and predominantly migrant workers in the UK, is calling for the temporary suspension of all rent, mortgage and bill payments in residential lodgings.
Mr Elia felt such a move would be inevitable if the crisis goes on indefinitely, but it would only be granted reluctantly he argued.
“It’ll give radical ideas to people if they see the system still functioning despite a hiatus on rents,” he said.
Some commentators are also warning a return to austerity and a rhetoric of ‘tightening our belts’ after the crisis is a real possibility, given the scale of government spending at a time of collasping tax revenue.
But Mr Elia is optimistic this can be countered.
“Hopefully, given the vulnerabilities of people’s working lives that this crisis is exposing, we can carry a socialist argument forward.
“I hope that the alternatives aren’t too abstract. We need a good, solid, grounded left alternative.”
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