Britain has faced its toughest test for decades, but we will build a better tomorrow’

Britain has faced its toughest test for decades, but we will build a better tomorrow’

If ever a crisis proved that our fates are bound together, it has been the last six weeks. The state has asked many businesses to stand idle to save lives, firms have turned to the state as their guarantor of survival and workers have risked their lives for us all. When we have faced our toughest test for decades as a nation, it has been essential to pull together.

Yet we are only at the beginning of the need to recognise the mutual dependence between public and private sectors and our collective solidarity.

The effects of this pandemic are arbitrary and catastrophic and no business or worker should have to face them alone. This spirit must carry us through not just the continuing “rescue” part of the emergency but into recovery and renewal to build a different economy.

The chancellor says he cannot “save every business”, but that should not hide the fact that every business that goes bust because of necessary public health measures represents not just a failure of that business but risks deepening the recession — and impeding recovery.

The lesson of past crises is that at the time governments believe that the danger is doing too much, too quickly – but the bigger danger is that they do too little, too slowly. Doing everything we can to protect businesses and workers makes sense for the taxpayer because the fiscal cost of lost businesses, unemployed workers and lost tax revenue outweighs the cost of acting.

That is why, for example, Labour has led the argument for reform of the government’s loan system to make it work not just for 25,000 SMEs out of nearly six million as it has so far, but for many, many more. It is good that change is now coming. We have also argued for and welcomed the furlough scheme, though there remain significant gaps for some of the self-employed.

This week the government will start to provide a sense of our likely emergence from lockdown. There will be sectors that cannot reopen for months. Take the hospitality sector, with over three million jobs. Twenty-five thousand outlets, including pubs and restaurants, are missing out on the targeted grants to cover their costs.

Thousands of businesses face an existential threat, with risks to hundreds of thousands of workers. Essential public health measures must be accompanied by economic help.

The government must act urgently with a second wave of support, including where necessary an extension of the furlough scheme — with greater flexibility to enable part-time working — and it must look again at the gaps in current schemes.

There are also parts of our economy which warrant particular attention. One lesson from this crisis is that our domestic manufacturing base matters far more than has previously been acknowledged.

This is an issue of national and economic security, and the government should be willing to step in on the right terms.

Yet just as our mutual dependence means the state owes responsibilities to support the private sector, so those who get state support owe obligations to the taxpayer.

If you’re registered in a tax haven and you want support, you should come onshore. If you’re a multinational and plan to pay dividends to shareholders while claiming government resources, you clearly don’t need them.

The public should look back on the support it has given business over this period with pride. That also means ensuring the gains from public support accrue to all of us, and not just the losses. The government should be willing to consider an equity stake in firms — particularly when there is a compelling economic or environmental rationale.

The need for public and private to work together with imagination will also be essential as we seek to emerge from what could be the deepest recession for 300 years. During this crisis we have seen thousands of workers redeployed from sectors that have closed. Let’s learn the lesson of what is possible.

We know that the climate emergency is a challenge we can simply no longer afford to ignore. Let’s create an army of zero carbon workers, retraining and redeploying those who can’t work into different industries, from home insulation to wind turbine manufacture to tree planting.

We also cannot ignore the deep lessons of this crisis about the world of work, including about the role of unions. It is the lowest-paid workers whom we have relied on. We need a new bargain tackling powerlessness and insecurity.

In these testing times and beyond, the spirit of common endeavour we have seen in the first phase of this crisis must animate what we do. Together state, business and workers must share the risks and burdens we face. Even out of this emergency, we can and must build a better tomorrow.

Ed Miliband is shadow business and energy secretary

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