Stewart Wood on the four key principles that can shape the UK’s future post-Covid
As a disease that disproportionately hits the poorest in society, Covid-19 has revealed the injustices of inequality in a particularly savage way.
Lockdown has further exacerbated these inequalities. Remote working is mostly a luxury of white-collar professions. Those in low pay and the gig economy have little financial option but to carry on working, with all the risks to which they are exposed. Almost all children in the UK are being schooled remotely, but the Sutton Trust has shown huge variations in the provision of that education.
But as we witness this crisis fully unfolding, a Beveridge moment is coming – a real opportunity to come together to shape the kind of country we want to rebuild. And one based upon four key principles.
First, we need to rectify what has become one of the UK’s largest comparative disadvantages: our long tail of low-skilled, low-wage workers. Too many of our fellow citizens revolve in and out of no work and bad work, with no protection or assets. They are told to take any job and then climb an escalator of prospects that frankly does not exist. It must stop.
Second, we need to redesign our public services to make prevention of life-chance inequalities their hallmark. From health care to social care, from education to housing, from transport to arts and culture. Every service should have the goal of pre-empting deprivation at its heart.
Third, we must put equality and social justice at the heart of the tax choices we will have to face when deciding how to pay for our response to this crisis. Germany responded to reunification with a solidarity surcharge (the ‘Soli) as a supplementary income tax for well off Germans. The UK might want to contemplate a UK version of this, and at the same time grasp the nettle of taxing the sources of huge inequalities in wealth – especially in relation to land and housing.
Lastly, the impact of Covid on the poorest countries is likely to be more catastrophic in the developed world. Yet the architecture of international cooperation is now weaker than at any time since 1945, and the UK should lead the effort to rectify this situation in the years ahead. In doing so, we could make the assembly of an international coalition for greater global equality a foreign policy priority – in part by reinvigorating the coordinated pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The current crisis may have brought home how interdependent we are across differences in class, geography and age. But the truth is that the UK’s persistently high inequality was never just a problem for others. It affects us all, harms our interests, costs us too much, and blights the country we love. Soon however, we will get a chance to come together to rebuild the economy and public services. When that Beveridge moment comes, let’s make our post-Covid future a more equal one.
Lord Stewart Wood of Anfield is a Labour Peer and former senior adviser to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He tweets @StewartWood
Published 7th May 2020