Last week I set out to establish three things.
First, that the Government have emphasised as fact that the Covid crisis is one that ‘we are all in together’.
Second, that many more people have seen an increasing number of references to some very public evidence published in the media about the inequalities in our society.
Third, that given the Government has spent at least 18 months telling the public that it is putting its arms around us all, there is a possibility of the development of new Universalist policies and, most importantly, that the politics will need the broad support of such policies to be led by the centre of public opinion.
To preface all this with warnings from the last few blogs.
After Covid there is no predestined future. Just because the crisis has magnified so much visible inequality, and just because the infection crisis has been one where anyone’s infection is everyone’s problem, does not mean that future policies to combat inequality are in any way predetermined.
There will be a clash of ideas between different policies and a clash of politics which mobilise around them to try and win the middle ground of public opinion. Policy which does not win that middle ground will not proposed.
No-one knows how this clash will be resolved.
My understanding of the history of World War 2 teaches me that public opinion crystallised around the probabilities of serious change because of the very unusual combination of vision and detail that the Beveridge report represented.
By 1944, 2 years after he reported, not many members of the public would have known that Beveridge only outlined in detail the slaying of one of his five giants – Want. But most could tell you that he had identified Want, idleness, squalor, ignorance and disease as the five giants. And he had insisted that post-war politics would slay them all.
Beveridge had been born into a 26-servant household in India – an unpromising start for someone who would become a committed social reformer. But by the age of 24 he was a social worker at Toynbee Hall in London’s East End and developing an empathy with many people’s harsh experience of inequality.
One of the issues that stayed with him from that period was that very few people he worked with wanted something for nothing. People were shamed by the experience of needing charity and not being able to play a role in their own improvement.
It was this need for reciprocity in welfare policy which was the bedrock of his report. He did not advocate ‘something for nothing’. There was something in return for contribution.
The benefits system he argued for (unemployment, sickness and old age) needed a national insurance system which had financial contributions from employers, the state and employees. Benefits in return for the contributions you made when you were at work. You received the benefit when your work was interrupted by sickness or unemployment.
Hidden in the mundane example of the stamp (when I grew up the National Insurance contribution was an actual stamp stuck on a card when it was paid). Crucially when you were in a job you, and your employer, paid that stamp – and the stamp went towards your benefits.
My Dad’s first serious post-war job was as a Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance contributions officer. His job was to get employers (employees simply paid it from their wage slip) to buy stamps for their contribution.
For some employers this was fine. But others were very perplexed why one day in 1948 they had to start paying extra money for every employee. They said it would mean going out of business – so they wouldn’t pay. Of course, most of them paid up once they realised it was the law. But by 1949 Dad spent a lot of time in court making out a case to magistrate friends of local small employers that – ahem – this was the law and they just had to pay it.
By the early 1950s it had become normal.
Over the last few years parts of the labour market have become much less structured than in the mid-1950s. Between 3 and 4 million people who go out to work as employees have had their work status changed by the gig economy.
Not only do employees not pay any ‘stamp’ – but neither does the employer. This is why this new form of employment has grown rapidly.
During the Covid crisis we have come to see the real cost of this deregulation. The numbers of people who, because of this new status in the labour market, receive no sickness benefit has had a direct impact on the number self-isolating.
Deregulation may result in a few pennies off of a pint of beer, a coffee or a taxi ride, it may lead to bigger profits for firms, but the cost to society has been much more than the pennies off price and pounds of profit.
So, my suggestion now is that post-Covid there will be a drive for policies that underline the importance of contribution.
And this has deep ramifications.
We cannot, on one hand have a welfare policy that demands, in return for benefit, a contribution from workers, whilst on the other having a labour market which deregulates both workforce and employers, and says they don’t have to make a contribution.
During the Covid crisis the Government has appealed, again and again, for us all to submit our lives to quite harsh regulation. The crisis has shown us the advantages of a regulated society. The infection develops and spreads faster in those areas of society where social and economic relationships are not regulated.
Regulated labour markets lead to staff and employers paying contributions to become a part of that organised society. Developing a gig economy may mean cheaper coffee, but it also means growing an ever increasing part of society that cannot be structured.
In post-World War 2 society Beveridge recognised the importance of an organised labour market in helping to create an organised society.
He recognised the cost to society of disorganisation and drove social and economic policy against it. Covid has reminded us of the cost of that disorganisation.
Paying a few pennies more for every cup of coffee to help pay for employers’ contribution towards benefits would help us organise society to make the public’s health more secure.