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After the pandemic, the government must follow through its rhetoric and ‘level up’ the UK

A new billboard sign displays a 'Be Kind' message in Sheffield city centre during the lockdown. Mayor Dan Jarvis says the crisis can be a turning point for the UK

6 min read

This crisis can be a turning point. As we rebuild, we have an opportunity to forever bury the idea that society cannot change itself for the better

The greatest danger from coronavirus is in how we respond to it. It is the danger that we repeat the mistakes made after 9/11 and the 2008 financial crash. The danger that Covid-19 becomes the catalyst for a lost decade of under-investment, growing inequality, and inaction on our climate, our infrastructure, and our public services. The danger that instead of drawing together, we become further divided.

Much is still uncertain, but it seems likely this will be the most profound disruption since WW2. But it is not happening in a vacuum: it is happening after decades of gradual, systematic undermining of our health service, our welfare system, and the very idea of government intervention. 

The NHS is saving lives even as an unprecedented seven-year funding squeeze takes a mounting toll. Meanwhile the legions of newly unemployed are discovering just how frayed and demeaning the safety net has become.

In South Yorkshire, where I am Mayor, austerity has long undermined communities already struggling with de-industrialisation and neglect. The UK is the most regionally unequal country of its size in the developed world, and among the most centralised. Both feed into a wider crisis of disillusionment and division that has undermined our democracy and our Union.

So what should we do? First, we must work as a team. That means we need trust, and ideally consensus. Those are already fraying, as our four nations take different paths, and confusion and suspicion grows around the government’s messaging.

The government needs to be completely transparent about the scientific data and advice they are getting, and the political decisions they are making based on it – and keep a clear line between the two. There is no one, ‘scientific’, path forward, only a choice between difficult compromises. The country needs, and deserves, an open, credible, and grown-up conversation about that choice. This really is no time for politics as usual. Anything that hints of opaqueness or spin will be deeply corrosive. By the same token, the promise to work across parties has to translate into meaningful involvement and a willingness to listen.

Equally, Westminster has to work with other levels of government, rather than perpetuating the over-centralisation which was already holding us back before COVID. That especially includes Metro Mayors. Our cities and transport systems will have to take much of the strain as lockdown is eased. We command unique local understanding, networks and legitimacy, and can add enormous value both in the immediate response, and in longer-term rebuilding. But we need the powers and budget to fulfil that potential – and a seat at the table when policy is being decided.

Secondly, the rescue we work for together has to be not only effective, but just. Any bailout should include carefully targeted conditions, like bans on share buybacks, executive bonuses, and companies who persist in going offshore to unfairly avoid taxes. The government must secure a fair return, and avoid subsidising shareholders, by demanding some form of equity rather than just offering bailouts. They should look at establishing holding companies for troubled businesses, and at wealth taxes or excess profit levies, to counter the inequality-inducing effects of economic dislocation.

But of course this is about people, not just companies. Widespread unemployment is predicted, especially for young people, and our existing support is already unfit for purpose. We should build on programs like the Future Jobs Fund, and the successful Working Win pilot here in South Yorkshire. Of course we must help the hardest-hit areas more. The government’s latest allocation instead shifts resources away from the poorest councils, even as ONS data shows Covid-19’s links to deprivation.

Thirdly, and most importantly, if we are to sacrifice, it has to be in the service of making a better society. It is simply not good enough to return to a status quo which was already in crisis: we must seize the opportunity to build a better Britain – not just recovery, but renewal.

The government should start planning now for the major public investment needed to support our economic renewal. But that investment must serve a better purpose than it did after 2008. For a start, it should be used to end the infrastructure and spending gap which has long favoured already affluent areas over places like South Yorkshire. Now more than ever the government must follow through its rhetoric about ‘levelling up’.

It should be used to improve the public transport so many working people rely on. It should boost skills training and help students most affected by school closures. Above all, it should be used for an ambitious Green New Deal to transform our economy and create well-paid jobs. Climate change is unequivocally a greater threat than COVID: this is quite likely the last, best chance for the UK to take a lead in addressing it. 

We must not forget the faults this crisis has illuminated so harshly

Here in South Yorkshire, it is not hard to find shovel-ready projects. We could start by fixing our decrepit railways, and transforming our infrastructure for active travel. We could expand our world class Advance Manufacturing Research Centre. And we urgently need major investment in flood prevention: much of South Yorkshire was underwater six months ago. Every part of the country – but especially the most deprived – will have a long list of this kind. 

And beyond this, we must not forget the faults this crisis has illuminated so harshly. We must fund the NHS better. We must make our welfare system more dignified and humane. We must protect the rights of ordinary workers. And we must bury the idea that society cannot actively change itself for the better.  

If the response to COVID is in our hands, that cuts both ways. We can react as we did to the shocks of the past, and deepen our divisions, squander the potential of our economy, and watch the planet burn ever warmer. But if we demand that this great public mobilisation be truly for the public good, then we could still make coronavirus a turning point for the better, not the worse.

Dan Jarvis is Labour MP for Barnsley Central and mayor of the Sheffield City Region.



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