As talk turns increasingly to ‘post Covid’ and ‘the new normal’, it is worth taking a reality check on our economic and social situation and asking what really will be changing.
Prior to the pandemic, one person in five of working-age in Northern Ireland was living in poverty. An estimated 110,000 of them were children. Northern Ireland had the highest levels of fuel poverty in the UK and one of the highest levels in Europe. The education gap between children from better off homes and those from areas of high social deprivation remained large. More people here than anywhere else in the UK had no qualifications or had fewer higher-level qualifications.
Nearly two thirds of low-income families had no pension arrangements or provision for their financial security in later life.
The coronavirus pandemic will have made those figures worse, not better.
We’re all in this together?
While families struggle, and ordinary people are locked out of opportunities to build a decent and secure life, at the other end of the scale things look very different.
Recent estimates of the amount of tax unpaid through deliberate avoidance in the UK run at £35billion – or £673million a week: a figure that has been rising steadily for the past decade or more.
However, even those astronomical numbers don’t include the monies ‘transferred’ by multinational companies such as Starbucks, Google and Amazon to off shore tax havens. For just five US tech companies alone that accounts for a further missing £1bn.
Is there a credible plan?
So what does the immediate future look like for working people, low income families, students and school leavers?
The Assembly record of economic development is lamentable. Recent years have been marked by cuts to public services and the privatisation of health, education and public utilities, as well as the sale of public assets.
While the Assembly job creation strategy relies on Foreign Direct Investment on one hand, it cuts the budgets for further and higher education and training on the other.
While it seeks to attract hi-tech and manufacturing investment it fails to invest in the development of a skilled workforce to deliver it and declines to upgrade and develop the local infrastructure to support it.
The Assembly’s economic strategy is characteristically played out off stage. Economic rabbits are pulled out of hats at press conferences with seemingly little or no engagement with the relevant work sectors, the existing workforce or their representatives.
The reality is that businesses, aided by the main parties at the Assembly, will seek to use the Covid 19 crisis as an excuse to further cut back on public services, reduce budgets and rescind workers’ rights.
A Planned Development Strategy
The shape of the post pandemic economy is far too important to be left in the hands of those who slavishly follow the free market model at all costs.
Of course, we are not all in this together.
We can never be so in a society where the system produces wealth for a minority at the expense of the working class. We cannot permit those who have sought to exploit labour to dictate the future, post-pandemic, and we cannot allow those political parties who facilitate this exploitation to dictate its direction.
In the immediate term the state must utilise all the resources at its disposal to protect workers. It must do so to protect the poor and the vulnerable, to safeguard and enhance the health, education and housing sectors. It must also work with the trade union movement and voluntary and community organisations to effectively address the current needs facing working class communities and deliver a centrally planned development strategy.