Whether there had been a pandemic or not, a radical economic strategy for Northern Ireland was always going to be a priority, but perhaps Covid 19 has brought that into sharper focus and added a new sense of urgency.
Already the business representatives, the media commentators and MLA’s from most parties have been setting out the case for economic recovery based on higher income tax, belt tightening and creating favourable conditions for commerce and the business sector.
But economic recovery and development is a much bigger issue that that. It’s about the quality of our lives, the public priorities we set, the value we place on each other and the social conditions we aspire to. In short, it goes to the very heart of the type of society we live in.
Only a socialist economic programme can address the current evils of job insecurity and an inadequate social security safety net. The increasing dependency on foodbanks, including by many people in employment, demonstrates the systemic failure of the current capitalist system.
One of the real dangers that we now face is a concerted drive for a restructured economy which serves as an agenda for the elites when what we need is a future based around the needs and aspirations of ordinary people – not a race towards a profit driven future.
A resolute and coordinated campaign to secure a future for working people is the challenge facing all those who know that a different way of life is possible.
Eighteen months ago, very few people would have thought that millions of people would be receiving 80%of their wages thanks to direct state intervention. Who would have predicted that the number of people working from home would quadruple in the space of a few short weeks? Things can change dramatically and radically and for the good.
The struggle we face now is to channel that momentum in favour of ordinary working people and their families. The priorities of the coming period will be about reclaiming the future on their behalf. In a contradictory era of over work for some, intermittent and insecure employment for many, marginalisation, systemic poverty and exploitation and obscene wealth for the few we have to ask are ordinary working people living to work of or working to live.
In the face of a further tightening of the grip capitalism already has on this society, we must set out our alternative programme, be clear about its aims and not be afraid to confront the fundamental issues which stand in the way of reclaiming the future
Steps One, Two and Three
There are lessons to be learnt from the pandemic. Upmost among them are the absolutely crucial role of our public services – health and social care of course, but others as well. Things would have been very different without those services and the people who delivered them. Very different.
Step One on the road to re-shaping the economy must be to prioritise a massive programme of re-investment into our public services: infrastructure, staff recruitment, research and development, a wage structure reflecting the contribution made by public service staff and an absolute commitment to protecting public services from privatisation.
Step Two requires the urgent development of a home-grown manufacturing base.
Northern Ireland’s current economic strategy is based on a low wage economy and a foreign direct investment model which impedes the development of a local skills base leaving workers and their families at the mercy of multinational companies as they shut up shop and move on to locations of higher profits and lower wages.
Only a hands-on government led strategy can secure jobs and develop a confident, thriving manufacturing, scientific and service base.
A four day working week must also be on the change agenda.
Step Three should see the rapid development of skills training and vocational apprenticeship programmes. They must be secure, co-ordinated and rewarded. They cannot be cheap, short term labour schemes with no prospects of a job.
Tuition free further education and free and accessible return to work programmes for all those seeking to re-enter the workforce are imperatives for future development and full participation.
All obstacles in the path of full economic participation by citizens and the objective of full employment in Northern Ireland, must be identified, addressed and overcome.
Any economic strategy post covid must commit to a comprehensive charter of Workers’ Rights signalling the securing of existing legislation and the development of additional safe guards including protecting the working time directive and replacing the National Minimum Wage requirement with a Living Wage.
A priority amongst those must be the provision of available, accessible and affordable child care programmes.
The shaping, progression and delivery of this type of radical economic strategy is the only route to a society where working people can enjoy the practical, emotional and cultural benefits of their labour.
While we recognise that capitalism can never solve the problems facing the working class and that the solution can only be found in a socialist society, these are nonetheless important and immediate demands.
It is a task for workers, socialists, trade unionists, progressive thinkers and all those committed to a better and radically different future. It is a task to be spearheaded by the Workers Party.