The alarm goes off. It’s dark outside, and Mary wakes to get ready for work at the checkout of a local supermarket. Like most of Britain’s poor, she has a job that leaves her and her children trapped below the poverty line. She finds herself competing with colleagues for overtime, just to earn a few more pounds to spend on her kids. Even though her employer makes hundreds of millions of pounds of profit a year, it is the taxpayer who has to step in and subsidise those poverty wages to give Mary a chance to pay the bills and feed her children.
Mary had a rough night’s sleep because it’s nearly time to pay the rent. She would love nothing more than a secure, affordable home for her family but, like 5 million others, she’s stuck on a council housing waiting list. Because her rent is so extortionate, the taxpayer has to step in again, to make sure her landlord gets the rip-off sum he demands.
On her way downstairs, Mary knocks on the door of her 19-year-old son, Michael. He is one of nearly a million unemployed young people. Michael sends in CV after CV, to supermarkets and call centres, and often does not even get a response. The odds are that being unemployed at such a young age will leave him with a lower wage, and an increased risk of being out of work, for the rest of his life.
As she approaches the front door, Mary glimpses another reason for her sleepless night: an unopened energy bill lying on her kitchen table. As the bills have soared, so the hot meals she eats have declined in number. And so Mary leaves for a gruelling shift at the supermarket, working hard to earn her poverty.
Mary isn’t a real person, but there are millions of people in this country who share aspects of their lives with someone like her. We all have to pay, literally, as poverty-paying bosses and rip-off landlords milk our welfare state.
The Government and much of the media have answers for people like Mary. “Instead of being angry at your situation,” Mary is told, “be angry at unemployed people, immigrants, public sector workers, or disabled claimants instead.” It is an Agenda of Fear. The bankers who plunged Britain into disaster, the politicians in the pockets of the wealthiest, the rich tax-dodgers, the poverty-paying bosses and rip-off landlords – all are let off the hook. The Agenda of Fear makes sure that the real solutions to the problems faced by someone like Mary – and the nation as a whole – are never even discussed.
But we desperately need an Agenda of Hope. It is a series of policies that the next Government must implement if it is going to transform our country. They are not plucked out of nowhere. Polls show the British people overwhelmingly support a minimum wage that is a living wage, public ownership of our utilities, letting councils build houses, and tax justice. These are common-sense, mainstream ideas that are ignored by our political and media elite. When on Saturday Ed Balls suggested restoring the 50p tax on the top 1 per cent of earners, he provoked near-hysteria among the political and media elite, and yet the polls show the British people support going even further.
These Agenda for Hope policies are suggestions that draw inspiration from tax justice crusaders such as chartered accountant Richard Murphy and UKUncut; the pioneering New Economics Foundation, with its work on a new industrial policy and banks that work for people; and new union-backed think-tank Class, which is hammering away at an alternative.
The gentleman’s agreement of British politics, which ensures that our national political debate is kept on the terms of the wealthy and powerful, has to end. But our history shows that change is never given: it has to be demanded. The polls show that some of these demands are backed even by Conservative voters. And no wonder. This isn’t about left or right. It’s about building a country run in the interests of those who keep it ticking, not run in the interests of the elite. That’s what an Agenda of Hope can offer.
Agenda for hope: Owen Jones’s nine-point manifesto
1) A statutory living wage, with immediate effect, for large businesses and the public sector, and phased in for small and medium businesses over a five-year Parliament. This would save billions spent on social security each year by reducing subsidies to low-paying bosses, as well as stimulating the economy, creating jobs because of higher demand, stopping pay being undercut by cheap labour, and tackling the scandal of most of Britain’s poor being in work. An honest days’ pay for an honest days’ work would finally be enshrined in law.
2) Resolve the housing crisis by regulating private rents and lifting the cap on councils to let them build hundreds of thousands of houses and in doing so, create jobs, bring in rent revenues, stimulate the economy and reduce taxpayers’ subsidies to landlords.
3) A 50 per cent tax on all earnings above £100,000 – or the top 2 per cent of earners – to fund an emergency jobs and training programme for young unemployed people, including the creation of a national scheme to insulate homes and businesses across Britain, dragging millions of out of fuel poverty, reducing fuel bills, and helping to save the environment. All such jobs will be paid the living wage, supported with paid apprenticeships rather than unpaid “workfare” schemes.
4) An all-out campaign to recoup the £25bn worth of tax avoided by the wealthiest each year, clamping down on all possible loopholes with a General Anti-Tax Avoidance Bill, as well as booting out the accountancy firms from the Treasury who help draw up tax laws, then advise their clients on how to get around them.
5) Publicly run, accountable local banks. Transform the bailed-out banks into regional public investment banks, with elected taxpayers’ representatives sitting on boards to ensure they are accountable. Give the banks a specific mandate to help small businesses and encourage the green industries of the future in each region.
6) An industrial strategy to create the “green jobs” and renewable energy industries of the future. It would be focused on regions that have been damaged by deindustrialisation, creating secure, skilled, dignified jobs, and reducing unemployment and social security spending, based on an active state that intervenes in the economy, learning from the experiences of countries such as Germany.
7) Publicly owned rail and energy, democratically run by consumers and workers. As each rail franchise expires, bring them back into the public sector, with elected representatives of passengers and workers to sit on the new management boards, ending our fragmented, inefficient, expensive railway system. Build a publicly owned energy network by swapping shares in privately run companies for bonds, and again put elected consumers’ representatives on the boards. Democratic public ownership instead of privatisation could be a model for public services like the NHS, too.
8) A new charter of workers’ rights fit for the 21st century. End all zero-hour contracts, with new provisions for flexible working to help workers. Allow all unions access to workplaces so they can organise, levelling the playing field and giving them a chance to improve wages and living standards. Increase turnout and improve democratic legitimacy in union ballots by allowing workplace-based balloting and online voting.
9) A universal childcare system that would pay for itself as parents who are unable to work are able to do so, and which would take on the inequalities between richer and poorer children that begin from day one.
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