The year has started with an economic outlook as bleak as the weather. We’re stuck in the middle of what at best looks like becoming a lost decade. Jobs are being slashed across the public sector – including in services like health that we were told would be protected. And while we should be pleased unemployment hasn’t been as bad as feared, it’s still far too high, especially for young people.
The hidden problem of under-employment is growing too. Many people in part-time jobs want to work full-time, and many more workers aren’t able to use their skills and education to the full.
To make matters worse, living standards are stagnating as wages fail to keep pace with prices. Family budgets are under real pressure, particularly when you look at the soaring cost of what those on middle and low incomes actually spend their salaries on – food, childcare and transport.
The government is failing to offer a vision for the economy that works for ordinary families. Even before the recession, living standards were stagnating for the majority and the resulting unsustainable growth of credit-fuelled consumption was a key cause of the crash. There has been a long-term decline in quality, skilled, and well-paid jobs that should make up the back-bone of the labour force, as the short-term interests of banking and finance have continued to dominate the economy over the last few decades.
The labour movement has a huge challenge to make the case for a better vision, and this is going to shape my campaigning priorities over the coming months.
First we need the government to change course and abandon the austerity that is doing more harm than good. That means stopping these self-defeating spending cuts, instead putting investment in jobs and growth first.
Second we need a long-term vision of how we can build an economy that works for the many. That means leadership from the very top to drive a new industrial policy, including investment in the country’s skills and infrastructure, including affordable homes and transport. The changes we’ll need to make to respond to the challenge of climate change could be a key part of this. Banking reform needs to be stepped up too, and an effective industrial bank is needed to help us invest for the long-term.
And third, we need to build a fairer society – one where we really are all in it together. It’s no coincidence that the economic model that we’ve followed since the 1980s has led to a huge increase in the gap between the super-rich and the rest of us. Recession has only made this worse. We need to do a lot more to tackle the root causes of growing inequality.
This is why I want to see a major push for many more people to be paid the living wage in the year ahead, and a clampdown on the tax evasion and excessive tax avoidance endemic amongst corporations and the richest in society. We also need to begin a public debate about economic democracy, making the case that a fair society is also one where people have a real say in the decisions that affect their working lives and their families’ security.
Short-termism driven by runaway greed proved to be unsustainable and we can no longer entrust the best long-term interests of a company to shareholders alone. Giving workers a say over top pay through employee representation on company remuneration committees is one example. But it’s also about making all workplaces more like the best performing ones and genuinely giving staff a voice in the strategic decisions on which the future success of a company depend.
Stronger unions too must be a vital part of creating a better Britain, helping to tilt the balance of power back towards ordinary people.
I believe that when we look back at the period of deregulation and inequality from the 1980s to the crash, historians will see these as exceptional times – as damaging in their way as the 1930s. What will dismay them most is how slowly we are building a new economic model to replace the one that fell with Lehman Brothers.
This all adds up to a very different approach to the economy and it poses a challenge to all the political parties, employers and indeed unions. There is surprisingly broad consensus that we need real change. What we need now is the determination to deliver it.
Frances O’Grady is the first female General Secretary of the TUC, which represents around 6.5 million trade union members.