Op Ed - After the crisis, here’s how we build a fairer country

Originally in Left Foot Forward

As the lockdown measures ease, and we start to see a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel, we face a critical choice. We could rush to restore everything to exactly how it was before. Or, we could learn lessons, and take this opportunity to reimagine our society.

I want us to emerge from this crisis as a more equal and compassionate country. To do this, the government must listen to people’s experiences of the crisis, then cooperate with them and opposition parties to bring about much needed and pressing change: a Universal Basic Income, proper investment in public services, and decent wages and benefits for key workers, for a start.

Because alongside the devastation to our families, communities and businesses, Coronavirus has also held a sombre mirror up to our society, exposing the deep inequalities still experienced in the UK.

On Friday, new data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) exposed that: “people living in more deprived areas have experienced COVID-19 mortality rates more than double those living in less deprived areas.”

And following calls from myself and cross-party MPs, the Government has also launched an investigation into why Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities are disproportionately suffering, both physically and economically.

Some have described Coronavirus as the great leveller, but it is clear that the burden is not equally shared, with some communities more affected than others. It was also no surprise that those in the gig economy, on zero-hours contracts and many self-employed were among the hardest hit and initially left facing a choice between risking their safety and putting food on the table.

While the Government has brought forward relief measures, so many vulnerable people have fallen through the cracks. And to be clear, they should not have been left out in the cold in the first place. We desperately need a more proactive and compassionate approach, developed by people with genuine empathy and commitment to fairness.

As we rebuild the economy, a compassionate Government would ensure that no-one in society is left behind. Tangibly, that means a Universal Basic Income, as a catch-all safety net to support anyone who is unemployed or falls on hard times.

I called for Universal Basic Income (UBI) trials and the introduction of an emergency National UBI in March as the crisis developed. Since then, UBI now widespread support in the Lib Dems, and I’m pleased to be working cross-party and with Compass, to advocate for it.

A more compassionate society would also invest in public services according to need. The postcode lottery and unequal access to high-quality services must come to an end. We must better distribute funding and devolve more decisions to local providers so that they can care for the vulnerable.

A compassionate approach would be to recognise the heroic efforts of frontline key workers as well as giving them a decent wage and benefits package to rival those in the private sector. We also need to end the sole reliance on GDP as a success metric and look to metrics on wellbeing and mental health, too.

In the wake of the economic devastation caused by Coronavirus, there are big questions to answer on funding the above measures. To begin to answer these, I would point people back to the principle of compassion and encourage them to think about how wealth in this country could be better shared and distributed. These are the type of questions I am asking all voters, and I am listening carefully to the responses.

To rebuild a progressive, liberal society, the measures above would need to form part of a more extensive package. We also need radical changes to the education system to create equal access to high-quality teaching. We need to ensure that all talents – academic and non-academic – are nurtured and encouraged.

We also need a renewed effort and focus on tackling the global climate crisis. On this, politicians at all levels would do well to join forces, share ideas, and devolve power into the hands of young people through a citizen’s assembly, to protect the future of the planet. We’d benefit from an electoral system which encouraged this type of co-operation, too.

But for me, introducing compassionate measures in the wake of Coronavirus is the crucial first step towards protecting the most vulnerable, recognising the role of our key workers, and creating an equal society. We need co-operation across party lines and bold, radical ideas to achieve this, and we need to start talking about them now.

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