Having a Bank Holiday Monday on a Friday just adds to the ‘otherworldliness’ of our lives right now. But it does give us the perfect chance to reflect a little. There’s a lot to reflect on after all.
Despite the only communal activity we have right now being a weekly ‘clap for NHS staff and carers’, today comes close. 75 years since VE day points to a time when our country overcame a colossal foe of historic proportions. Seeing lone heads of state laying wreaths and standing silent in solitude somehow adds to the emotional impact of the occasion.
Tonight I’ll definitely be watching as Winston Churchill’s VE Day speech is replayed on TV, followed later by the queen.
I can’t help noticing that in the midst of today’s crisis, very different but on a scale not seen since the war, we are looking increasingly to that era rather than our own for comfort and, remarkably, leadership. The motto of our times has become ‘we’ll meet again’, echoing Dame Vera’s iconic wartime song.
And the most moved I’ve been by oration so far during the pandemic was that remarkable broadcast by the queen where due to her own remarkable life our generation seemed to be connected for a moment with that wartime one by our head of state who’s very image straddles both.
It’s inevitable that when you listen to Churchill tonight talk of the ‘toils and troubles that lie ahead’ we’ll relate this to our own future as well as the one he was talking about.
Some of us will no doubt wish we had a leader of his calibre running things in this crisis too, perhaps the reason so many are drawn to wartime moments for inspiration right now. I’m struck each week at 8pm that we as a nation are cheering for the frontline workers directly, in times gone by we’d have cheered them via the sight and words of our leaders, as our country did for soldiers via Churchill.
I’m struck by something else from that era too. Planning for the post-war period didn’t wait until after the war had finished. The legendary report by William Beveridge which outlined the rebuilding of our society in a very different shape to that which proceeded the war – it was published in 1942 in the very midst of struggle. Victory was anything but assured at that point but people like Beverage were considering things like like collective health, the nationalisation of hospitals and schools, and making explicit demands on workers to contribute to a new welfare state in order to benefit from it later on. All this was happening during the midst of war.
It’s a lesson for us too. As well as trying to give voice to as many challenges our community and country is facing right now and try my best to help people who’ve turned to me in these really difficult times, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the future.
We live in a brilliant country, we get so many things right. But there’s a lot that we can improve. That’s why when I’m not going to be fighting for things to get ‘back to normal’ once this is over: I want ‘back to better’.
The contribution that Beverage talked about still stands. Workers do have a responsibility to contribute and Beverage and Atlee were also really tough on people who fell, in their words, ‘idle’. We still need to instil expectations of work among those able to and get better at offering a supportive hand rather than a vindictive policy to help people achieve it.
But just as that applies to a minority or people struggling at the bottom of our economy there’s a minority at the top who similarly avoid contributing by failing to pay their taxes to a similar degree as the rest of us. In a post-Covid economy everyone needs to play their part and tax avoidance should be seen by the media and political class as offensive in the future as work avoidance has in the past.
People living into old age should get the same resources and expertise as younger people going to hospital expect. As Liz Kendall said recently, anyone of any age who needs medical assistance to thrive should have one team at their bedside with one set of resources, delivered by one overriding organisation dedicated to our nation’s health and wellbeing. No more can the scandal of people in our social care system be treated like second class citizens, or worse, forgotten altogether when the going gets tough.
For the first time in decades we’re going to see unemployment rise through lack of demand for jobs as businesses fail. This is the time to reinvent education as if our country’s future depends upon it…which is does.
Our economy isn’t about to face the challenges of recovery from Covid-19 alone. It’s also got to contend with Brexit as our government seems hellbent on leaving the Single Market without fully-formed replacement deals with the EU, US, or other major economies. People of all ages need to throw themselves at education and skill development like never before, but they can only do that if institutions offering the corses and services and support are there when they need it and where they need it – from evening classes in their neighbourhood to full-time post-graduate courses in the nearest city. Business as usual won’t cut it.
These are the things I’m thinking about as I mull over what the future holds. I’m very pleased to be part of a front bench team in Labour that is working hard to get ready for this new world.
You’ll be hearing a lot more from me about these issues going forward and when I get the opportunity I’m already challenging senior government ministers to do the same too. The chancellor appeared in parliament recently and I took the opportunity to strive for ‘business as better’ after the crisis…I have to say, it wasn’t the worst response I’ve had from this government so maybe there is hope.
If you could change one thing about the way we conduct ourselves as a country, if you could reinvent something government does, what would it be?
PS I’m also in a reflective mood as today marks the fifth anniversary since you first elected me as your MP. A lot has happened in that time. You don’t get a rulebook on how to do this job, especially in a crisis. So thank you for sticking with me, especially when I could have done better.