Clapped, applauded, betrayed. Our key workers were rapturously cheered in the early weeks of the pandemic for their sacrifice and effort from windows, balconies and pavements. Now, in what is already being described as the “cap for carers”, they are to be rewarded with a renewed attack on their wages. “Thank you to the NHS and all of our critical workers for all you are doing to fight coronavirus. You really are an inspiration,” declared Boris Johnson. But prime ministerial platitudes are not legal tender to pay the household bills, rents and mortgages of key workers whose efforts will now be marked with more real-terms pay cuts.
Health workers are supposedly exempt from the coming onslaught, but millions of other public-sector workers who kept the show on the road – in spite of the catastrophic failings of their own government – are to face a potential three-year pay freeze.
The weekly clap was always tinged with hypocrisy, as Tory politicians who spent the best part of a decade attacking the jobs, salaries, pensions and terms and conditions of public-sector workers joined in. After they determined that firefighters, nurses and teachers would pick up the tab for a crisis unleashed by bankers – who, after all, bankroll Britain’s governing party – public-sector workers suffered real terms pay cuts of up to 14%. Less than five months ago Johnson promised that his government would “not go back to the austerity of 10 years ago”, but Boris Johnson is not a man known for sticking to his word.
Perhaps some will argue that, sure, last time workers were unfairly punished for the grave errors of the powerful, but this global pandemic is an act of God for which no one can be blamed. Yes, the virus took all nations by surprise, but the calamitous response of the government has ensured an economic shock whose scale was avoidable. By locking down too late, our rulers allowed infections to skyrocket, necessitating a protracted lockdown and ripping consumer confidence out of the economy: we were lumbered with the double whammy of Europe’s worst death toll and a severe economic hit. The subsequent handing of test and trace to private contractor cronies, combined with the swift reopening of the economy, schools and universities, led to yet another avoidable coronavirus surge, and a renewed lockdown with its inevitable economic destruction. This is on the Conservatives, and yet they expect the pillars of British society to suffer the consequences.
Reports suggest the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, will resuscitate divide-and-rule arguments, pointing out that private-sector workers have been worse hit than their public-service counterparts. Instead of aiming anger at the government for causing another lockdown and disruption to those working in retail or hospitality, we’re being asked to direct our venom at our neighbours who’ve been required to go into work every day to keep our schools, councils and social services running. If Britain had a rational political culture, the debate would centre on driving up the wages of private and public-sector workers alike, ensuring everyone has a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work. Instead we are left with a race to the bottom.
What too of the government’s promise to “level up” a United Kingdom defined by acute regional inequalities? In many of Britain’s ex-industrial communities – including those constituencies won by the Tories less than a year ago – public-sector jobs filled the vacuum left by the disappearance of mines, steelworks, factories and docks. They have already been battered by the cuts of the past decade – and if wages stagnate and fall, spending will fall, damaging already struggling local businesses. Perhaps the government patronisingly believes that its increased spending on the armed forces – to fight who? – will appeal to the caricatured socially conservative attitudes of the red wall. While the Tories have revealed that there is money for their priorities, waving the union jack may not prove an adequate distraction from this attack on public-sector workers. As the yet-to-be-taxed wealth of the super-rich increases during the pandemic, here is an reminder of the lesson we learned during austerity: the decision to clobber key workers is a political choice, and it must be fought.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist