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Rishi Sunak giving a daily briefing in place of Boris Johnson, 26 March. Photo: Number 10 via youtube

Rishi Sunak giving a daily briefing in place of Boris Johnson, 26 March. Photo: Number 10 via youtube

Rishi Sunak replaced an increasingly haggard Boris Johnson to deliver a programme of woefully inadequate support for the millions of self-employed, reports Morgan Daniels

Boris Johnson has looked violently ill these past couple of weeks. Haggard and hollow, his constantly baggy eyes describe the effort required in pretending to care about people on a daily basis. The guy needs a break.

So it was that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, stepped into the breech to lead today’s government briefing on the coronavirus crisis. The intern kid who got a lucky break, Sunak wore a healthy look, but his message was just as bland and unhelpful as anything we have heard from the Prime Minister since the crisis began.  

This afternoon’s briefing was focused on the government’s plans to support self-employed workers in the coming months. The headline news is that those classed as self-employed can apply for a grant equivalent to 80% of their average income over a period of three months. The grant will be paid as a single lump sum in June.

There are at least three big holes in this announcement. The first is the somewhat staggering expectation that all self-employed workers will have enough saved up to survive for the next two months before their grant arrives. We are reminded here that ‘self-employment’ is a broad church, ranging from those living hand-to-mouth as, say, gardeners or cleaners, to successful ‘entrepreneurs’. The latter might be able to wait until June. For everyone else, there’s Universal Credit.       

A second problem lies in Sunak’s cut-off point for applicants: only those who have been self-employed for over a year will be entitled to a grant so as to deter fraudulent claims. The government’s advice for anyone entering into self-employment since April 2019, then, is to shake a tin and whistle for your money. Tens of thousands will be affected by this measure. Self-employment figures have been increasing significantly year-on-year over the past two decades, with 1.5 million becoming self-employed since 2001 alone. Total self-employment figures now stand at nearly 5 million, or 15% of the country’s workforce.

All of which implies a third point. Self-employment is not at a record high because an entrepreneurial spirit has swept the nation in the twenty-first century. Rather, that figure of 5 million self-employed workers needs to be read alongside some others. In 2019, 896,000 UK workers were on zero-hour contracts. Right now, 53% of academic staff in British universities are casualised, often working only three or six months at a time. For many millions of people, self-employment is neither a lifestyle choice nor a big break, but a necessity in an unforgiving labour market, a means to ‘top up’ income from short-term contractual work, or even salaried positions. Yet Sunak’s ‘rescue package’ announced today applies only to those who receive a majority of their income from self-employment.

‘There are genuine practical and principled reasons why it is incredibly complicated to design an analogous scheme to the one that we have for employed workers’ admitted the Chancellor in his briefing. Leaving aside the question of ‘principles’ — the class interests of Rishi Sunak, a former analyst with Goldman Sachs, are not the same as ours — it is surely true there would have been a large number of ‘practical’ difficulties in putting together today’s deal.

What this speaks to is the way in which the past forty years of neoliberal orthodoxy have seen persistent and highly successful attacks on workers’ rights, on the very concept of secure, salaried jobs. For the first three decades after the Second World War, unemployment rates barely went above 3%, and were often much lower. (Self-employment in this same period was constant at 7%.) Yet decade after decade of deregulation, privatisation, and austerity, combined with relentless legislating against trade unions, has put paid to such stability here and across the world. The dehumanising costs of the neoliberal agenda have been magnified by the coronavirus pandemic.

Put otherwise: preparing for the next pandemic is not just about ensuring a healthy, functioning healthcare system. It’s about ensuring a healthy, functioning society.       

Farewell to a comrade

Yesterday saw Jeremy Corbyn’s last appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions as Leader of the Opposition. One of his allotted questions took on the ‘common sense’ assumptions of neoliberalism: ‘Who are we least able to do without in a crisis – the refuse collector or the billionaire hedge fund manager?’ Such sharp and precise class politics are precisely what is needed now more than ever. Any healthcare crisis is fundamentally a class issue, as evidenced, for instance, by the fast-tracking of Prince Charles’ coronavirus test.

‘We are all in this together’ insisted Rishi Sunak as he rounded off today’s briefing. Had those words come from Jeremy Corbyn, they would have carried a real weight, a sincerity. But from a Tory Chancellor, it cannot help but ring alarm bells: this was the mantra of the austerity decade, the flag under which a thousand public service cuts were made. There was no unifying ‘national interest’ after the 2008 crash, and nor is there one now.

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