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Sorry Boris Johnson, you can’t save the economy by ignoring our greatest asset – the British people

Kate Dearden
Boris Johnson delivers a speech during his visit to Dudley College of Technology in Dudley: REUTERS

The pandemic has exposed a web of inequalities across our society and economy. These inequalities demonstrate the urgent need for an industrial strategy that puts workers at its heart. We need an agenda that not only "levels up" the struggling parts of our country, as Boris Johnson puts it, but one that also ensures the millions of workers who have been left behind for years - and who are now facing the brunt of the Covid-19 recession - get the support they deserve.

Sadly, despite the prime minister's "new deal" for the economy, that's not on the cards.

Many of the problems these workers are facing have been around for years, but Covid-19 has acted as a catalyst. Whether or not you could access the government’s income support schemes, were a key worker, or were able to work from home, has meant a stark divide in experiences of the crisis, but the differences in how we value work are not new. Indeed, these divides are ones that have been developing across our country for years. These inequalities were exposed by the crisis, but they will only get worse if we do not act now.

There is a way to make a change - by building a balanced, sustainable, innovative economy fit for the 21st century. Important work on this is already being done; Britain is leading the way in green energy and is racing towards its goal of carbon net zero by 2050. The secure, well paid jobs that follow from that should provide a model for the future.

As it stands, however, the government’s "levelling up" agenda is yet to be demonstrated and our industrial strategy lacks both ambition and scope. Its failing is that it forgets our greatest asset: the British people. If workers are at the heart of a revitalised industrial strategy, then we can build an economy and society stronger than the one that entered the crisis.

To do this we need to prioritise three areas. First, we need a coordinated push by businesses and government to provide the support and training that workers need to thrive. If we want a highly skilled, high earning economy, we need to provide the education and environment that will make it a reality. Second, workers who already contribute a huge amount to our society should be valued and given the recognition they deserve. And finally, we need a new era of social partnerships involving workers, unions, employers, and government.

Britain faced a skills crisis before the pandemic, and that crisis is even more urgent now. Tackling it requires coordination between government and business to prioritise the most pressing areas for retraining. However, we must also encourage government and businesses to engage with workers to find out what they believe will help in their current roles and longer term working lives. It is only by partnering with workers that we can expect to retool our economy for the globalising, automating, post Covid-19 world.

The pandemic has also demonstrated just how essential our neglected key workers are. Many of these jobs were previously dismissed as "low skilled". However, the flexibility, courage and compassion that key workers have shown during the coronavirus pandemic has proved, finally, that this is a false distinction. We cannot have a thriving economy that continues to undervalue the workers which form its foundation. Only a complete rethink on how we reward and value work will we close the cracks that run through our economy.

The urgent response to the outbreak of coronavirus, and the closing down of the economy, has shown just what can be achieved when government, businesses and trade unions work together, from the introduction of the furlough and self-employment schemes to the guidance on safety at work. Rebuilding our economy in a way that works for everyone is a challenge that requires a continued commitment to this kind of social partnership long after the spectre of coronavirus has passed.

The challenges we face now are only going to get harder to tackle if we do not act. However, they are challenges that can be faced with a revitalised industry strategy that includes everyone.

We all have a role to play in building a Britain for the 21st century. We face a choice as to whether we continue to muddle through with increasing inequality and a fracturing society; or seize the opportunity to rebuild our economy in a way that leaves no one behind.

If we are to take the latter route we will emerge from this crisis with a new perspective and mission. One that recognises the importance of working with people, in order to build a country that works for people.

Kate Dearden is head of research for the Community trade union and an adviser to Roy Rickhuss, a member of the Industrial Strategy Council

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