John Bird: Unity in government – and an alliance on the streets

We have to learn to pull it all together

The inspiration for my article this week was a man in his 60s with a large stick, like a shepherd’s crook. He stood before me when I was out on a walk telling me that the country had to learn not to panic. That’s what he was worried about. He was on his way to tend to his cows and I was out with my son doing my 10,000 steps; the 10,000-a-day method supposedly sees you through to a hundred.

“All this fighting over this, that and the other,” he was saying. “Not about how grim the economy is looking. And us all getting together to sort that out.”

We talked until my son got restless and wanted to carry on and finish the next half of our steps. We said good day, two wise men, long in tooth, but hopefully wise in years.

As we walked away my son asked me about the possibility of a massive recession. I said that it was a distinct possibility but we have to be sensible about approaching it. We have – as the farmer, with braces and big arms, said – to not panic. We have to encounter the threat of mass unemployment, and therefore mass homelessness, objectively.

We have to learn to pull it all together. And that is why our Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA) campaign – to bring businesses, charities, local authorities and individuals together in common cause – came about.

Our RORA campaign will do its best to bring the answer and solutions together

RORA is not about telling the government off, but accepting the fact that we are in such new territory that we all have to come together, as in a spirit of national unity.

I told my son that I do not dwell on the cock-ups and the failures because there are bigger fish to fry. Nor do I concentrate on the ideological differences. This is such a big, big issue that it dwarfs individual parties and vested interests. This is going to hit us all.

“When did this happen before?”

We had almost got to the main road as I started thinking, when could you say that the UK was in a similar position? Certainly it was not 2008. That was an almost universal meltdown of capitalism when saving capitalism was carried out behind closed doors. No, the new situation with the UK shedding so much economic activity, and hence the threat of mass homelessness, is completely new. Back in the depression of the 1930s people who lost their jobs were not simply tossed out on to the streets. There wasn’t an enormous spike in homelessness. The reason was that virtually all of the working classes, those who suffered the most, were in sub-standard housing that had little value. Housing was not so commercialised that vast companies were formed out of renting, as you have now. Housing was not at a premium and a sound investment.

Much smaller sections of the population had mortgages. And rents were often controlled and a small part of the family budget.

The Johnson government has to open its arms to all, based on a national unity. They can’t make this big transition back to economic stability on their own

Now we have a highly geared, investment-minded rented sector and a mortgaged property sector. There will be a drive to push out people who cannot pay their way given profits are so wrapped up in accommodation.

I explained that we need to have an alliance-of-all behind keeping the government to its word: that it will not allow Covid-19 poverty to run rampant.

Inevitably we alighted on the Second World War. With the Emergency Powers Act of 1940 no one could do anything that would rock the boat, as the safety of society was put above that of individual rights.

A national government was put in place. Not just a coalition, disastrously tried recently simply to impose austerity; but a true attempt to share the damage and the risks. And to act uniformly.

My son asked me if we needed a national government now. I said yes. “We can’t afford the risk of completely destroying our social support system, our NHS. We have to learn to work politically and socially in harmony.”

We then walked the final stages and I told him that as far as I could see, the last time society went to pieces completely was when the Romans left Britain to itself. And retired back to Rome. Then we slipped into confusion and interruption of the systems of community. I was only guessing. 

But this unprecedentedness needs to be recognised. And we need to build an alliance that does not recognise deep divisions of an ideological kind.

The Johnson government has to open its arms to all, based on a national unity. They can’t make this big transition back to economic stability on their own.

I suppose if Boris has passed himself off on occasions as the new Churchill he might have to do what the old man did: open the doors to those who could help from all corners of the political spectrum.

In the meanwhile our RORA campaign will do its best to bring the answer and solutions together. To help create the jobs and keep people in homes. 

For even with a government of national unity we still need to have a campaign that helps government to achieve its ends – of returning to stability and avoiding mass homelessness full stop.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue