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Further pandemic paper – learning the progressive lessons from the COVID-19 crisis for our economy and society

Today (24 July 2020), the Jimmy Reid Foundation publishes its second short collective paper on learning lessons from the pandemic. It is called ‘ Learning left lessons: reconstructing economy and society in the post-pandemic period’. In the first paper, we contended that not only must a move to returning to ‘business as usual’ be resisted but that an opportunity has also opened up to create a new ‘common sense’ or ‘national consensus’, certainly at the ideological and political levels to achieve a more just and fair economy and society. In this vein we continue with this new paper which examines issues not touched upon in the first paper. These are public ownership, social care, education, employment relations law, and union membership. Each is written by a member of the Project Board of the Foundation.

The sections on each topic are:

i) Public ownership and the common good – Andrew Cumbers, Professor of Regional Political Economy, University of Glasgow
ii) A Scottish Care Service – Dave Watson, secretary of the Socialist Health Association Scotland
iii) School education in Scotland – Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) union
iv) Employment relations and employment law – Stephen Deans, regional officer for UNITE the union Scotland
v) Union membership – Gregor Gall, visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds

The paper can be read below

Reconstructing Scotland after COVID-19: learning further lessons from the pandemic


The Westminster government has promised to institute a Roosevelt-ian ‘New Deal’ to ‘build, build, build’ the economy out of an oncoming depression. However, this ‘New Deal’ is rather more like a Boots’ ‘Meal Deal’ – given the subsidised eating out in the month of August – than the one which Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated as the 32nd President of the United States of America in 1933. It lacks both ambition and expenditure to qualify as anything more than a glorified ‘Meal Deal’. Indeed, Boris Johnson promised £5bn of public infrastructure projects while Roosevelt’s administrative spent the equivalent of £37.5bn in today’s prices on public works. Back then the United States had a population of 127m and that of Britain today is 67m. And, much of the £5bn is not new money or expenditure as it was in the United States. Moreover, the £5bn amounts to just 0.2% of Britain’s GDP. By comparison, overall, the New Deal was estimated to be worth about 40% of the US GDP in 1929. Finally, part of the ‘New Deal’ was the creation of the National Labor Relations Act 1935 which, at the time, was a huge boost to workers’ rights for it allowed unions to lawfully gain recognition from recalcitrant employers and helped lead to a significant rise in union membership because membership brought with it benefits as unions could now bargain with employers. The present government has (pre-pandemic) only intimated that it will further restrict the rights of workers to strike through its minimum service obligation bill.  

Yet, as the public and political debate in Britain is no longer about whether the state intervenes or not, it’s easy for many to think that the Tories have been grudgingly converted from neo-liberalism to Keynesianism. That is until the surface is scratched. When this is done, the key questions become: ‘in whose interests is this expenditure?’, ‘what is its actual purpose?’ and ‘who will benefit?’. It’s hard not to conclude that this is an exercise in further wealth redistribution away from the poor and impoverished and towards the rich and super-rich. For example, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, ignored the suggestion from the Resolution Foundation to give every adult a £500 spending voucher aimed at putting money in the pockets of the most needy and which would have generate business for the hard-pressed high streets. Instead, he gave tax breaks and rewards which the already well off will disproportionately benefit from. As the old saying goes, ‘money begets money’.

This is the immediate background to this second short paper from the Jimmy Reid Foundation on the progressive lessons that need to be learnt from the pandemic. In the first paper, we contended that not only must a move to returning to ‘business as usual’ be resisted but that an opportunity has also opened up to create a new ‘common sense’ or ‘national consensus’, certainly at the ideological and political levels. That much is obvious at the British or Westminster parliament level. How does this apply to Scotland and the powers of its parliament at Holyrood? While the Scottish government appears to have had a ‘good’ pandemic so far in relation to that of the Conservative Westminster government and though there is still much that is reserved business to Westminster, Holyrood does now have increased powers of taxation and revenue. Yet, the SNP-led Scottish Government has shown no sign of engaging in the kinds and levels of state intervention needed to confront the growing levels of inequality and impoverishment that are about to explode come the end of the Job Retention Scheme in October. If the Scottish Government is to do what is necessary in these coming weeks and months, then it would live up to its own self-description as a ‘social democratic’ political party and not a social liberal or even neo-liberal political party as it has up until now.

Again, in this paper as in the last one, a number of the members of the Project Board of the Jimmy Reid Foundation seek not to simply re-state longstanding left political goals as some kind of shopping list of desired demands, timelessly appropriate as they might be. Rather, they seek to put forward policies that are especially relevant to the impact of the pandemic and the way existing state and society have reacted to the pandemic. Building upon the first paper, this paper has five sections examining public ownership, social care, education, employment relations law, and union membership.

Professor Gregor Gall, director, JRF

Public ownership and the common good

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, successive Westminster governments’ attachments to privatisation have been exposed for their failure to deliver decent and affordable public services across a raft of sectors, from the ongoing failures of the privatised railways, deteriorating service quality and rising costs across a range of sectors from water to energy, and the forced outsourcing of local government services linked to a decade of austerity. The pandemic, with its devastating effects on Britain’s largely private and fragmented care sector, and what it has revealed about the lack of integrated public health capacity at all geographical scales has brought home the abject failures of the UK’s private, market-based model. In its ‘shambolic’ handling of the pandemic – and very much at odds with the relatively more effective public-orientated solutions of the Scottish Government – the Westminster Government has often seen like an ideologically fixated addict in its absurd preference for outsourced, private options at the expense of building on knowledgeable in-house capacity, skills and experience. Contracts for the vitally important tracking and testing system, for example, have gone to those with little relevant experience (e.g. accountancy firm Deloitte’s) or those with a history of expensive privatised failure (e.g. Serco).

Reflecting the common sense of citizens who have direct experience of privatisation, public opinion itself strongly supports the alternative of public ownership. An opinion poll, by the right-wing Legatum Institute in 2017, horrified its sponsors in revealing that over seventy per cent of people wanted water, railways, electricity and gas brought back into public ownership. In the wake of the pandemic, a poll by We Own It, revealed that the public mood has shifted even more firmly in this direction, with 83 per cent wanting the health sector to be fully nationalised and only nine per cent backing more privatisation. And a YouGov/Neon poll in June 2002 showed that less than a third wished, once the pandemic is over, for the economy to go back to how it was run before. So, the general public is well ahead of elite and government opinion in recognising the importance of public ownership and the integrated planning of health and social care, where marketized forms of delivery and the profit motive are taken out of the equation altogether. Beyond these, however, the pandemic offers broader lessons for the return of public ownership in other critical services such as transport, water and energy.

But, where past forms of nationalisation tended to be top-down and largely devoid of user or worker participation, what is needed now are more transparent, accountable and democratic forms of ownership that can deliver the experience and knowledge of those on the front line, as well as being more responsive to user needs, to make public services run as effectively as possible. One of the important positives of the past four years has been a lively and informed debate within Scotland and the wider British labour movement about what a revived system of public ownership should look like in the twenty first century. In the Labour Party’s recent consultation exercise (here and here), many fresh ideas and examples from around the world were drawn upon to develop plans for a new generation of public enterprises. Out of this process, five important principles are generally agreed for a better run system of publicly-owned and controlled services. They are:

  • the importance of economic democracy, where workers and user groups have a decision-making voice;
  • systems of transparency and accountability that make management actions visible to the wider public;
  • decent employment and training systems with an end to casualisation;
  • diverse systems of public ownership that devolve operations to the lowest local level possible, whilst allowing national strategic planning where logistically necessary; and
  • objectives geared to social and ecological values that serve the common good of present and future generations, rather than line the pockets of elite private interests.

The pandemic has shown the urgency of remaking the case for democratic public ownership across Scotland and Britain as a critical policy solution, albeit one that can be diversified and tailored to the needs of different sectors and circumstances.

Andrew Cumbers is Professor of Regional Political Economy, University of Glasgow. He is author of ‘Reclaiming Public Ownership: Making Space for Economic Democracy’ (Zed, 2012)

A Scottish Care Service

Even before the pandemic, it was clear that the social care system in Scotland was in urgent need of reform. The current system is underfunded, lacks capacity, and has major workforce recruitment and retention problems with fragmented delivery through a discredited commissioning process. When former Conservative ministers are openly talking about the nationalisation of care homes, there is widespread recognition that there is a problem (even if not agreement on what should be done to solve the issue). The system is not just failing those who need social care but is also damaging the NHS with over half a million hospital bed days lost every year because of delayed discharges at the cost of £120m. These problems have been magnified during the pandemic. The lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), inadequate testing, minimal sick pay, and use of agency staff, have all contributed to the tragic deaths in care homes and amongst social care staff. Care at home has also been impacted with care packages reduced or abandoned. Informal carers have all too often been left to pick up the pieces.

The concept of a (national) Scottish Care Service (SCS) as part of the solution is not a new one. It has been Scottish Labour policy for a number of years, most recently as a 2019 General Election manifesto commitment (see p35 here). My own organisation, the Socialist Health Association, outlined the idea in its recent social care consultation paper. And, UNISON Scotland has recently published what it describes as a ‘road map’ towards the creation of a national care service. But while there is growing support for the principle of a Scottish Care Service, many in the sector have reasonably asked what it means in practice.

There seems to be a consensus in favour of a national framework rather than a service delivery organisation or making it part of NHS Scotland, not least to recognise the different models of care. But that leaves open what the SCS would undertake directly and what would be the governance arrangements. A national framework approach must end the current marketisation of social care. It could set consistent standards, contracts and charges for services not covered by free personal care. Most importantly, it would include a statutory workforce forum to set minimum terms and conditions, organise effective workforce planning and put a new focus on training and professionalism.

On governance, the usual approach would be to create a new Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB). This would leave the SCS with a similar democratic deficit to NHS Scotland and would undoubtedly be populated with the ‘usual suspects’ by the ministers who make the appointments. As the service will be delivered locally, another approach would be to create a joint board from councils across Scotland. This was a solution UNISON Scotland proposed for police and fire, which had the added advantage of keeping the VAT exemptions. The joint board could have places for relevant stakeholders, including users and worker providers.

A national service would also need to address regulation. The Care Inspectorate’s ‘light touch’ response to rising complaints has highlighted the need for reform. In fairness, it has been constrained by the Scottish Government’s own ‘Better Regulation’ code, together with inadequate powers and resources. There would also need to be a review of workforce regulation currently administered by the Scottish Social Services Council and UK professional regulatory bodies.

If the service is going to be delivered locally, this leaves open the question of local governance and ownership. As the Accounts Commission noted in its annual overview, the current system of Integrated Joint Boards (IJBs) has struggled to deliver integration or a shift in spending from hospitals to community care. There have been many attempts to improve integration in Scotland since the joint finance arrangements of the 1970s and all have struggled. It may be that this iteration will eventually deliver, but many will argue that it requires stronger democratic accountability to make difficult decisions, and that means a bigger role for councils. This happens in other parts of Europe, but even here, they have not always shifted resources from hospitals to community services.

Greater integration does not require staffing integration. Professional barriers have been broken down in recent years, and joint teams have shown that they can work effectively together, particularly when physically working together in community hubs. A huge staffing reorganisation would create stasis, just at the time when we need to free up staff to innovate. When IJBs were created, I – as a UNISON Scotland official – wrote a workforce framework, which would have addressed many of the current problems. Sadly, workforce issues were largely ignored at the time.

The fragmentation in service delivery is a significant problem that does need to be addressed with more than one thousand care at home providers and the scandal of care home firms registered in tax havens. In the short-term, the pandemic has highlighted the need for greater coordination on issues like procurement. Abolishing the market, standard contracts and common workforce standards will help shift resources to the front-line. In the medium-term, there should be greater common ownership, particularly in residential care.

Common ownership does not preclude innovative voluntary sector operators who can meet the new standards as the best in the sector already do. The private sector likes to make a false link between personalised care and marketisation. All care should be personalised, and that requires a range of services, not a range of ownership models. Local delivery should also be about greater innovation in service delivery, trying new models of care that integrate people with care needs into communities.

Finally, there is the tricky issue of funding. In England, the issue has at least been considered in the Dilnott Report, although it was overly focused on protecting assets. In Scotland, we cannot simply hope for the Barnett consequentials of reform in England to plug the current funding gap, let alone future demographic pressures. It requires a mature conversation with citizens about taxation. If we want to go further and fund care on the same basis as the NHS, then the conversation shifts to proposals like the former health minister Andy Burnham’s care levy, which involved a form of inheritance tax. Calling it and similar plans a ‘death tax’ is not a mature conversation.

The creation of a Scottish Care Service is an idea which has come of age. Turning it from a concept into a practical solution requires more work and some difficult conversations. If we are to ‘Build Back Better’, as the Tories implore, an integrated health and care service, with national standards and local delivery should be the highest priority.

Dave Watson, Secretary of the Socialist Health Association Scotland

School education in Scotland

The recent furore about the potential return of pupils to full-time education in August marked a depressing resumption of ‘politics as normal’ in Scotland and, perhaps, underlined the challenge facing those of us who think we should be seeking to ‘build back better’ across every sector of our communities. Of course, we wish to see pupils back in schools as soon as possible but the litmus test must be whether it is safe to do so, in terms of suppression of the virus, and in terms of the mitigations put in place to ensure that staff and students are in Covid secure environments.

Physically returning to school buildings is probably the easiest part of an education recovery programme. However, there are already signs that both local and national government will baulk at the cost of addressing the significant impact of lockdown on our pupils emotionally and in terms of educational attainment. The impact of Covid 19 has laid bare the fault lines in our society around inequality and poverty, with those children already suffering from disadvantage having that divide deepened. The learning gaps which were already there will certainly have widened, and although all pupils will have been at risk of exposure to domestic abuse within the home, trauma and exclusion, and social isolation, we know that Covid 19 has impacted disproportionally on poorer communities. How do schools begin to address this?

They start by prioritising the welfare and well-being of children, by nurturing them, by re-integrating and re-socialising them in caring communities. That is a labour-intensive process. It means teachers and support staff spending time listening to young voices and talking to them about their worries and fears. There is no short cut. So, we need more staff in our schools.

There has been grand talk about recruiting retired teachers back into the workforce, but the truth is that qualified teachers on supply lists and temporary contracts are struggling to even secure work for next session. Why? Because despite the rhetoric, neither local nor national government have provided the resources required. The money committed to date, including the job offer to newly qualified teachers, is nowhere near enough.

Why aren’t we employing every qualified teacher in the country so that we can cut class sizes to provide more individual support; why aren’t we enlisting an army of support staff to provide additional support; why aren’t we paying retired teachers to act as mentors and tutors to disadvantaged pupils?

Addressing the poverty induced attainment gap is an agreed priority for the Scottish education system but, in truth, pre-Covid we were running to stand still because of the growing levels of need in our society. Growing unemployment and renewed austerity present as major threats to this situation worsening in a post Covid world. I began teaching in 1979 and watched a generation of young people being systematically failed by Thatcherism. If the same is not to happen over the next decade, we need more than fine words.

Larry Flanagan is the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) union

Employment relations and employment law

We have lived through extraordinary times since March this year following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. It has echoes of the post-war period in 1945 when people of an older generation reminisce about food queues, rationing, loved ones never coming home and restrictions on movement. But it also taps into the same strong sense of community spirit and national effort which was fostered to get through trying and difficult days. In that post-war period, our nation developed a shared national consensus. This manifested through major social, health and technological advances including the creation of our National Health Service and the promotion of public ownership for our industries. In this post-pandemic period, it is also clear that we need a new national consensus for our time. For Unite, this must involve a different employment relations architecture and how we value those of have been undervalued for a generation in terms of societal worth and pay such as those who work in our care homes.

Unite wants a new economy built on the promotion of collective bargaining and strong social safety nets so that nobody falls through the cracks and everyone is properly valued. We want this throughout Britain but this does not mean that we need to wait until there is a pan-Britain response. Scotland should be a lightning rod for progressive change and where we can forge ahead, we should. As suggested above in the preceding contributions to this paper, this process should start immediately with bringing all areas of the care home sector under one national collective bargaining framework and to promote public ownership and stakes in private industry such as in our oil and gas sector.

There is now a consensus in Scotland broadly shared by the STUC, Scottish Labour and the SNP that employment law should be devolved. Unite Scotland also wants full powers associated with health and safety law devolved to ensure the buck stops with the Scottish Government in tackling the average 20 fatal workplace accidents a year in Scotland. Surely, a national consensus around a Scottish Health and Safety Executive alongside the reform of the culpable homicide law and the fatal accident inquiry system should be a relatively easy one to arrive at? In fact, what the Covid-19 outbreak has clearly demonstrated is that, in Scotland, we have taken a different approach to the economy and society in general, and that matters in the workplace have become both public health, and health and safety issues.

For too long, the Scottish Government has also used constitutional wrangling as an excuse for inaction or procrastination. For example, devolved Employment Tribunals are still not operational despite the Smith Commission stating that this should have happened by now. It’s an imperative that every tool is used by the Scottish Government to protect and safeguard workers, yet a power which has been devolved is still not being used for reasons unknown. This is completely unacceptable.

Admittedly, there has been progress such as the Fair Work First policy which has to an extent promoted better working pay and conditions for firms seeking grants or public contracts. It includes paying employees the Scottish Living Wage. Yet, this is on the whole a voluntary process lacking legal teeth, based on employer goodwill and framed around minimum guaranteed conditions. In effect, there is a messy patchwork of some private sector employers agreeing to some of these benchmarks, while the vast majority do not need to comply with it as the Scottish Government’s influence remains limited over them as many areas of business and employment law remain reserved at Westminster. In contrast, the governance of the public sector in relation to local government, education and health services is fully devolved.

There is no over-arching framework governing employment relations in Scotland. As such, the case for devolving employment, skills and apprenticeship powers at Holyrood is compelling. For us, this must also encompass health and safety, union recognition, industrial action, and consultative rights in relation to factory closures as part of a coherent national vision. The Scottish Parliament should send a united message to Westminster that we need these areas fully devolved to create the different society and economy we desire in a post-Covid Scotland.

Stephen Deans is a regional officer for UNITE the union Scotland

Union membership

There has been a number of good news items concerning union membership in early 2020. The Labour Force Survey (LFS) reported that for 2019 the number of union members rose by 91,000 from 2018 to 6.44m in 2019, being the third year of consecutive years following the fall to a low of 6.23m in 2016. Then, a number of unions such as the NEU, PCS and UNISON released data showing that they had experienced a much higher level of new recruits in the period of the pandemic. All told, it is estimated some 150,000 workers have joined. In Scotland, for example, UNISON has had more than 10,000 workers joining, representing an increase of 149% on the same period in 2019 and coming largely from health and social care. And, the EIS union has also seen significant membership growth – from March to July 2020, there has been a 53% increase in schools, an 18% in further education colleges and a 38% in universities compared to the same period in 2019. This has led to some 1,000 members in sectors which are already highly unionised.

But there are, nonetheless, a number of levelling points. First, this recruitment may not result in a net increase given the level of redundancies especially in transport, hospitality, manufacturing and retail where unions like the GMB, UNITE and USDAW have many members. Unemployed workers do not maintain union membership because unions do not act as job shops. Moreover, this situation will only get worse come the end of the furlough scheme on 31 October this year. Many of the 9m on furlough will find they have no jobs to go back to. Second, the proportion of employees who are union members for 2019 was only 23.5% in 2019. In 1995, it 32.4% in 1995 and 55% in 1979. And, third, by age range, just 4.4% of members were between 16-24 (with 19.5% aged 25-34, 36% aged 35-49, and 40% aged 50 or older).

All this indicates that unions on their own, and notwithstanding any pandemic premium, cannot be expected under the neo-liberal form of capitalism to be capable of generating a return to their previous levels of membership and influence under which a far higher share of national income went to labour than it does now. And, in the last few decades with the turn to ‘union organising’, they have at best merely run just to standstill. Though there is a ‘union premium’, whereby unionised workers earn more and work in healthier and safer workplaces than non-union workers, the consequences of the overall fall in union membership and collective bargaining coverage since 1979 is that wage and income inequality has widened, thus, also widening overall life chances. 

A number of options exist to assist with union recruitment under devolved and reserved powers of the Holyrood and Westminster parliaments. First, under the Fair Work Framework with its Fair Work First and Fair Work Action Plan,  there is the option currently being pursued by the SNP-led Scottish Government to coax – but not cajole – employers into engaging with unions and bargain with them. This is because there is no statutory underpinning to any compulsion for employers to do so. There is only the (voluntary) ‘business case’ for them to do so and any appeals to their altruism. Second, and representing much more than a tinkering about with ‘new’ Labour’s meek Employment Relations Act 1999 that governs the likes of the process of gaining statutory union recognition, is the Institute of Employment Rights’ Manifesto for Labour Law. It proposes a number of measures that directly and indirectly would assist union recruitment such as increased union access to workplaces and the right to sectoral collective bargaining. Yet it weakness is that it does not specifically provide a means for unions to increase their membership. So, third, there is the union default proposal. This involves changing the situation of the existing de facto non-union default into one of a union default. Under the existing system, workers must consciously join a union and they do so individually. There are many deterrents to them doing so, whether from employer opposition, staff turnover or media hostility. Under this new system, all workers in a bargaining unit would be automatically defaulted into the appropriate union once that union had gained a minimum threshold of membership (such as 10% or 20%) and there is an opt-out process so that this does not represent a return to the closed shop. A union would then have the automatic right to bargain for its members in this bargaining unit. If the union wanted to become the sole and exclusive bargaining agent for all workers, union and non-union, it would be required to gain the support of a majority of workers in the bargaining unit via a ballot of all workers. The possibility of introducing a union default system would rest upon either a fully sovereign Scottish Parliament or a change in government in the Westminster system. But either way, the need has been shown for unions to be much stronger in workplaces to counter the malign influence of employers, whether over wages, health and safety, working hours or various forms of discrimination. In the meantime, unions within Scotland and within the STUC should seek to debate the merits of a union default. Some unions may feel more in need of it than others depending upon their membership numbers and densities. In any case, they will need to be debate whether the union default would have positive or negative implications for their own organising activity, relations with employers such as partnership, and their own independence.

Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds

About the Jimmy Reid Foundation

Established in 2011 by the Scottish Left Review, the Jimmy Reid Foundation (JRF) is an independent ‘think tank’ and advocacy group focussed on producing practical, policy proposals for transforming Scotland based upon analysis and investigation of the current Scottish and global political, cultural and social situation. Visit our website to see our policy papers and news and follow us twitter @ReidFoundation.