We May All Be Daniel Blake

If a week is a long time in politics, a year is an age. An independent documentary crew asked if they could film my first year in office. Last week, I saw the final edit. The contrast between last summer and now was marked. Gone are the busy rooms, handshakes, and meetings. Now everyone I talk to appears in the same place: on my computer screen.

So many people in those clips were doing jobs that depend on proximity. Venue management. Audio-visual technicians. Caterers. Meeters and greeters, PAs and event hosts.

The furlough scheme is winding down in October. Millions are facing the threat of redundancy. Some sectors still need support, notably culture and events. The government needs to revise the furlough scheme and give them direct support. But so many other business models depend on footfall. The people who fit out offices. The sandwich shops whose trade depends on the office block round the corner. With home working set to become a permanent trend, many small business will struggle to survive. Businesses have tried innovative ways to bring money in. But they’re swimming against the tide.

Whether self-employed people can access help seems to depend the luck of the draw. One in seven UK workers are self employed. Delivery drivers, builders, sports commentators, company directors, hairdressers…it cuts across social divides.

The available funding is called the Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). HMRC identified 3.4 million eligible people based on their self-assessment tax return for the last 3 years. Of these, 75% applied to the scheme. This in itself is astonishingly high. It means only 25% of self-employed businesses are viable under Covid. In addition to that 3.4 million, we’ve got self-employed people who need support, but are denied. This includes anyone newly self-employed in the last year, about 200,000 people. Anyone earning more than £50k, even if their income dropped to £0 under Covid, another 225,000 people. Anyone earning less than 50% of their income from self-employment, about 1.2 million people. This non-self-employed income could be a pension, redundancy money, or salary from a job which ended earlier in the year. In total 1.6 million people nationally have been left to fall through the safety net. I and many others have told government. But they’ve done nothing.

In January, 3.8% of 16 to 64 year olds in the North of Tyne claimed benefits. By July that rose to 6.8%, marginally above the national average of 6.5%. On top of that, by July, 29.5% of the workforce in the North of Tyne were on furlough. The national rate was 29.9%.

White collar jobs in particular are facing a crisis. Fewer jobs are available, and the number of applicants has increased threefold. I’ve seen a junior local government post attract applicants from as far as Spain, Bulgaria and the USA. People in middle-management are facing unemployment. They’ve never had any contact with the benefits system. If they or their partner have savings, they may not qualify. Or shares, or an ISA, or even a redundancy payment. They’ll soon understand why people like Ken Loach have been making films about it.

The government’s plan to hire more work coaches is all very well. But unless there are actual jobs to be had, people will be chasing their tails.

What needs to happen? Instead of dishing out contracts to mates, government should invest in the public services gutted by austerity. Then we might get a test and trace system with the skill and capacity it needs.

We’ve got Brexit coming up. We still haven’t hired and trained the extra customs officers we need. Above all, we need a Green New Deal. We should build homes for affordable rent. Retrofit houses to save energy and keep people warm and healthy. Build wind turbines to provide cheap, plentiful electricity. Build a clean transport system. One that’s safe, and cheap, and works for everyone, from 8 to 80. In the North East alone, this would create 38,000 jobs.

In November, the government will announce its Comprehensive Spending Review. The North of Tyne is submitting our plan for economic recovery. Its foundation will be creating good quality jobs in a Green New Deal.

Originally Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 7.9.20