International Workers’ Day: Economic recovery & employment in Bristol

Nigel Costley. South West TUC. © Jess Hurd

To mark International Workers’ Day, today’s blog comes from Nigel Costley, South West TUC Regional Secretary.

Ernie Bevin was a young carter, delivering bottles of pop and water around Bristol at the time of depression at the end of the Boer war. He would go on to become the leader of Britain’s largest union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), Minister for Labour during the Second World War, and Foreign Secretary after it.

But in 1908 he knew something had to be done to tackle rising unemployment. He led a silent protest into a service at Bristol Cathedral that led to negotiations with the ‘City Fathers’ for a programme of public works. Funded by the public and private sectors, it created real Jobs with pay and dignity. One project was to dig a lake in Bristol’s Eastville Park that became known as ‘Bevin’s Lake’.

We need even more imagination now. While the economy takes time to recover those without work will need more than a new CV and some interview skills to apply for jobs that aren’t going to be there.

The boldness shown by the Chancellor in the health emergency will be needed for the recovery. The state will need to stimulate and rapidly deliver meaningful work. And there is lots to do.

There will be lots of ideas. We could start by attracting a new army of care workers – not zero-hour, over-worked and poorly paid – but high-status professionals with career prospects and training for a newly-valued health and care sector.

We know thousands of homes will have to be refitted, ready for a carbon-free world and this is an opportunity to do it. And let’s build the kerb-side charging network for the electric vehicles we will need to have too.

Instead of digging a lake, we should plant some of the millions of trees promised by politicians at the last election. Not ‘Bevin’s Lake’, but a new forest!

We also must stop punishing people for learning new skills. If someone wants to spend time at college to learn how to be a bricklayer, social worker, engineer or whatever, we should support them. Currently we take away their benefits because they are deemed to be not actively seeking work! This demands a big revival of adult education in our colleges.

But we are not in a good shape to do this, especially in England.

An emergency recovery plan won’t be delivered through the mish-mash of austerity-starved local councils, local enterprise partnerships, combined authorities and metro mayors. It won’t help that government departments no longer share the same geographic footprints – a consequence of the scorched-earth policy of the 2010 government.

We need a cluster of powerful recovery task groups, big enough to have the fire-power and expertise to deliver, but still small enough to understand their patch and work closely with local partners. And, crucially, include employers, unions and the voluntary sector.

There needs to be just enough task groups so their leaders can fit in a room – even an online one. As few contact points as possible between ministers and delivery are needed.

And we need it fast. Bevin saw how damaging unemployment was to the human spirit as well as the economy.

When the economy eventually gets back on its feet we should be better than before and not leave a legacy of broken lives.

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