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Andy Burnham: Why does the Government want fat-cat corks popping while millions struggle?

Amanda Searle
22 September 2022

omorrow we get our first real taste of the new government and, if reports are true, it sounds like the flavour might best be described as “Thatcher-max”.

Targeting billions on the better-off — when millions can’t afford the basics — is what the Treasury’s most senior civil servant would have no doubt called a “brave” decision (had he not already been removed from office).

Downright dangerous would be a less diplomatic, more accurate description.

It’s easy to foresee the front pages throughout a tough winter. Get ready for images of corks popping in the City alongside miserable hordes huddled in “warm banks”. If that is how the Truss administration’s agenda can be portrayed, then here is some free advice for them from this former “Red Wall” MP: write off those seats right now.

It doesn’t please me that our opponents may be about to make a massive political mistake. The risks in the here-and-now are too great, both to individuals and to the cohesion of our country.

After the last decade, the UK is in desperate need of a government that is serious about building national unity, rather one continuing to stoke confrontation and division.

At this 11th hour, as the new Cabinet finalises its package, I would ask them to be careful about the way they frame it, and the language they use, when presenting it to Parliament.

Rather than ramping up the rhetoric about benefit claimants, and threatening sanctions and reductions, it would help if ministers formally recognised that they are the people most at risk from the cost-of-living crisis. If tomorrow’s mini-Budget comes and goes without any cost-of-living uplift for people on in-work and out-of-work benefits, the levels of anxiety about what lies ahead will rise and the mental health crisis will intensify.

I also hope the Government will plot a careful course on pay and the role of trade unions.

If people’s wage packets won’t keep heads above water this winter, it is entirely reasonable for their representatives to threaten, or take, industrial action to protect their members from falling into debt.

Rather than revving up anti-union rhetoric, and threatening to curtail the right-to-strike, the Chancellor should do something very different. He should recognise that the key workers we all once clapped have justified cost-of-living concerns, and legitimate claims for pay increases, and signal a new determination to get around the table with their unions to agree a fair way forward.

He should also take a similar approach on private-sector pay. Given that businesses look set to get generous support, it should come on the condition that it is used to help everyone within the organisation, including workers. Organisations like the Royal Mail, which have this year given away hundreds of millions of pounds in dividends but are only offering a derisory increase to the workforce, should be called out.

Finally, a less divisive approach to the vexed issue of energy policy would also be helpful. Fracking will have a disproportionate impact in the North, and particularly those fabled Red Wall seats.

Surely lifting restrictions on onshore wind, rather than the ban on fracking, would be a much fairer, future-facing way of addressing the energy crisis?

To be fair to the Government, the signals it is sending out are not all bad. It has this week shown a willingness to think again on the privatisation of Channel 4. It has recognised that the problems on the West Coast Main Line are not all down to the trade unions, as the last Transport Secretary tried to claim. So perhaps there are grounds for hope that the approach will be more conciliatory than expected.

I hope so. I see the cost-of-living crisis as similar to the pandemic in the level of risk it presents to the health of those on the lowest incomes. It follows, therefore, that politicians need to adopt a similar approach to the one in March 2020: working to find as much cross-party consensus as possible and targeting most help on those most exposed.

If there is one thing we learnt from our longest-serving monarch, it is that the building of national unity requires care, balance and judgment. It means making sure all people and all communities feel seen and heard. It is not achieved by one group, or one ideology, being allowed to trample over others. It would be an extraordinary state of affairs, at the end of this week of all weeks, if that lesson was lost at the first opportunity.

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