The ‘Nationalisation’ of Labour

Published: Posted on

By Professor John Bryson
Department of Strategy and  International Business, University of Birmingham

Something astonishing has happened that will go down in British history as an example of an inflection moment in British governance. I have already argued that the Covid-19 pandemic represents an inflection point producing radical and long-lasting social, cultural, economic, political and geopolitical change. Inflection points are important, rare and they change the future.

On Friday 20 March, Boris Johnson’s government, our government, ‘nationalised’ labour and this approach deepened in the following days. During the last election, the Labour Party’s manifesto was a nationalisation agenda. This agenda was nothing compared to the wave of revolutionary policy interventions that have been announced by this government since the 11 March budget. The announcement that the government would pay 80% of the salaries of employees who are kept on by their employers, who are no longer able to afford to pay them, is revolutionary. This represents a form of ‘nationalisation’ of labour and the creation of a new partnership between government, labour and business. This is unheard of and is radical in scale and ambition shattering existing approaches to governance.

So, how do we understand our government’s strategy during the Covid-19 national emergency?

  • First, the scale of this national emergency means that this is a time for constructive political commentary.

I have no interest in journalists who are misreading the UK strategy to address this emergency. Thus, writing in The Guardian, John Crace has argued that “Pantomime clown Boris Johnson flounders as crisis deepens”.  Really? I believe this is a Shakespearean moment when Brutus in Julius Caesar (Act IV, Scene III) says, “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”. We are reminded, through this metaphor, that there are times for action and times for inaction. For the UK government, this is a time to seize the opportunity and ensure that the UK mitigates and reduces the negative impacts of Covid-19 on people including the most vulnerable, the economy and the extent of the pandemic.

  • Second, the UK government’s policy is extremely simple – mitigation and adaption.

The new wage subsidy, of up to £2,500 a month, will dampen the economic impacts of Covid-19 bringing relief to employees, families and businesses. We need to identify and understand the different types of mitigation focused policies that are emerging daily. These include decisions regarding keyworkers, schools, the closure of cafes, pubs and restaurants and the lockdown strategy that was introduced earlier this week.

For adaption, we must look to the people, charities and businesses for exceptional examples of new initiatives that are intended to reduce the impacts of Covid-19. This includes the decision by Eton College to open its doors to support key workers and their children from the local area, and the rapid design by Dyson of a new type of ventilator for the NHS. It includes the introduction of virtual church services and all those acts of responsible citizenship undertaken on a second-by-second basis across the country by families, friends, neighbours and strangers.

The current mantra is that we are living through an exceptional national emergency. We are witnessing the creation of a radical new form of governance. Boris Johnson really meant it when he stated that

“We’ll Do Whatever it Takes”.


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