Dear reader, Christmas is coming and I fear this will be the last time I get to treat you until after Santa has put has mask on and socially distanced himself down your chimneys, writes Nick Johnson, leader of the Southwark Liberal Democrat opposition…
Hope can be a dangerous word, but as the strangest of years comes to a close and we look to 2021, and the prospect of a vaccine, it is time for us to remind ourselves of what is important to us as a community.
In 2020 we all had to adapt to a situation that challenged, confused and sometimes distressed us. Locked away in our homes, we got to know our neighbourhoods better and we looked out for our elderly and vulnerable neighbours. Many people reached out for help and they found it.
Never has our motto ‘United to Serve’ been so true. We all owe a debt of gratitude to council staff, all our key workers and all of our community for all they are doing during the pandemic. The role of food banks and Mutual Aid Groups has been remarkable, even if the need for their existence is disgraceful in an affluent country such as ours.
Once again, local government has had to fill the void left by central government.
Like many young Irish girls, my mum came to this country aged eighteen to train as a nurse. She spent many an hour doing track and trace on the streets of 1950s Liverpool. In her day it was Tuberculosis and Syphilis rather than COVID-19. All those decades ago, she knew what we know now – that Track and Trace works best at a local level.
So I would also like to compliment the council on an effective track and trace system in comparison to the inept, absurdly expensive and privatised approach of this government.
Outside the pandemic, one of the issues your Liberal Democrat councillors have been pushing Labour on is the issue of cladding and snagging. This week we invited residents to present their experience of living in flats that they bought in good faith, only to discover that they may have unsafe cladding on, leaving them stuck – unable to sell, unable to raise any further mortgage on and trapped waiting for the Government to act. It is clear that many many people across Southwark are in a similar position. We have been lobbying both local and central government to intervene and I’m pleased to say that the council administration have agreed to work with us on this. If you have been affected by similar issues, please get in touch with me.
According to the charity ‘Trust for London’, before the COVID-19 crisis, close to a third of Londoners lived in poverty and London had the highest poverty rates in the UK. Sadly, here in Southwark this included an above average level of income deprivation – 50 per cent worse than the average London neighbourhood.
The pandemic magnified this and many fell through the cracks in benefits and support from this government – not least those who are self-employed.
The remuneration and benefits system is no longer fit for purpose in a modern, fast-evolving economy of our size especially as we head to an automated society. It seems clear that, if ever there was a time to re-think the fundamentals of society and capitalism, it is now. Coronavirus has shown us that the system isn’t working.
In the Liberal Democrats, we are pushing for the council to consult local people and lobby the government on a Universal Basic Income (UBI). If you aren’t familiar with the idea, the concept is simple but revolutionary: every individual in the country is paid a set amount each week, say £65. They don’t have to work for it and they aren’t means-tested for it. This makes it simple to administer.
How can we pay for this? There are many ways, but one of easiest is through income tax, so that those on better incomes end up not being any better off whilst those on the lowest of incomes have a basic element of financial protection. The furlough scheme has shown that this can work and can offer a vital lifeline to people in the most precarious of positions in society.
As move into a world where automation replaces more and more jobs and the pandemic prevents others from working, we need this kind of radical re-think. The Liberal Democrats have called on the council to lobby government to look at Southwark as a pilot for UBI in London and I’m pleased to say that the administration have agreed to meet with UBI London – a think tank set up to explore how this could be done.
Anyone who says ‘nothing ever changes’ can take heart from this.
I will leave you with a final thought: whilst Christmas can be a time for family, it can also be a time of crushing loneliness and isolation, so spare a thought for your neighbour who lives alone or your friend you haven’t spoken to in ages. Reach out to them; at the end of the day, all we have is each other.
Stay safe and see you all after Christmas.