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Editorial: We are in a war of words — and Labour needs to get its language clear

THERE is a particular injustice in the government’s decision to compel freelance workers to subsist on £94 a week until June before they are entitled to the still scarcely sustainable subsidy that other workers get.

Rebecca Long Bailey is right to condemn this delay as “unacceptable.”

“Freelance” is one of those weasel words that encompasses many meanings. At one end of this spectrum we have media personalities with personal deals in which monopoly money is awarded via their tax-efficient contractual vehicles.

At the other end there are masses of cleaners and craftspeople, delivery drivers and web designers, waiting staff and office temps — and a myriad more callings — which once were as permanent as any job can be in the capitalist labour market.

Even where pay rates are nominally higher than for permanent employees, this is not always enough to compensate for the diminished rights and protections that are available.

One way of thinking about freelance workers, in the mass, that is, is to see them as second reserves in the flexible labour market so beloved of our neoliberal masters.

The unemployed are traditionally seen as the principal reserve army of labour, the existence of which is maintained as a mechanism to depress wages generally.

Freelancers are more often on the pitch — but without a guarantee of continued employment.

Where even our presently impoverished system of workplace rights guarantees a maximum level of hours at work, a basic entitlement to paid leave and an inadequately policed system of health and safety, little of this applies to the freelance worker. 

It is unwise to turn down any work, even at below-market rates, and risky to take time out.

There is unending pressure to work every hour, and the boundary between work and life is desperately fragile, while the freedoms are largely illusory.

Meanwhile, John McDonnell is arguing that workers in general need greater protection.

This will cost money, but it is hard to see how the government can argue that we cannot afford it.

With large parts of the economy on life support and millions of working people uncertain about how they are to pay their bills and put food on the table, we cannot afford not to build what McDonnell calls “the resilience we need to deal with the growing strain on our economy and public services in the coming days.”

Just because the government has conceded vital territory in the battle of ideas about how modern societies can survive crises such as that we are living through does not mean it has overcome the natural reflexes of a party of the propertied.

Tories will seek to do the minimum, spend as little as possible and build into their plans an enduring bias towards the rich and the propertied.

Labour’s job in this is to present as clear as possible the practical case for measures that protect the lives and livelihood of working people.

Its message must contain both an explanation of why the collective action of an interventionist state is the first foundation of a strategy to overcome this crisis but, beyond that, a clear idea of what vision it has post-crisis.

Labour has an enormous advantage in the way this crisis is playing out. The centrality of workers and useful labour in stabilising society is now the language of every socially distanced encounter and social media exchange.

The slightest hint that Labour would allow things to revert to normal or near-normal would be disastrous.

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