Don’t let Boris Johnson off the hook over sick pay, writes KEN LIVINGSTONE
HAVING seen how he ran his campaigns for the London mayoralty, it became clear to me some time ago that Boris Johnson’s strategy to gain and maintain power was simple: create a circus headlined by himself to distract from an absence of anything offered by him that will meaningfully improve the lives of those he supposedly serves.
The bumbling persona, the willingness to flip from presenting himself as a modern metropolitan liberal to a reactionary right-wing culture warrior, the gimmicky policy announcements: all of them exist to ensure the topic of conversation is anything other than his actual record on the issues that impact millions.
There’s a reason he always came up with eccentric remarks and schemes while sneaking through measures such as closing 10 London fire stations.
With his “achievements” since taking over as prime minister including a disastrous response to the Covid-19 pandemic, yet more increases in the cost of living and mounting scandals, these tactics will no doubt be deployed more and more desperately. No talking point is too absurd to be used as a distraction from real politics.
While announcing his farcical and dangerous proposals for “freedom” from modest common-sense responsible public health measures, Johnson argued that Britain’s workers should learn from the “discipline” shown by employees in Germany, who are less likely to go into work when sick, and emphasised the importance of “personal responsibility.”
It’s important that progressives cut through lazy national stereotypes and get to the heart of the substantive issue here. In so much as Britain could do worse than copying the approach of Germany in relation to illness at work, this is a rare case where I do not disagree with him. But the problem here is his responsibility, not that of individual workers.
German employers are required by law to provide at least six weeks of full sick pay, whereas in Britain statutory levels are just £96.35 — less than a quarter of average wages. This comparison starkly highlights just how shockingly poor government policy is on this — even by the standards of their policies on most things!
Our pitifully low levels leave all too many workers in the unenviable position of having to choose between potentially threatening the health of themselves and their colleagues or missing out on a huge chunk of their pay (at a time when living standards are being squeezed even more firmly than before).
An estimated 40 per cent would be forced into financial hardship if relying on current statutory sick pay. And under Johnson’s proposals to scrap free testing, many will be priced out of even being able to confirm their Covid-19 status in the first place.
This is not about employees being desperate to experience the thrill of their commute come what may, but the Tories once again abandoning working people.
In contrast to the usual nonsense rhetoric offered by the Prime Minister, the labour movement can provide an agenda for real positive change.
The TUC have called for an end to the minimum earnings threshold (currently £120 a week) to receive statutory sick pay, for levels to be raised to at least £320 a week, and for the government to provide financial support where necessary to ensure all workers can receive this.
As their health, safety and wellbeing officer Shelly Asquith put it recently: “’Living with Covid’ actually means ‘working while sick’ for millions of people who cannot afford to survive on £96 a week statutory sick pay.”
These proposals from the trade union movement should be the basis of a campaign to force concessions from the Tories and push this issue up the agenda inside the Labour Party, ensuring that the current leadership cannot add this to the list of dropped policies.
There is an enormous base of public support to be tapped into here — polling for the RSA last year found that 76 per cent of voters said they supported full wages being offered for those self-isolating, rather than the current levels of statutory sick pay. This included 81 per cent of Labour voters, and a remarkable 74 per cent of Conservatives.
On the topic of trade unions, there is another lesson to be learned from the example of Germany — the stronger rights and support (like higher sick pay levels) enjoyed by workers there is not simply reflective of a more benevolent government (albeit it’s not exactly hard to be more benevolent than ours!), but a situation where organised labour does not face the same hugely restrictive laws and attacks on collective bargaining.
Far from being a source of pride, as a certain former prime minister who supposedly represented the labour movement claimed, the situation faced by unions here is outrageous — that’s why the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom should be strongly supported.
Don’t let Boris Johnson off the hook on this — far from being a matter of individual choice, as he and other right-wing zealots in the Tory Party claim, the dilemma faced by working people who fall ill is illustrative of why public health is ultimately an issue of class politics.
It’s time to make sure the call for proper sick pay becomes one he can no longer drown out with his buffoonish theme music.
Sign the raise sick pay now petition at https://www.change.org/p/rishi-sunak-raise-sick-pay-for-all-tell-rishi-sunak-boris-johnson-poverty-level-sick-pay-must-go