7 October 2015

In October 1936 185 men made a month-long walk from Jarrow to London, the Jarrow Crusade. They were drawing attention to the plight of the town: mass unemployment and consequent poverty and higher-than-average mortality and the responsibility of government to help effectively.

The Jarrow marchers did not persuade the Tory-dominated coalition government to help. The crusade failed: it did not secure government help for Jarrow from the government. The Tory prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, refused to meet any of the marchers.

Yet in an important way the Jarrow march succeeded. Along with the hunger marches, it raised awareness of the lives of the poor and promoted the view that government had an active and creative part to play in people’s wellbeing. In 1945 people voted in an activist Labour government.

I am writing about Jarrow now because October is the month when the march was made (and one of my family was a Jarrow marcher); and the recent events at Redcar steel works are a disturbing echo.

What is government for? To keep people safe and to enable us to live our lives as amply as possible. That means matters like decently paid work, a secure place to live, food, schools and hospitals and libraries and even public lavatories. We can debate exactly how and who should provide the components of civilised life, but I believe the government must either provide them directly or ensure they are provided effectively and step in if others fail. I suppose that is a divide between socialists and Tories, the role and range of the state.

The Jarrow Crusade asked the government to step in when private endeavour failed. It didn’t. In Redcar the government is not unresponsive as at Jarrow; it is helping in a way. It cannot fund a British steel works facing Chinese steel deliberately underpriced and cheap in response to difficulties in the Chinese economy, but has set up an £80 million fund to help the workers retrain and hopefully secure new jobs.

The government may have to do more: there appears to be a question of the steel company and business rates that affects the income of the local council and thus its capacity to provide services: see here and here.

Capitalism has difficulties as great as socialism has. Keen practices by some enterprises, while bringing down the cost for industry and consumers and sharpening the talents of challenged management and producers, can undermine lives by putting people out of work. There is a role for governments: they need skilfully to encourage innovation, efficiency, and cost reductions but ensure workers do not suffer loss of work and income, a loss felt by their families and local enterprises where workers spend their money, a loss to the national economy. Governments need to cooperate to these ends.

What is government for? I believe we are not helpless onlookers at this disaster. Redcar isn’t Jarrow…