When Pret a Manger opened its first sandwich shop in 1986, I doubt many of us would have expected well-known high street chains to end up trying to pay their staff in leftovers.
But that’s exactly what’s happened. Last week, Pret had to abandon plans for a work experience scheme paying 16-18 year olds only with food after a public outcry.
It was an even faster U-turn than Tory chancellor Philip Hammond’s reversal of an increase in National Insurance for the self-employed – also after an outcry.
Both the Hammond and the Pret sagas look like a taste of things to come. The not-so-hidden agenda of hard right Brexiteers, from trade secretary Liam Fox to foreign secretary Boris Johnson, is to create a bargain basement economy for big business.
In 2012, Fox said it is “too difficult to hire and fire” and “intellectually unsustainable to believe that workplace rights should remain untouchable”.
Now that Article 50 has been triggered, Fox has his chance to sweep away decades of hard-won employment, consumer and environmental rights enshrined in EU law.
In fact that’s exactly the direction Theresa May has made clear she intends to go if she can’t get the Brexit deal she wants – and Johnson has said not getting a deal is “perfectly ok”.
In favour of the super-rich
The Tories are preparing a Great Repeal Bill as part of the Brexit process, and all the signs are they will try to use it to tip the economic scales even further in favour of their super-rich supporters.
They have after all spent the past seven years giving them one tax break after another while imposing austerity on everyone else. Altogether, on official figures, they will have handed out £73bn in welfare for the wealthy between now and 2022.
They have cut inheritance tax, the bank levy, capital gains tax, the top rate of income tax and corporation tax – squeezing or slashing support for the NHS, social care and other vital services.
It’s gone too far. The charity Oxfam says Britain is now, “one of the most unequal developed countries in the world” in which the richest one per cent own nearly a quarter of all wealth.
While the earnings of working people have been held back, executive pay has soared to levels beyond most people’s wildest dreams.
The chief executives of the top 100 companies on the London stock market were paid on average £5.5m each in 2015 – that’s 183 times average earnings.
The Conservatives justify tax cuts for the richest and big business by saying they will lead to an increase in investment. But there is no evidence of that whatever. On the contrary, investment in the UK has fallen, leaving us with antiquated infrastructure and uncompetitive industries.
The future of our country cannot be left to the free market and the whims of the wealthy. Government has a responsibility to step in where the private sector is failing.
‘Bank of the North’
That is why Labour will set up a national investment bank and regional development banks – including our ‘Bank of the North’ – to help unlock £500bn to fund major capital projects and finance growth.
Our plan involves an increase in public capital spending to stimulate new investment by the private sector. It means creating hundreds of thousands of good quality jobs in manufacturing and in green and other cutting-edge industries of the future.
The Prime Minister likes to accuse me of wanting to bankrupt Britain by borrowing to fund investment.
But, as every businessperson knows, there is a world of difference between borrowing for capital spending and borrowing to fund day-to-day trading.
Investment in infrastructure, skills, broadband and high speed rail generates growth and tax revenues. It more than pays for itself.
At this crucial moment, we have to look to the future and ask ourselves what sort of country do we want Britain to be?
Labour campaigned for remain and reform in the EU. But we accept the verdict of the people. What we cannot accept, however, is that those who voted Leave wanted to see Britain become a cheap labour tax haven for big business.
We are offering an alternative. Instead of a country run for the rich, we want to see one in which all of us can lead richer lives.
That means making sure everyone has a decent home with an affordable rent or mortgage. It means free access to education and training so everyone can develop their skills and pursue their interests.
It means a secure job for everyone on at least a real living wage – a minimum of £10 per hour by 2020. And it means an NHS and care services where people, not privatisation, come first.
Much of this can be achieved by changing the rules of the game, by creating a level playing field.
Other of our goals – such as building a million new homes in five years – will require public and private investment along the lines I have outlined.
And some – such as access to education and the NHS – will involve expanding and modernising public services.
Of course, any time Labour mentions a commitment to improving public services or investing in our future, the Conservatives fall back on their ‘bankruptcy’ mantra.
But this is a bit rich coming from a party that, among its many tax giveaways, has cut the bank levy by £5.4bn and done nothing to rein in the bonus culture that fuelled the 2008 banking crisis – sending national debt soaring.
Under Labour, any tax rises needed to make Britain a country in which everyone prospers will fall first on the tax dodgers, and most heavily on those with the broadest shoulders.
Extreme and growing inequality is not only unfair, it is also holding Britain and millions of people back. It doesn’t have to be like this – we can and must do better.
Len McCluskey is the general secretary of Unite.
First published in the Yorkshire Post (March 29).