By Oliver Gibson
The recent unveiling and implementation of the Government’s tiered Coronavirus restrictions might easily be viewed as being the most important development in politics in the past few months.
Indeed, somewhat surprisingly given the current circumstances, Parliament is less active than it was a year ago. There is no looming general election as there was last year. Britain left the European Union earlier this year, though various talks are still ongoing for the time being.
Another important event in politics has happened recently, however. It is conference season; the time of year where political parties generally convene to discuss amongst themselves their legislative agendas and plans.
The Conservative Party Conference took place recently and will be of particular interest to many as they are the party that is in power in Westminster. There is, of course, a higher chance of Conservative policies being enacted considering that fact.
A Green Industrial Revolution to come?
A popular component of Labour’s 2019 manifesto, and one that the party was keen to advertise, was the ‘green industrial revolution’. This comprised of a series of proposed environmental reforms that Labour claimed would ‘work hand in hand with sustainable jobs and industries and social justice’.
The Conservatives unveiled their own version of such a policy package in their conference, henceforth to be known as ‘The Green Economy’. The Conservatives’ environmental policies generally aim to bring less economic disruption than Labour’s, though of course, this comes with the criticism that they do not take the environment seriously. However, this new set of policies do seem to be more than just hot air.
Outlined in The Green Economy statement was the commitment of the Government to become the world leader in low-cost clean power generation. While this will of course be a sizable challenge, the evidence does exist that shows the progress that Britain has made in this field. The offshore wind farms that are dotted around the coastline of Great Britain are innovative and do lead the way for many other countries.
The London Array, built in 2013, was the world’s largest offshore wind farm for five years. While there are many other offshore wind farms currently under construction, such as the Hornsea Wind Farm off the coast of East Yorkshire, it will no doubt be a mammoth task to transition Britain fully away from its dependence on fossil fuels. To this end, the Government has announced an upcoming investment of £160 million in ports and factories to assist in the manufacturing process of new wind turbines for offshore and onshore use.
The Government might well be keen to build on the successes already found in Yorkshire. Multiple governments have invested in green energy schemes in Yorkshire over the years. The recently redeveloped Ovenden Moor Wind Farm, that was originally constructed in 1993, is believed to supply enough electricity to power 11,000 homes.
The housing crisis
A longstanding criticism of the Conservative governments since 2010 has been found on the issue of housing. Known widely as the ‘housing crisis’, with an emphasis often being placed on the lack of affordable houses for first-time buyers.
The three governments since 2010 have each acknowledged the housing crisis, though many feel as though that not enough has been done in the past and that the problem is still ongoing. The Cameron government in its 2015 manifesto outlined its plans to build 200,000 starter homes. This would no doubt have eased the shortage of homes a great deal. However, it was reported last year in the Guardian that no such government-backed starter homes had been built, though obviously homes were constructed privately.
In the Conservative Conference, the Government outlined its new policy on mortgages. This would increase the possible size of a mortgage and decrease the minimum size of the deposit on a house from 10% of the total value of the property to 5%. This would no doubt be a boost to first-time buyers and could help to stimulate growth in house sales.
The Government also recently announced plans to reform the house planning process in order to stimulate the construction of new homes.
While this seems to be a reasonable policy in theory, many Conservative backbenchers have come forward to voice their concerns on this issue. Amongst such backbenchers were the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, the former Cabinet heavyweights Dominic Green, Jeremy Hunt and Chris Grayling.
They claimed that the policy could:
- Weaken democracy at the local level, taking power away from locally elected councils and bodies
- Eat away at the green belt
- Serve only to promote house building in areas such as the South-East of England
These dissenting opinions from concerned backbenchers certainly cast a shadow of doubt on this new policy, though it seems that the reaction to the new approach to mortgages has been much warmer both in and outside of the House of Commons.
Will state-backed media be reformed?
The Queen, just over a week ago, praised traditional media outlets and stressed the need for honest journalism. However, a topic discussed in the Conservative Party Conference last week was a reform of state-owned media. While Channel 4 is funded through advertising, unlike the BBC’s model, it is nevertheless owned by the Government.
Channel 4 is clearly a major player in UK broadcasting, and this is perhaps best demonstrated by its viewing figures.
Statista.com, in their article titled ‘Leading TV channels in the United Kingdom’, showed that Channel 4 had the second-highest audience share of any channel in the 3rd quarter of 2019, reaching 51.1 million viewers in those months alone. BBC 1, on the other hand, reached 55 million.
While those viewing figures are impressive, it must be said that news outlets and television channels do not exist purely to make money. Even companies in that field that are privately owned are quite unique in that regard. TV channels serve to inform, entertain, inspire and bring enrichment. Even some of the most popular newspapers do not, in fact, make a profit, and examples of this can be found in the Guardian and the Times.
That does not go to say, however, that Channel 4 would disappear if privatised. It is demonstrably a popular platform and millions of Britons tune in to watch its shows. However, the safety of its signature journalistic and creative focuses (which are unpopular with some in Government according to The Guardian) could be in danger if the organisation were to be sold.
It must also be said that this is not the first time that a government of the UK has announced its plans to move Channel 4 out of public ownership. The Cameron government in 2015 came close to selling Channel 4 but eventually backed down after a successful counter-campaign.
A common feature of Conservative Party Conferences of the last few years has been talk of reform of the immigration system. David Cameron famously promised multiple times to reduce net migration to the UK to the ‘tens of thousands’ after claiming that Labour had allowed migration to spiral out of control.
However, met migration has been estimated to be higher than 100,000 in every year since 1998. In fact, in 2016 alone, David Cameron’s last year in office, migration to the UK stood at 248,000.
Despite this, there seems to be a greater sense of commitment in the Government’s announcements in the Conference this year. Home Secretary Priti Patel outlined again the Government’s ambition to implement a ‘points-based’ immigration system to the UK, and this is now a policy that is grounded in reality.
It is now a matter of law that from the 1st of January 2021, free movement to the UK will end. The points-based system that was introduced by the Government will then come into effect – applying to both EU and non-EU potential migrants to the UK. Irish citizens however will be able to work in the UK without applying for permission in advance.
Patel asserted in her speech to the Party that the new points-based system would allow the ‘brightest and best scientists, doctors and nurses’ a route into the UK. Also addressed in her speech was the inaction of various previous governments on the issue of the asylum system. She stated that while reforms will ‘take time’, the Government is to introduce a large overhaul of the asylum system next year.
A points-based approach to immigration has been touted by various figures on the Eurosceptic right for some time now. It seems a logical move for the Conservative Party to have embraced the policy as it has done, considering its nature as a more socially conservative approach to immigration and the usage of the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan by Brexiteers during the referendum. However, the idea has come under much criticism from many angles.
The former Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, claimed that the salary threshold of the policy could make it ‘very difficult’ to recruit workers from overseas into the social care system, as many of those workers earn less than £25k a year. Currently, the social care system is reliant on migrant labour and a shortage of workers would no doubt pose a problem to the UK. Abbott claimed that such a shortage could cause the social care system in ‘London and other big cities’ to ‘collapse’.
However, potential migrants will find it easier to come to the UK to find work in fields in which there is a labour shortage. These shortages will be outlined by the Migration Advisory Committee.
It has been estimated by TLDR News that the new points-based system could decrease immigration from the EU by up to 70%. Under normal circumstances, such a reduction would likely cause a labour shortage.
However, these aren’t normal circumstances anymore. The economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on the British economy has been severe and will have a lasting effect on many facets of life.
The most recently published unemployment rate, which outlines the number of unemployed people from June to August, shows that 4.5% of Britons are unemployed. This was an increase of o.4% when compared to the previous rate of unemployment. The BBC reported that, between March and September, the number of people claiming unemployment benefits rose by 120% to 2.7 million people.
The UK is now tightening Covid-19 restrictions once again. While these measures are not yet as drastic as the ones imposed in March, they will no doubt have a negative impact on the British economy and the rate of unemployment. If labour shortages can be filled by those who are already in the UK then the need for immigration will of course decrease, though politicians from all major parties acknowledge the role that migrants play in the British economy.