(Title Image: Leicestershire Police)
While there’s no doubt it’s the most important issue going into the election campaign, there are several issues which are just as – in some cases more (or should be) – important than that circus.
Austerity/Public Spending Cuts
Is the age of austerity really over?
After ten years of actual and real terms public spending cuts, there are promises of various windfalls and we’re set to see some eye-watering sums of money committed in manifestos towards certain public services. Some will argue it’s a Brexit dividend; others will say it’s simply cheaper to borrow money at the moment or we should tax the wealthy more.
The UK has come close to a technical recession and the economic growth of the last five years or so has slowed down, with unemployment and economic activity flatlining or on the rise.
Any changes to the UK budget and English spending priorities will have a likely knock-on impact on the Welsh budget, with both schools and local government jostling to be first in line as well as the NHS.
On the ground, however, botched welfare and economic reforms are still having a massive human impact in the form of food banks, stagnant pay and homelessness.
Changes to the tax system to “make work pay” by cutting personal allowances has ultimately led to lower tax take, while the tax system for businesses and wealthy individuals remains fundamentally broken with loads of loopholes.
Violent Crime & “County Lines” Drug Gangs
The incoming UK Government needs to get a grip on this – whatever the colour. This is affecting nearly everywhere in Wales and speaking for myself it’s been visible on the streets of Bridgend for the last few years too, in particular the impact of new drugs like spice.
This is, in my opinion, partly a consequence of moves to make so-called new psychoactive substances – which used to be controlled and sold over the counter in specialist shops – illegal.
Wales’ porous border is often hailed as some sort of benefit, but this is a very clear negative, with drug gangs from the larger English cities moving into smaller Welsh towns and cities, living like parasites on host households and dragging young vulnerable people into the drugs trade – with life-changing consequences.
The upsurge in knife crime is also a serious development if not always directly linked.
Political & Constitutional Reform; Scottish Independence
I doubt there are many people now who think the UK’s uncodified constitution is fit for purpose. It’s often said constitutional issues “don’t matter to people”, but the current political crisis is the sort of outcome you should expect to happen when you believe that statement.
When the constitution fails, the state fails and that impacts everyone whether they realise it or not. British politics doesn’t work anymore and even the Queen’s constitutional role has been brought into serious question for the first time (though in places like Australia it’s happened before) due to September’s prorogation crisis.
Secondly, will there be another Scottish independence referendum? My view is it’s unlikely to happen in line with Nicola Sturgeon’s timetable (by 2026 is more realistic) and it’s also looking unlikely that Scotland will be given the necessary powers to hold a legally-recognised referendum – which could potentially, in the medium-term, lead to a Catalan-style stand-off.
Welsh independence isn’t quite on the agenda in the same way (yet), but it’s being taken far more seriously in 2019 then at any other point in modern history. That’s before mentioning Ireland. Without serious reforms, there’s no future for the UK.
After decades of being fairly low down the agenda, this election should be the first one where climate change is higher up the list of priorities due to increased activism by Extinction Rebellion and young people as well as increased awareness of the need for urgent action (though it may already be too late).
It’ll probably be very difficult to match ambitions with the practicalities – though there has been some progress on energy generation – so it’s worth taking any bold statements here on how quickly the UK can decarbonise with a pinch of salt. Talk is cheap.
The Prison Estate
There’s a hidden crisis in prisons.
They’re overcrowded, self-harm is on the increase, re-offending rates haven’t changed and the conditions in some prisons, including some Welsh ones, have been condemned. New “super-prisons” like HMP Berwyn in Wrexham have become difficult to police due to the use of inexperienced staff and while there are examples of good practice and positive outcomes, by and large the prison system is no longer fit for purpose.
Instead of solving the root causes of crime and considering workable alternatives to prison, the current UK Government is instead committed to locking up more and more people. There’s also the question as to whether criminal justice should be devolved?
The Future of the Licence Fee (See also: The Welsh Media XIIb: Funding Public Service Broadcasting)
The BBC is responsible for TV licences and for the moment the plan is to scrap free licences for most over-75s except those in receipt of pension credit. This has proven to be unpopular and you can expect all of the parties to propose different courses of action – maybe even in the longer term, scrapping the licence fee altogether, which might be popular but would cause issues of its own.
High Speed 2
Will it be scrapped? Progress is stalled and it has all the makings of one of the biggest infrastructure bodge jobs in UK history. The amount already spent on consultants fees and alike without anything actually getting built is eye-watering – estimated to be anything up to and beyond £4billion (Welsh share: £200million).
The “sunk cost fallacy” means that the amount spent already will act as a big incentive for the incoming UK Government to continue with the project to avoid “wasting money” even if going ahead actually ends up wasting more money in the end.
With Crossrail also subject to lengthy delays, cost overruns at new nuclear power stations and various projects being scrapped altogether, the UK is something of a basket case when it comes to delivering the sort of major infrastructure projects the rest of the world have delivered with little to no trouble at all.
Paying for Social Care & Intergenerational Fairness
Some of this – particularly social care – is devolved, but as in 2017 the forthcoming term will see the retirement of an even greater number of “Baby Boomers” (those born between ~1945-1960).
People now aged in their late 20s or early 30s could well be working until our 70s before claiming a state pension. We’ll be expected to shoulder the burden of an ageing (and in the case of Wales, shrinking) population – which means tax rises or new taxes to pay for things like social care. The plus side to this is a labour shortage could/should result in pay increases, but it could equally lead to less investment in things like housing, transport and education.
Some may argue that older age groups have done too well out of successive governments (because they actually vote) and it’s time for a proportionate share of cuts to fall on them – the one most talked about being scrapping the “triple lock” which guarantees state pensions rise by either: 2.5% a year, the inflation rate or average earnings increases (depending on which number is largest). Scrapping free TV licences (as mentioned earlier) is another one, as is age increases to free bus pass eligibility (in Wales only).