Much of the election campaign for all of the UK’s parties has been focused on addressing the furore surrounding Brexit. The Conservative Party, under the leadership of Brexiteer Boris Johnson, has been attempting to appease those who are dissatisfied with the extension of the deadline past October 31st. On the other hand, the ‘Remain Alliance’ of the Lib Dems, Scottish National Party (SNP) and Green Party have been pushing to repeal the results of the 2016 referendum.
This single-minded focus is entirely understandable, since the onein-a-generation decision to leave the EU has been at the forefront of world, let alone British (and Northern Irish), politics. If and how the UK leaves the European Union will likely have a major effect on the future of this country, even more so if it is the primary determinant of who will be in government for the next five years.
However, in the midst of all this Brexit-mania, various important election issues have been overshadowed, and it is up to us as an electorate to ensure that the government – whoever it will be from next month onwards – delivers progress on these fronts. Labour’s main attack point during the campaign has been the dilapidation of the NHS in recent years under Tory rule, as well as under a Tory-Lib Dem coalition government. While it is true that, according to the NHS Confederation, the NHS is lacking 43,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors, the problem of the underfunding of public services extends far beyond the realms of healthcare.
In fact, there is no easy solution to an issue which has troubled the government since at least the Great Recession. Both the Conservatives and Labour are promising to increase NHS funding but it is difficult to do so without accumulating too much government debt, especially while Brexit uncertainty is hampering economic performance. The problem is a simple one but one requiring a coherent and nuanced solution.
According to current economic doctrine, the government should increase its spending when the economy is experiencing a downturn in order to stimulate growth. Then, during booms, it should aim to balance the books by reducing net spend, aided by tax revenue increases as wages grow. However, with Brexit looming on the horizon, the economy has edged towards recession, meaning that the government has taken in less tax revenue as a result of the decrease in total private sector spending. This makes it harder to increase public spending without incurring a significant budget deficit (when government spending outweighs tax revenue). Thus, whoever is in government following this election must find a way to increase employment so that it has sufficient tax revenue to fund various struggling public services.
Therefore, this government must keep in mind that a key determinant of employment, and thus social mobility, is the prevalence of transport. In the case of wealthier residents this is typically not an issue, as they can afford to buy at least one car for their household, but it can be a major obstacle to employment for those living in poorer neighbourhoods. This is because in these less-prosperous neighbours there is often a dearth of vacancies, meaning that locals who are geographically immobile struggle to find employment. Some may not own a car due to a lack of funds, some due to physical impairments which prevent driving, and some due to a lack of parking space in the absence of large driveways and garages. Furthermore, poorer individuals who for one reason or another struggle with or are averse to driving cannot afford taxies, and they may struggle to find friends who are willing and able to provide lifts.
This is why quality public transport is vital to the regeneration of such communities. Without functioning public transport, these communities are cut off from job opportunities as well as public services such as healthcare and libraries, perpetuating a cycle of despair. When the residents cannot find employment, they cannot afford to send their children to university. In turn, the children remain locked into the same lifestyle or, seeing low potential earnings for themselves, may be tempted to turn to crime to provide a lavish lifestyle. Better access to public transport is the first step to solving this problem, especially if the various modes of transport are well-integrated and part of an overarching, cohesive plan.
For example, it makes sense to have more public transit stops in poorer neighbourhoods since poorer residents are more likely to make use of services. Public transport in this country also needs to be more affordable in order to properly entice people to use it, especially in the case of the rail network. If a public transport revamp is conducted successfully, there is little doubt that it will benefit the country both economically and socially.
Public transport is not just good for the economy; it is also good for the environment. With Labour pledging a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ and the Lib Dems touting a ‘Green Economy’, politicians clearly recognise the electorate’s concern for the environment. Therefore, improving the transport infrastructure in this country will kill two birds with one stone, attracting the workingclass vote alongside that of climate campaigners. The UK is now lagging behind on its provision of public transport when compared to much of the rest of the developed world, especially the likes of Scandinavia and Japan, and this is likely to be a key influence behind the rise of inequality in this country.
Furthermore, there is a plethora of evidence to suggest that those who commute by public transport, instead of by car, lead more active lifestyles. This by itself will not solve the NHS crisis, but the promotion of healthier lifestyles will help to prevent the obesity-related diseases which are putting a strain on healthcare resources. Another related policy area which is being somewhat overlooked at this election is the quality of the United Kingdom’s cycling infrastructure. When compared to, for instance, the Netherlands, the UK’s network is once again put to shame. While the UK may be more bike-friendly than big nations like the US due to smaller cities and relatively less traffic, the absence of separated cycle lanes in towns and cities means that it is not a valid mode of transport for novice cyclists. Studies on this area have shown that the primary determinant of cycling safety is whether there is a physical barrier separating cyclists and cars. In the UK, cycle lanes, located on the road, are more exposed than separated cycle paths, meaning that – given that cycling on the pavement is considered an offence – inexperienced and younger cyclists often do not feel confident enough to travel by bike. Not only does this result in increased emissions as they use alternative modes of transport, as well as a more sedentary lifestyle, but it also causes cycling safety to plummet as drivers are less used to dealing with cyclists on the road. Consequently, it is clear that putting measures in place which encourage the use of bikes as well as public transport will result in a healthier, more mobile, and more prosperous Britain.
The Labour Party has proposed to “build a sustainable, affordable, accessible and integrated transport system” in its 2019 manifesto through public ownership of train providers as well as some bus services. It has pledged to reinstate 3000 previously-cut bus routes in order to support rural communities and promised to complete the full HS2 route to Scotland. In the absence of a manifesto (the Conservative Party manifesto has not been released at the time of writing) it is much harder to judge Tory transport policy, though they have addressed the disruption to train services during strikes.
Ultimately, investing in public transport as well as cycling infrastructure will be expensive in the short term. However, it is likely to be effective in the long term since it addresses the issue of geographical mobility, one of the underlying drivers of economic growth. Significant investments in public transportation infrastructure will ultimately prove to be the rare policy that is both economically and socially justifiable. If the next government of this country really wants to help lift thousands out of poverty, it will be public transport investment, and not Brexit, which will achieve this. It remains to be seen whether politicians are too myopic to effectively address this issue – whether their words are just empty pre-election rhetoric.