Conservatism and social justice

Rohit Bansal argues that social justice is a core Conservative value and that Conservative governments, far from stifling social justice, have in reality played a powerful and ongoing role in promoting it.

Britain faces many challenges; falling real wages, a lack of secure employment and an ageing population among others. On the steps of Downing Street in July 2016 when she first became Prime Minister, Theresa May outlined those ‘burning injustices’ which systemically hold people back:

“ if you’re black you’re treated more harshly in the criminal justice system than if you’re white, if you’re poor you will die on average 9 years earlier than others, if you’re a white working class boy you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university, if you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately, if you’re a woman you will earn less than a man, if you suffer from mental health problems there’s not enough help to hand, if you’re young you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.”

These problems have raised widespread concerns with the sustainability of neoliberal capitalism. Ultimately, these issues are about social justice; ensuring that every person in society can get on in life. In this article, I will outline the Conservative case for social justice and what Conservatives in government have already achieved, which needs to be shouted about more.

Central to Conservatism is an emphasis on equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome as advocated by the left. Conservatives believe that Britain should be the world’s great meritocracy and that each person should be able to go as far as their talents can take them. Conservatives are against complete equality because to create such a society would require extreme state intervention to redistribute wealth of the kind never seen before in history and which has never ever succeeded. A society which is completely equal lacks innovation, and the incentive to strive to be better. However, current levels of inequality in Britain are excessive and Conservatives are pragmatic in recognition of the effect that this can have in recreating inequality across and within generations, meaning that children from poorer backgrounds are already held back from the moment they are born. Conservatives who believe in true free markets actually believe in greater government intervention to tackle market failure such as monopolies and oligopolies, perverse incentives such as moral hazard, excessive copyrights/patents/trademarks and negative externalities such as environmental damage. Edmund Burke, a prominent 18th century Conservative philosopher, said that at the heart of conservatism and the desire to conserve is recognition of the need for reform. Thus, Conservatives wanting to conserve capitalism must be prepared to reform it and that means intervening in failing markets. Conservatism is about building a sustainable society so that future generations can do better than the last.

The Conservative party in government has enacted numerous policies to enhance social mobility. David Cameron increased the tax-free personal allowance from £6,500 to £10,500 ensuring that 4 million people were lifted out of income tax altogether. The ‘National Living Wage’ was the biggest pay rise for low income workers for 20 years. He legalised same-sex marriage and introduced the Pupil Premium and Free School Meals for the most disadvantaged children. He championed the introduction of free schools to allow greater flexibility for children suited to different educational methods. Theresa May has often talked about building ‘a country that works for everyone’ and helping those ‘just about managing.’ As soon as she became PM, May initiated a review into racial discrimination in public services. She commissioned Matthew Taylor to conduct a review into the changing labour market and the gig economy and has taken action to enforce and clarify the rights of ‘precarious’ workers, has tasked the Low Pay Commission to look into a higher minimum wage for those on zero hours contracts and has initiated a consultation on the more systemic and controversial change of introducing a new category of ‘dependent contractor’ worker. Her government is creating new ‘T’ level technical qualifications as alternative pathways to A Levels and is reviewing the whole system of post-18 educational provision. Short term measures have already been taken to alleviate the burden on students by raising the threshold at which students start to pay back university tuition fees from £21,000 to £25,000. For listed companies, they will have to demonstrate how employee views are represented on company boards, there will be mandatory publishing of the pay ratio between the average paid employee and the highest and where there is substantial shareholder opposition against executives, this will be published. 17 million customers on standard variable energy tariffs will have their energy bills cut as a result of May introducing an energy price cap from Winter 2018 to cap rip-off energy prices. She has also talked about building more council homes such as houses for ‘Build to Rent’ and regulating the private rented sector. 5,000 more council homes will be built by 2022 and the government enacted legislation to ensure decent standards in housing of multiple occupancy, banned letting agent fees and is looking into incentivising longer-term more family-friendly tenancies.

Ultimately, the UK’s chronically low productivity is the driver behind falling living standards, but it is a complex, multi-faceted problem with no silver bullet solution. Investment in early years education is crucial in improving the life chances of children as research has shown that the first 5 years of a child’s life are their most formative. Although the government has introduced 30 hours free childcare for 3-4-year olds there is a gap in provision for 0-2-year olds. There needs to be a much greater expansion of free schools and action to develop the ‘T’ level technical qualifications that May has advocated. Greater links between businesses and schools/colleges need to be developed to enhance awareness of apprenticeships and to focus on the skills that employers look for. Also, the government should introduce Lifelong Learning Accounts, which enables people to re-skill and upskill during the course of their lifetime by taking approved courses. A new space allowing workers to collectively bargain for higher wages with employers needs to developed; although not returning to the excessive trade unionism of the past, unions form a vital part of society and have been eroded far too much in recent decades. The government should commit to no further cuts in welfare in the future; research has shown that excessive cuts to benefits can actually impede the search for work by the unemployed as many often struggle to care for frail relatives or suffer from disabilities.

Although many people often highlight cuts in public spending since 2010 as negating any good intentions, money and funding isn’t everything. Since 2010, the government has taken much more powerful action in changing and updating outdated legislation which often goes unnoticed such as introducing Europe’s first Modern Slavery Act in 2015 and restricting Stop and Search so that the police cannot stop people on the streets of Britain simply due to the colour of their skin. The review of the outdated 30-year-old Mental Health Act will ensure that increasing numbers of people in recent years, especially ethnic minorities, aren’t inappropriately detained. The Equalities Act is also being amended to ensure that businesses cannot discriminate against workers with mental health conditions which are often more fluctuating and intermittent than physical conditions and the government recently announced the extension of the blue badge disabled parking scheme to those with mental as well as physical disabilities. Funding is being provided to train schoolteachers to more effectively deal with mental health problems amongst pupils as research has shown that most mental health problems are diagnosable from youth. On domestic violence, there has been an increase in the overall number of beds available in refuges since 2010 and crucially May recently announced plans for a new domestic abuse bill that will properly define domestic abuse and establish new domestic abuse protection orders in consultation with charities, frontline services and victims. The government has initiated a consultation on a ‘Breathing Space’ scheme which will provide those in serious debt a period of up to 6 weeks of legal protection from further interest charges and action. On Housing, planning laws are being re-written to streamline the process and remove obstacles to housebuilding, and measures are being looked at to ensure that once planning permission is granted that developers actually build houses and don’t hoard land, seeing its value rise which is linked to the perverse bonus structure of developer bosses. As mentioned previously, May’s government is acting on 52 out of 53 recommendations from the Taylor review into the gig economy, the first advanced government to respond to the challenges of a changing labour market and the modern economy. The government is inevitably constrained by the huge task of Brexit and the lack of a majority in Parliament, and so May deserves credit for implementing reform in tough circumstances.


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