Interview with Shadow Minister Alex Sobel


Co-authored by Syed Adan Ahmed and Tom Burgess


Mr. Alex Sobel is a Labour politician who is the current Member of Parliament (MP) for Leeds North West and the sitting Shadow Minister for Arts, Heritage & Tourism.


Is there potential for another widespread lockdown? Could we sustain another one economically?

Obviously, if there is a second wave of Coronavirus there will need to be another lockdown. The hope is that we will have the track and trace system with us by the end of summer. This would mean that the data will be available to actually trace individuals and that would mean that lockdowns would be smaller. What we have seen in countries like China is that they have had local lockdowns which prevent a second wave. In the worst-case scenario there really is not an alternative to a national lockdown if the government brings support for it. We’ve already had lots of organisations and companies operating differently. Unfortunately, there is a large part of the economy that either cannot change their operations or just can’t operate if people cannot attend their premises. The biggest part of that is the visitor economy: tourism, arts and culture. The government obviously has announced a package but would need a much larger package to furlough and self-employment scheme if we were to have a second wave.  

7 in 10 students, according to a survey by YouGov, are worried about their graduate prospects and the possibility of unemployment following graduation. Do you think that Rishi Sunak’s ‘Kickstart’ scheme will be effective in stopping this or not?

I think that the ‘Kickstart’ scheme is good as it is modelled on the ‘Future Jobs Fund’ under Gordon Brown’s government in response to the 2007 global economic crash. The problem with that scheme was that lots of people got into these 6-month roles and were very useful. A lot of the organisations that took people on for 6 months couldn’t sustain the jobs so a lot of the jobs were in local authorities, once those jobs finished local authorities couldn’t sustain them. Now that would be even worse with local authority budgets being much worse off. Unfortunately, some other businesses took people on for 6 months before getting rid of them and getting someone else for 6 months rather than keep them on. The most successful were social enterprises who utilised them to create new income streams and then keep people on because those companies are not focused on profit. I think for 6 months it will be a successful scheme. Rishi Sunak should bring a bonus in for if the people hired are still there six months afterwards. 

Recently, the Institute for Fiscal Studies came out with a report saying that 13 universities accounting for 5% of students would go under if there was no government bailout. So do you think that the government should bailout those universities which have been affected by the COVID-19 situation? 

My personal view is that the entire higher education system is fundamentally broken. The marketisation of higher education has led to the sector heavily relying on international students, and on financial models that are based very heavily on UK students as well. The government at present is not prepared to de-marketise higher education and therefore I think that their minimum responsibility should be to support those educational institutions that are in financial distress. I also think that if the market for home students in the upcoming year stays buoyant and if school leavers and mature students still want to attend university in the same sort of numbers as before; then the government has a definite responsibility to bailout the financially distressed universities. 

The eviction ban is expiring on the 23rd of August and this has the potential to affect students living in Lancaster and around the country because they are at risk of being evicted under Section 8 & Section 21, once this ban expires. So, in your view, should the government extend this ban for the benefit of students and others?

Firstly, we need major housing reform including the reformation of Section 8 & Section 21 evictions. Secondly, when they first came up with the eviction ban, they probably thought that the UK would be in a different place by August, but we’re not. Although some jobs are coming back into the market, they are not all as nobody is operating at full capacity. As a result, the eviction ban should be extended by at least a year. The ban should potentially cover both Section 8 & Section 21 evictions and we should be able to review it by looking at the prevailing circumstances in the market at that point in time

The government announced that as of July 8th foreign tourists will need to isolate themselves for fourteen days when they arrive. Will this damage tourism to the UK over summer? Do you think it is strict enough?

I think that the way the tourism market is going to work will be very different and the reality is that the UK has the ninth most visitors of any place in the world- 30 million visitors last year and that number will radically fall this year. What we’ll see is an increase in UK holidaymakers staying in the UK and a fall in international visitors coming to the UK. However, the sort of places that have historically suffered in this country: Blackpool, Morecambe and Scarbrough will see an increase in people because people like to go to the seaside. These parts of the country are totally reliant upon the visitor economy. Morecambe is a good example, if you look at the majority employers in Morecambe you see the Lancaster University, Lancaster City Council and Heysham Power Station. In the summer, the visitor economy needs to make up for the losses in the other areas or Morecambe needs to have new areas of economic activity like the creation of the Eden Project North.

In the unfortunate case, there’s a second wave in the UK and universities have to resort to online teaching for a part or whole of the next year. Do you think that the government should ask the universities to reduce their tuition fees? 

First of all, I don’t agree with tuition fees. I believe that it’s the government’s responsibility to cover the university costs of all students. But, in the context of this situation, the government should ask the universities to decrease their tuition fees because online teaching reduces the student experience. But what is also important is that the government should compensate or replace each penny of the universities’ lost income because there are many institutions out there that cannot take such a big hit on their income levels. And if the government doesn’t do so then we will end up with a situation where there are only 7 or 8 universities left while all the others have gone bust.

Rishi Sunak presented a £1.57 billion bailout for British museums, galleries and theatres. Do you think this does enough to protect the arts and would you go further?

It sounds like a lot of money but you’ve got to think about all the areas that it has to cover. You need to think about how long it is going to have to last. What you want to do is have a package which makes sure that those industries survive and people’s livelihood are not decimated. You need to make sure that those institutions can then rebuild and equally you don’t want to have a package that is so generous that those industries would be doing better than they were doing. We need to see the detail because they haven’t released the criteria for the funding. The problem is if you think about all the self-employed creatives that exist, we’re talking about well in excess of a million people. That £1.57 billion wouldn’t even cover their lost income even for a three month period. For the central institutions, it might be enough to save many of those sectors but it’s not going to be enough to support the self-employed as well. They need to create a new package for the self-employed moving forward and potentially a second amount of money over and above the £1.57 billion.

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