23 November 2019

At this election, the big questions are going unanswered


Just before the election was called we ran a piece from former Downing Street pollster James Johnson arguing that the big issue in British politics was not Brexit or Our NHS, but trust.

We hear a lot about the rupture between an ‘out of touch’ political class and ordinary voters, but James’ polling – and that of CapX’s parent organisation the Centre for Policy Studies – showed just how stark that divide had become.

Labour has tried to make trust a central issue in this election, focusing on Boris Johnson’s apparent flip-flopping or inaccuracy in a bid to undermine his character in the eyes of voters.

As Andrew Gimson noted this week, it’s not a tactic that’s likely to bear fruit. In Andrew’s judgment, voters are used to the idea of politicians being economical with the truth, and simply jabbing a finger at Johnson ignores the reasons his Brexit policy resonates with many voters, many of whom do not identify as Conservative.

Andrew is probably right, but there is a deeper issue at stake too. Far bigger than whether a politician has misquoted a statistic or made a contestable claim is the fact that few politicians on any side are willing to admit the serious long-term challenges facing this country, from an ageing population to our ever-growing national debt.

This wish-it-all-away tendency reached its apogee with the publication of Labour’s manifesto earlier this week. Here on CapX, Sam BowmanJulian Jessop and Glen O’Hara each did a fine job of dissecting a vast document which promised an explosion of tax rises and borrowing to fund an endless trough of goodies.

Voters are not gullible, nor do they appreciate being taken for fools. This shone through in a focus group conducted by Lord Ashcroft in Leave-voting seats in Wales. One respondent, discussing Labour’s plans for a four-day week, offered the immortal line: “It’s insulting people’s intelligence. I’m going to be working 7.30 till 4, four days a week with three days off, for the same wage? It’s bollocks, isn’t it?”

A policy which got relatively scant coverage was Labour’s insistence that the state pension age will not move from 66 – and could be lowered for people in “physically arduous and stressful occupations”. That is not just expensive, it completely ignores the demographic trends that are going to fundamentally reshape the way our economy works, with longer lifetimes and much longer careers than older generations came to expect. Corbyn’s clarion call for Real Change seemed to ignore the fact that massive change is coming down the line, whether we like it or not.

Indeed, that change is already evident in the NHS, where an older population means ever higher demand. Yet instead of a serious discussion about what the health service should be providing and how it does it, we get a funding arms race infused with crank claims about the Tories ‘selling off our NHS to US corporations’.

Labour’s proposals sound like the work of a party that either is not serious about governing or thinks the voters can be taken for complete mugs. Not that they are alone in promising fanciful things, of course. The Lib Dems’ so-called ‘Remain dividend’ of £50bn felt like a figure that had been plucked out of thin air (and isn’t that much over the lifetime of a Parliament anyway).

Nor can the Tories get away scot-free. As I’ve written before, the idea we can swiftly ‘Get Brexit Done’ and move on – the central theme of Johnson’s campaign – is illusory. At the very least we can expect another year of the most intense wrangling, and likely a great deal longer.

Where he is emphatically right, of course, is that the wait will be much longer if Jeremy Corbyn enters Downing St and we have a second referendum. On that point, the voters can certainly trust the Prime Minister.

John Ashmore is Editor of CapX