30 May 2017

This election is only postponing the big questions


For his enemies within the Labour Party, it was a moment that summed up precisely why it is so easy to despair of Jeremy Corbyn.

Having waved through the Article 50 Bill after putting up only the most token opposition, he took to Twitter to declare that the “real fight starts now”. It was the equivalent of a punch-drunk prizefighter, lying marmalised on the floor of the ring, insisting that he’ll be getting back up any moment now.

If Corbyn were to tweet the same thing after the polls close next Thursday, he’d be ridiculed – but he’d also be right.

Yes, this general election campaign was disrupted by the atrocity in Manchester last week. But even before that, it felt like it had never really caught alight. Travelling across the country this weekend, I noted more Lib Dem placards than Tory or Labour, and precious few of those. And while viewing figures for last night’s election debate were higher than in 2015, they were still dwarfed by those for the live semi-final of Britain’s Got Talent. (EDIT: See footnote below for new data on this.)

It is, says Joe Twyman of YouGov, hard to measure the exact state of the electorate’s excitement. But there is certainly a case that election fatigue will be a factor. “Coming so soon after the 2015 election and the EU referendum, my sense that the excitement is not exactly palpable,” he says – though we won’t know for sure until polls close. The closest precedent is 1974, when there were two elections in quick succession, and turnout fell by 5 per cent.

Another factor that may be depressing interest, says Twyman, is that the election feels like a foregone conclusion. Even with the recent polling bump for Labour, the narrative is still focused on the extent of the Tory victory rather than the fact of it. As a result, the campaign sometimes has the air of one of those World Cup qualifiers that pits England against San Marino: what’s in doubt is the scoreline, not the result.

Then there is the question of how the campaign is being fought. Reading the papers this morning, the coverage in most was limited to a double-page spread analysing the debates, and a single column on the opinion pages. There was no sign of a heated policy debate, or a nation gripped by an intense argument over its political future.

On one level, this is entirely understandable. Elections are never – much as people like me would like them to be – occasions for in-depth policy debate. They are fought with broadswords, not rapiers: “Labour’s numbers don’t add up!” “The Tories will force you to sell your home!”

Corbyn’s presence as Labour leader only reinforces this trend: for the Tories, the obvious and inevitable election strategy is to pummel him as mercilessly as possible, rather than talking about their own ideas. (The social care U-turn, remember, came about because of a revolt among the Tory base, not due to Labour criticism.)

With one week left in the campaign, this is hardly going to change. Both sides have settled on their messages and strategies. It’s strength and stability vs social justice, with the priority being to shore up the core vote, and get it out to the polls, rather than to make any last-minute converts. Those on both sides with qualms about the strategy have, by and large, been staying quiet in the interests of party unity or self-preservation: the silence of the Blairites, for example, has been almost deafening.

Yet by the very same logic, the situation after the election becomes intensely interesting.

For Labour, the days and weeks after the election may be the most crucial in its recent history. For the question of what it does next (assuming it does not pull off the most improbable of victories) is not just about how many seats Corbyn gains or, more probably, loses. It is about whether Labour wants to be a party of social democracy or socialism – whether it wants to talk to the nation, or just to itself.

If Corbyn remains, or can install some kind of spiritual disciple as his successor, then the party will very probably remain in not just the electoral but the ideological wilderness. As in 2015, the narrative will be that the party was defeated not because it rejected the electorate but because it was insufficiently pure. Internally, the hard Left will assert control of the NEC, and of candidate selection (and deselection), thereby reshaping the party in Corbyn’s image. Externally, a hostile media will be enshrined alongside the Tories and the Blairites as the dark force which prevented the people from seeing where their interests truly lie.

The stage is set, in other words, for a re-run of Denis Healey vs Tony Benn – a battle royale over Labour’s soul, and future.

Yet it is within the Conservative Party that the really consequential debate will be had – especially if Labour ultimately chooses to keep swimming in its own shallow pool rather than diving back into the political mainstream.

Much has been written, on CapX and elsewhere, about the ideological contrast between May and many within her own party (see for example this excellent essay by Daniel Hannan).

But the fact is that there are a whole range of issues where the election campaign, and the Tory manifesto, leaves policy necessarily incomplete. Indeed, one of the reasons to hope for a solid Tory victory is that it might provide the leeway for Mrs May to tackle, and her party to discuss, issues which an election campaign can only address in the broadest of strokes.

First, and always foremost, there is Brexit. What exactly will the final deal look like? How will the competing claims of different sectors and interest groups be weighed against each other? What are the potential red lines, or areas of cross-Channel cooperation? Which particular technical issues will balloon into giant stumbling blocks?

Mrs May will not, cannot and very probably should not tell us more than she has about her strategy. But once negotiations begin, just 11 days after the election, there will be the mother of all political and economic battles over what is being decided, the priorities that reflects and the potential costs that imposes – not just in terms of the bill to be paid, but the wider economic impacts.

And there are plenty of other issues that have yet to be decided. What form, after consultation, will the final social care measures take? Will taxes be raised to close the deficit – and if so which ones?

Of particular concern will be the issues that touch on the competitiveness of British business – which is feeling distinctly unloved at the moment. How will the Conservatives balance their commitment to cut migration with its heavy economic cost? Where will the balance lie between enshrining (and amplifying) workers’ rights and ensuring Britain remains (or perhaps becomes) properly competitive? How can we simultaneously provide proper training to British workers – something everyone agrees has been neglected – and preserve global firms’ access to global talent?

Then there is the issue of the NHS. During an election campaign, the Tories cannot admit that it faces fundamental problems, because it will be seen as an admission of poor stewardship.

Yet as Max Pemberton pointed out recently in The Spectator, the health service is indeed reaching a crisis point, through no fault of Mrs May’s, or indeed Jeremy Hunt’s. An ever-expanding elderly population necessitates not merely a financial patch-up job, but a wholesale re-examination of what the NHS should do, how it should do it and how it can be paid for. Max endorses Lord Saatchi’s recent call for a Royal Commission on the subject – as do I, having had my own experience of how the NHS is struggling to cope with the pressures it faces. (Disclaimer: Lord Saatchi is the chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies, which set up CapX, but I’d still think it was a good idea even if he wasn’t my boss.)

If Britain’s political history is one great long run-on paragraph, general elections are often the punctuation marks. There are the commas – 1987, say, or 2005. There are the full stops, like 2010; the occasional semi-colons, like 1992; and a few exclamation marks, like 1997.

The 2017 election feels odd because it is, at this stage, an ellipsis – the “…” that marks any good cliffhanger. After the vote, the same big questions will remain. And the real fight – over how to answer them – will finally get started.

UPDATE: Shortly after the publication of this piece, Populus came back to me with some interesting data on how much the election has actually cut through, from their list of the week’s most noticed news stories.

It turns out that, in contrast to 2015, people did really pay attention at the start – perhaps because it was a shock announcement rather than something long on the schedules. Interest remained higher in subsequent weeks, but was slipping rather than building before Manchester wiped politics off the agenda. Taken as a whole, it’s a useful reminder of little the voters actually notice what happens in Westminster at any time – of which more on this week’s CapX podcast

Robert Colvile is the Editor of CapX