The next British general election is expected next year (2024). The common assumption is that the Labour Party, under Keir Starmer, will win a comfortable victory. This blog looks at what might be on the campaign agenda and what will likely not be, and what should be on the agenda but also will likely not be.
What is not likely to be on the agenda and what should be on the agenda but also likely will not be, together show the limitations of so-called ‘deliberative democracy’ or ‘discourse’ democracy. According to such theories, important political choices get fully voiced and debated in the media, over social networks, among political parties, as well as in specialised ‘Town Hall’ meetings that are intended to provide for more focussed debate and bring together those with different views. They will not be.
What will not be on the agenda
Brexit no longer seems to figure among the top 10 concerns of the British public. Neither party has an interest in stirring debate. There is no clear majority in favour of re-joining. Both parties are divided on the EU’s goal of ‘ever closer union’ under which most important issues of public policy will eventually get decided in Brussels. Both leaderships hope that this will be a dog that will not bark.
The cost of this likely absence of debate is that any alternative relationship with the EU, short of full membership on EU terms for re-entry, will likely not be discussed either. Sooner or later, alternatives will need to be developed, most likely in the form of some kind of ‘associate’ membership. It will not be easy for either side. If the EU makes the offer ‘too attractive’ other members may think it fits them as well.
Foreign Policy: Russia, the Ukraine and China
Foreign policy does not usually loom large on the agenda for general elections compared with domestic issues. If Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine continues, both party leaderships will be united in support of the Ukraine. Similarly, if negotiations between Russia and the Ukraine start up, both leaderships will likely voice their support. Debate about post-conflict relationships will likely be premature.
Whether, or not, China appears on the foreign policy agenda will depend on how far China pushes its more assertive stance on the world stage. Both Labour and conservative leaderships will condemn such moves. At the same time, security issues will increasingly dominate trade and investment relationships and further de-coupling driven by security concerns is likely. It is unlikely that much debate will take place between the parties. Both will upgrade their concerns about the security aspects of commercial and technological relationships.
The future of the UK
The Scottish nationalists will continue to push their campaign for a new referendum on independence. Neither Conservatives, nor Labour will wish to lend legitimacy to the demand by engaging in debate on the substance of the long-term future of the UK. Both will voice support for the union.
What will be on the agenda
The campaign agenda will follow precedent and focus overwhelmingly on domestic issues, notably, the state of the social services in health, long term care, and education. The so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda, designed to narrow the gap between investment allocations in the poorer areas versus the richer areas, will also be a focus.
This focus will lead to a very traditional debate about who will pay for improvements. The Labour Party will argue that taxes can be raised, in one form or another, on higher income earners and/or on the corporate sector. They will also point to those economists who argue that, as real interest rates resume their long-term secular decline, governments will have greater flexibility in raising debt as part of a more active fiscal policy. By contrast, the conservatives will resume their traditional position against tax rises and public debt increases.
Whatever, the merits of the opposing arguments, the conservatives are handicapped by the length of their time in office, the things that have gone wrong under their watch, even if not of their own making, by sleaze and lack of personal and public integrity, and a feeling that ‘it is time for a change’. Starmer does not inspire. But neither does he turn away potential support.
What also should be on the agenda
There is a widespread public concern about the state of social services in the UK. The NHS is hugely over-stretched, social care is underfunded and poorly connected with health services; the UK’s level of education attainment, according to OECD data, is ranked 23 out of the 41 members. However, the focus in the election on remedies and ‘fixes’ for the immediate shortcomings means that debates about the long-term future of social services and how to pay for them, are kept off the agenda.
There are three longer term issues that need to become part of active debate. First the sacred NHS mantra of ‘free at the point of delivery’ needs to be opened up for debate. All adults not on benefits should be prepared to pay an amount to visit their GP or A&E up to a modest annual cap. The arguments are not straightforward since NHS costs could rise if early diagnosis is missed. Nevertheless, the debate needs to start. Secondly, and relatedly, the connections between NHS provision and private health insurance and health care need to be overhauled to make for a more seamless interchange between the two. Thirdly a debate needs to open on payments for secondary education - again at low levels. But parents need to be more cost/benefit conscious and more involved in the schooling their children receive. Direct personal contributions for social services, including secondary education, are an important source of future funding. The debate on how to open this direct stream of financial support needs to start. The short-term electoral focus avoids the debate entirely.