Analysis of the June 2017 general election has been in full swing for six days now. Many of the impacts of the result are still unclear and are likely to be so for some time. However, the more I look back over the last nine weeks, the more one theme stands out.
For me, this election has brought into sharp relief a much wider problem with the current UK political system – its lack of respect for the public. Not only was this disregard for the electorate present during the election campaign and in the months that preceded it, it is a problem that goes right to the heart of how our politics operates. Now, more than ever, this needs to change.
To begin then with the election: it is an unfortunate truth that parties from across the political spectrum rarely demonstrate full respect for the public during the campaign period. This time round the Institute for Fiscal Studies issued a damning verdict:
The shame of the two big parties’ manifestos is that neither sets out an honest set of choices. Neither addresses the long term challenges we face
Institute for Fiscal Studies
The public has a right to be presented with an accurate picture of the options it is being asked to consider. Adding to this critique was the apparent belief of the Conservative team that they could conduct a campaign focussed almost solely on Brexit and leadership qualities, limiting debate on other key issues for voters such as public services. Notable too was Theresa May’s decision not to take part in the head-to-head television debates, which denied voters the chance to see their potential leaders face one another.
The months before the election were little better in terms of the regard shown for the public. After a very close EU referendum result, the Government chose to pursue a hard Brexit, as opposed to seeking the path of greatest consensus on what shape Brexit should take. This left by the wayside both Remain voters and Leave backers for whom a hard Brexit was not the desired outcome. It thereby denied millions of people a voice in their country’s future, and neglected the need to unite a divided society. What a different situation we might be in now, days before negotiations with the EU start, if a more widely supported position had been found.
Whether either party has learned the lessons of this Brexit debacle remains to be seen. Yesterday’s papers contained both suggestions that cross-party talks on Brexit are now being sought, and allegations that Labour may refuse to co-operate in pursuit of its own political advantage. The latter, if true (and this is as yet unclear), would be a continuation of the sort of tribal and partisan politics that much of the public finds off-putting and self-absorbed. It would be putting party above the people.
Leaving Brexit to one side, lack of respect for the public amongst political elites stretches back well before the EU referendum. A key development at this general election seems to have been an increase in turnout amongst young people. Whilst this will be a good news story if it turns out to be true, it also highlights the extent to which – up until the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn – young people have felt unrepresented by both main parties for many years. Indeed, this has arguably not just been something young people have felt, but something that has directly affected them; some commentators believe that a lack of youth participation has resulted in successive governments ignoring, or at least paying significantly less attention to, the needs, views and concerns of younger people.
What it is important to understand about this lack of regard for the public is that it is the result of much more than the actions of parties and politicians, although both could and should do better. Our political system currently gives the public very little chance to debate the issues that affect them and give an informed opinion about the priorities and policies they would like to see. As my colleague Matthew Harriott will argue later in this blog series, how people vote tells us almost nothing about the electorate’s preferences on any given issue. Yet despite this fact, opportunities for the public to influence decision-making between elections – by responding to consultations, contacting their representative or joining campaign groups – tend to be either inaccessible, indirect, ignored or all three.
This lack of voice matters – and not just because it makes the flaws in election campaigning described above more serious. Without input from those directly affected by decisions, policy-making and public services will never be as effective and efficient as they could be. Without public permission, politicians will struggle to make the difficult decisions needed to resolve issues such as the cost of social care. And, without ways for those who participate less in elections to have a voice, political, social and economic justice will never be achieved. Involve believes in a democracy that works for everyone. From the vantage point of June 2017, it is clear that the transformation of our political system to achieve this aim has rarely been more needed.