The silent election

July 5, 2024 2 Comments

Has there ever been a general election studded with so many good jokes?  From the very start, when Rishi Sunak destroyed his blue suit while standing in the pouring rain to announce the election, to the news that the even more hapless ex-MP Craig Williams had used his insider knowledge to place a £100 bet on an early election, there’s been no need for professional comedians to keep us amused.  And it’s been so easy to translate the jokes.  Sunak’s idiocies, including asking people in Barry whether they were looking forward to the Euros, stand in for the cluelessness and incompetence of the Tories and their governments, while Williams, who lost his seat, is a perfect microcosm of their greed and corruption.

Not many general elections, either, have started as well as finished with the governing party resigned to catastrophic defeat. One of the results of that has been a common obsession about opinion polls, and especially those using so-called MRP techniques, that pretend to forecast accurately the outcomes in individual seats.  Another has been a reduction of election issues to a narrow number of subjects, like taxation (always a Bad Thing) and immigration (another Bad Thing), which right-wing parties and media saw as their best points of attack.

It’s the failure to move debate and questioning away from these narrow issues into those of life-critical importance that has been the most dismaying aspect of the election campaign.  There are three subjects, all crucial to our future, that have been almost completely ignored by the main parties and the media.  They share the blame equally.

The first is poverty and inequality.  They amount to the same thing, since poverty is usually defined relatively – though destitution, absolute poverty, has made a strong comeback under Tory rule.  It’s true there’s been discussion of a proxy for this subject, ‘the cost-of-living crisis’.  But that issue was discussed in the narrowest of terms, and treated almost as an act of God rather than, in large part, a successful attempt by big business to recover profits.  Tories tried to claim the crisis was over: inflation has fallen sharply, thanks, of course, to their own unaided efforts.  Labour had little to say, largely because it could offer no means of doing anything substantial to alleviate it.

Behind this complacency lies a consensus, a habit of thinking now completely normal, that poverty is endemic and inescapable.  For fifty years, from the Beveridge Report onwards, the opposite belief held sway, that poverty was not inevitable, and that determined government action could, and should, reduce it substantially. But that confidence, badly damaged by Thatcherism, is now extinct. The Labour Party, in the past its strongest defender, has effectively abandoned the position, since, with Keir Starmer as leader, it assumed the role and attitudes of the pre-Brexit Conservative Party.  When did you hear Starmer say, for example, ‘we shall make all food banks unnecessary’? The word ‘inequality’ rarely passes his lips – and never in a way that suggests he might drastically reduce it.

It was left to the Institute for Fiscal Studies to spell out again the obvious and simple equation: keeping to Tory spending plans plus failing to raise taxes – both are firm Labour promises – equals continuing austerity.  As we’ve seen ever since George Osborne cynically reinvented it, austerity only increases poverty and inequality. 

The second general issue is Brexit, as absent a talking point in 2024 as it was ubiquitous in 2019.  Almost everyone can now see, even if not everyone will admit it, that Brexit has been a disaster.  Trade in goods exports has collapsed, production and investment have declined, restrictions on freedom of movement have affected all kinds of sectors, from universities to music, and the UK’s reputation and influence in the world have been diminished.  Less than a third of Britons now think it was right to leave the European Union, and only 15% consider the benefits outweigh the advantages.

Yet public talk about Brexit, it seems, is forbidden.  It’s understandable that the Tories would wish to keep quiet.  Nothing has done more to radicalise and destroy them, over twenty years or more, than the European issue, and all pro-Europeans were driven out of the party long ago.  Labour have fewer excuses.  Even if the time for reopening EU membership has not yet come, they could surely have championed rejoining the customs union and the single market – both of them once possible options for Brexiters.  Yet they’ve ruled both out.  As a result, they’ve renounced the most obvious way of regaining economic growth – economic growth being the only means left to them, now that they’ve ruled out increases in the main taxes, of improving wrecked public infrastructure and the failing welfare state.

The third of the crucial issues to ‘go missing’ in public discourse during the election is the desperate state of the environment – climate crisis, mass pollution and catastrophic biodiversity loss.  The Tories, again understandably given their record, ignored it. Labour downplayed it, after diluting its commitments substantially at the start of the campaign.  Only the Greens and other smaller parties were ready to take a stand.  The Greens, though putting up candidates in 574 constituencies, were treated by the media as if they barely existed.  By contrast, Farage’s Reform UK was accorded attention far in excess of its original salience – you could fairly say it was a media creation – and received serious critical scrutiny only in the last few days of the campaign.

Could you argue that the media, in ignoring green issues, were only following the public, most of whom, opinion polls tell us, rank them low in their list of current priorities?  But are people really as indifferent as the polls suggest?  It will be interesting to discover, in post-election analysis, how much of the collapse in the core Tory vote was due to the ‘sewage factor’ – government’s failure to prevent predatory water companies from poisoning rivers across the country.  And even if green issues didn’t have the same importance for most people as their economic travails, doesn’t the media still have a responsibility to hold parties to account on their failures to respond to environmental crisis?

The failure by politicians and media alike to get to grips with these three crucial issues could have dire effects in future, despite the huge number of Labour seats gained (its share of the votes, by contrast, was miserably low) .  Failure by the new government to make substantive progress on any of them – and especially on poverty and inequality – will further increase dissatisfaction and destroy public trust, and make Britain in future, like other European countries now, easy meat for the extreme right (whose electoral progress in this election, from a standing start, is truly frightening).

Comments (2)

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  1. Jeff Towns says:

    Sad but true
    Very depressing
    Sad that a massive Labour win brings such little joy

  2. Heather Thompson says:

    Agree totally.

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