Opinion Articles

The 2019 Election and the Media – a different kind of campaign

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The December 2019 general election campaign has certainly been like no other in history for a number of reasons. The incumbent governing party has been able to avoid having to defend its actual record in government, despite having been in power for an entire decade. This is thanks to the nation’s transfixion by the Brexit question – ‘to be or not to be’ is a state of distraction as well as paralysis.

As an historian I do think there should be an old-fashioned attempt to hold the government to account for its historical record, which has substantially consisted of prolonging the austerity policy commenced in 2010.  This has been despite it having been exposed in 2013 that the policy was premised on a major mistake in a spreadsheet by the leading US economists Rinehart and Rogoff, which led them – and Mr Osborne – to believe that a public debt:GDP ratio of 90% would result in an economy like the UK’s shrinking by 0.1% per annum. Once the spreadsheet error was revealed, it in fact showed they would grow by 2.2%. If only we had had 2.2% growth since 2010, we could have been happy to continue to carry a 90% debt ratio, instead of subjecting ourselves to Mr Osborne’s mistaken hair-shirt.

The Conservative decade of austerity has instead seen a disastrous slump in the economy’s output and productivity, due principally not to Brexit, but to the Osborne-Cameron ideological decision in 2010 to use the financial crash as a cover to continue the Thatcherite project to ‘shrink the state’ (announced as an explicit goal in Osborne’s 2010 Mais Lecture). What their policy has revealed is that if you shrink the state you also shrink the economy and its productivity. Why is that? Because the workers and their families - who are the economy - need education, training, healthcare and a reasonable degree of social security in order to be productive. Even within this shrinking state the Conservative government has shrunk the proportion of GDP spent on the skills required for the nation’s future workers to be productive. In 2009/10 the UK was devoting 6.4% of its GDP on education and training but by 2018/19 the IFS reports this has contracted by well over 50% to just 4.2%. To put this in perspective, you have to go back well over half a century to the early 1960s to find such a low commitment to our nation’s children and their future.  

The Conservative party should be being held to account for these economically damaging and literally mis-guided policies. They should also be held to account for the most disgraceful aspects of their record in government, such as the need for over 2,000 foodbanks, the need to appoint a Minster for Suicide Prevention, the continuing failure to address the safety issues raised by the Grenfell Tower tragedy, or the Windrush scandal generated by the deliberate ‘hostile environment’ policy of May and Cameron. But we have heard very little of any of this during the election period. On the day that the Resolution Foundation issued a report showing that official rate of child poverty was about to breach the previous record of over 33% set at the end of Mrs Thatcher’s decade of a different kind of austerity, the BBC spent almost its entire day’s coverage on the long-running allegations of antisemitism within parts of the Labour Party, while The Muslim Council pointed-out that the Conservative Party harboured its own ugly racism, expressed in the kind of Islamophobia casually indulged in by Mr Johnson himself, with his infamous letter-box jibe.   

Democracy is supposed to be about open discussion and debate among all interested parties. There has always of course been secretive lobbying and agreements behind closed doors conducted among groups of politicians themselves. However, general elections are when the electorate gets to engage face-to-face with its elected politicians and what they have to say. Not much in evidence this time. There is remarkably little public knowledge, let alone discussion, of the vast mass of election communications engaged in by any of the parties - or indeed other actors - targeted at individuals through ‘social media’. Should this in fact be re-branded ‘anti-social media’? Anti-democratic media?

Safe in the knowledge that Dominic Cummings is ensuring that the approved Tory message is arriving many times daily on everybody’s mobile phone, the sitting Prime Minster has been almost as supine as Mr Rees-Mogg when supposedly ‘leading’ the Commons. He has been content to avoid public discussion and debate on two high-profile occasions. One of these concerned Channel 4’s debate on the single most important issue facing not just this electorate but all electorates around the world, climate change, the environment and species extinction. The other concerned his refusal to look at the picture of a child with suspected pneumonia lying on the floor of a hospital.  After that startlingly cold-hearted incident, it seems all the more fitting that on the first occasion, Channel 4 represented him with the stand-in prop of a block of ice.

The deplorable state of the chronically underfunded NHS has been the one actual ‘issue’ that has ‘cut through’ as those in the media put it. It is the one substantial policy issue that the Labour Party, through insistent campaigning, has managed to get the public media to foreground. It is clear that under a Conservative majority government the 7% of the NHS currently ‘delivered’ by the private sector will be the thin end of a wedge which Mr Lansley’s 2012 Health and Social Care Act was carefully designed to prize open ever wider; and that the US healthcare company Optum has close relationships with the NHS, currently led by a Conservative appointee, Simon Stevens, who spent a previous decade in a US private health care company.

The only thing that is certain about this election is that, short of driving over a cliff, if Mr Johnson wins a majority he will still not ‘get Brexit done’ in the next five years because of the complexities of trade negotiations. Yet this is the one reason why many voters claim to be voting for his party. The only way to remove the uncertainties of Brexit quickly – if that is what voters want – is to abandon the project to leave the EU, which was only in fact endorsed by less than 37.5% of the electorate in June 2016. It would not have satisfied the 40% threshold wisely set by the 1978 Scotland Act to govern the Scottish devolution referendum. And meanwhile, the really important issues for the next 5 years -  the melting planet, still-increasing inequality, record child poverty, how properly to afford social care - remain under-discussed and under-debated at this election.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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