Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – political debate

2019 has been a rollercoaster of a year in UK politics. There have been several themes throughout the year, including Brexit, the environment, the NHS, the General Election and the nature of the political debate. In the final of this series, the focus is on the election and the broader nature of the political debate.

If at the start of 2019, someone had told me that the Conservatives would see their largest majority since the Thatcher era before the year was out, I would have laughed them out the door. Theresa May was really struggling to make any progress on Brexit and was hindered by political saboteurs everywhere she looked. And yet, here we are.

The way events have played out in the past few months has sometimes made me think that the whole Theresa May premiership was almost a scheme to enable the rise of Boris as Prime Minister with a strong hand. But, the reality is closer to the election being an almighty gamble from senior Conservatives and advisers that “getting Brexit done” was a sufficient mantra to see them through, even though that had not exactly gone swimmingly for Johnson’s predecessor.

What was particularly striking about the election campaign was that despite so many faux pas and even resorting to hiding in a fridge, Johnson seemed like he could do no wrong. Parties were able to get away with lying and creating fake “fact check” accounts, discrediting the work of fact-checking organisations such as Full Fact and contributing to broader issues with political debate.

First among these is misleading voters by trying to pose as a neutral or unknown source to influence opinion. Not only is it dishonest. It also leads to a sense of distrust – not just in politics but in other institutions such as the media and academia. It also ends with people putting up barriers and becoming more isolated, getting stuck in echo chambers. Great for Facebook targeting – not so great for democracy.

Secondly, this division leads to solutions that only work for a small group of highly engaged people. Everyone else is disaffected and exhausted. As a result, policy-making turns into something that is short term and does not benefit the community in its entirety. It leads to an environment of pettiness when pragmatism is often what is required.

Ultimately, this pettiness turns into a sense of powerlessness and the differences between people become more pronounced, as those in charge start attributing blame to other groups. Take this election for example, where the Prime Minister blamed “remainers” for the delay when his deal had been voted for in principle by those he criticised. Rather than bringing people together, this served to drive a further wedge between 52% and 48% of UK voters.

And this also had a wider impact on attitudes to particular minority groups as people feel entitled and empowered to exclude people or claim “their” territory. While the data is not there yet, I have heard more anecdotes about Islamophobic and homophobic abuse in the last few months than I have before.

This effect can be seen in an especially stark way on social media. Twitter replies on the most innocent of tweets can be a dark place, where personal attacks are rife, and the focus is not as much on what is said, but who is saying it. It feels like there is a void of meaningful debate and engagement around the substance of arguments. Surely for there to be progress, this needs to happen.

Another theme to arise from the election is the avoidance of scrutiny. This has been seen in both the PM and Corbyn refusing to do some of the TV debates, and the Prime Minister refusing to sit down with Andrew Neil for an interview – who had some choice words to say.

This avoidance of scrutiny sets a precedent that senior politicians can act in this way, and treat the public with a casual disregard. The fact that Johnson won by avoiding difficult questions and detail is a worrying trend. There is no easy way to move on but to attempt to foster a culture of people questioning what they read and demanding detail.

While this has focused on the Conservatives mainly, there are some themes here which apply to other parties. Labour activists on social media were cajoling people and spreading fake polls to try bolstering the perception that they were in the lead. Jeremy Corbyn was presenting documents in a not particularly honest way. The Liberal Democrats’ “bollocks to Brexit” strategy alienated leave voters. The Brexit Party seemed to shift its position every five minutes.

Any way you look at it, the election was a disaster for the British public.

What needs to be done is some research into the political climate, and the best way of doing this is listening to people. Perhaps this decade can mark a shift to listening and acting in the interests of everyone, rather than just for those who are engaged and making people believe they have a stake in the future.

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