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.

Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – the NHS

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 third of this series, the focus is on the NHS.

For a few years now, there have been countless discussions about NHS funding gaps and any investment being made in the health service only enough to stem decline rather than to further improve it.

Some of the stats make for uncomfortable reading. According to the Health Foundation:

Essential parts of the NHS in England are experiencing the worst performance against waiting times targets since the targets were set.

The Health Foundation (https://www.health.org.uk/news-and-comment/blogs/nhs-performance-and-waiting-times#lf-section-49181-anchor)

This covers waiting times in A&E departments and for routine treatments in England. However, there are also problems in Wales and Scotland, even when there are different parties with responsibility for the NHS (due to devolution). Speaking in a more general sense, the Health Foundation adds:

If the NHS is to achieve its long-term vision of a service that can prevent ill-health, better manage long-term conditions, and treat people earlier, NHS staff will need time, space and skills to make change at all levels of the health and care system.  

The Health Foundation (https://www.health.org.uk/news-and-comment/blogs/nhs-performance-and-waiting-times#lf-section-49181-anchor)

This just highlights the challenges faced by the NHS, and that the problems faced by it have no simple solutions.

Alongside this, little has been done to address the social care crisis, where this is a still substantial deficit and a perceived lack of leadership on something which is only going to become more complex as the population continues to age. There is also a blame game, where nobody is apparently taking ownership.

There have also been high expectations of the Health Service to better address mental health treatment and to invest in new treatments – yet, the budget for the NHS is struggling to catch up and does not have the option to be proactive. The Conservatives committed to the “biggest” spending increase on health for a “generation” in their manifesto, amounting to £34bn (excluding inflation). That figure initially sounds impressive, but according to Full Fact:

Whether or not you count inflation, the funding that’s been announced for the NHS won’t be enough to address future issues the service will face, according to expert think tanks.

Full Fact (https://fullfact.org/election-2019/nhs-spending-biggest-boost/)

The Conservatives were widely criticised for some of the other commitments made regarding the NHS, such as building new hospitals. Again, let’s hear what Full Fact said about this commitment in their manifesto:

One of the key pledges that appears in the manifesto, to build “40 new hospitals”, does not appear to be costed in this manifesto, as most of them are not intended to be built during the next parliament. £2.7 billion was committed in September this year to upgrade six existing hospitals, while the remaining hospitals were allocated £100 million to develop plans for upgrades. But there is no money yet for any actual building work on these, and the scheme has “the aim of delivering between 2025 and 2030”.

Full Fact (https://fullfact.org/election-2019/conservative-manifesto-2019/)

There is also an issue of recruitment, where the Government made a vague commitment to 50,000 new nurses. Even this figure is misleading as it includes 18,500 existing nurses who will be encouraged to stay. It seems with the promises are soundbites rather than anything with more substantial planning behind it. This is concerning, particularly as the Conservatives have been in charge since 2010.

Linked to this, there has been more talk about the era of austerity being over, with increases in investment pledged for the Police. Sticking with this example, when the stats are interrogated further, the increase in Police numbers would still not fully account for the total roles cut since the Conservatives came to power.

A broader point arising from this is that there are a growing number of issues with public services, which are becoming difficult to manage, and require a longer-term view rather than short-term initiatives to plug a gap. They also require investment, and with this honesty with voters that for high-quality public services there is going to be a premium to pay. Decisions also need to be made about what the priorities really are. The woes faced by the NHS are merely a symptom of this failure to act in a meaningful way.

Those with responsibility for health and social care provision have a real opportunity as we enter a new decade to think carefully about both short and long-term priorities and how to address them in a way that is realistic about the costs. This needs to cross party lines, with balanced input from experts.

Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – climate emergency

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 second of this series, the focus is on the environment.

This year saw a growing awareness of environmental issues, with groups such as Extinction Rebellion and individuals including Greta Thunberg urging immediate action while deploying methods including student strikes and widespread disruption. It meant that the environment was put firmly on the agenda.

Some of the techniques employed by the former group were controversial, including targeting public transport systems such as the London Underground when commuters were trying to get to work. A few of their blockades also required the police to intervene, leading to questions about where the line could be drawn.

The student climate strikes, encouraged by TIME’s person of the year – Greta Thunberg – were criticised by the Government for disrupting education; however, this appeared to have the desired effect by leading people to acknowledge the issue the strikes were about. Outside of the strikes, additional pressure was piled on world leaders to take action at several summits throughout the year, particularly those such as the United States who unilaterally withdrew from the Paris agreements in recent years.

Something that stood out was Thunberg’s speech at the UN Climate Action Summit. This is an example of a speech from someone who is truly passionate and is not afraid to speak their mind at length. It is inspirational that a person who is not a politician or part of an institution has made such an impact. It also shows that things can be done outside of the conventional political realm, and has also engaged a generation of young people – which is commendable.

The strategy of all of these groups and people is starting to pay off, as shown by a range of stats. YouGov found that environmental concern is at a record level, posting the following graph in July:

Another set of data from YouGov demonstrated that many people consider that climate change would have serious consequences, including wars, economic damage and displacement.

There have also been further moves to reduce the level of single-use plastics, with the (re-)introduction of public water fountains and supermarkets announcing strategies to eliminate these materials. Outside of this, what have the responses been among politicians and how has the UK been doing?

The Government announced that they would ensure the UK reached net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, significantly revising the legislation in place calling for an 80% reduction. “Net-zero” provides some room for manoeuvre, meaning that these should be avoided completely, or additional trees and mitigating measures should be implemented.

All parties committed to environmental action in their election manifestos; with the Conservatives promising an Environment Bill which would include a new regulator and further action on the use of plastics.

However, some have said that the action does not go far enough, with Greenpeace claiming that the UK will miss several targets in 2020. More details can be found here.

That said, it does appear to be the right direction of travel when looking at some stats such as greenhouse gas emissions, although the pace is not necessarily as rapid as it should be. Official stats from the ONS show that between 1992 and 2018, there was a 32.4% reduction.

On a more general level, several issues need to be resolved, and quickly. This also needs to be multilateral, as action from a single country will not suffice.

The actions which are taken on the environment in 2020 will have a significant impact, and as developments this year indicate, there are many things outside of the standard political arena that can be done. Alongside greater public awareness, perhaps we will see more movement as we look to a new decade. The question is whether this will be enough.

Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – Brexit means ???

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 first of this series, the focus is on Brexit.

The B-word has dominated the conversation. The year began with the UK due to leave the European Union in March 2019, which was then gradually pushed as far as January 31st 2020. It has also claimed one Prime Minister in the process. After unsuccessfully getting her deal through Parliament three times, beset with difficulties from her party and others, Theresa May called it a day and Boris Johnson took over in a generally predictable Conservative leadership contest.

Johnson then faced challenges of his own and was able to negotiate a “better” deal (one that economic forecasts show is probably going to be worse). This deal faced challenges of its own, and although it passed its first stage in Parliament without an election, Johnson refused to give sufficient time for scrutiny and had to extend the Brexit deadline – something he promised would not happen.

Looking more deeply at this, there is a sense of weariness towards Brexit, as it has been all that many news outlets and commentators appear to have talked about. Many may have decided that the most expedient way to escape it is by accepting a less than ideal deal which was negotiated in a matter of weeks. Furthermore, this focus on Brexit has happened at the expense of other pressing concerns such as the environment and the health service.

It has also highlighted difficulties among all of the political parties. On the left, Labour has struggled to balance the coalition of voters it had come to rely on since the late 90s, and this led to an ill-conceived policy around a final say referendum that engaged one part of this coalition and switched off another who associated this with further delay.

In the centre, the Liberal Democrats sought to stand out by proclaiming “Bollocks to Brexit”, which made many question the “Democrat” part of their party nomenclature. This illustrates the problems of implementing a direct democracy decision (i.e. a referendum) with representative democracy (i.e. Parliament).

On the right, the Conservatives were under pressure from The Brexit Party to move their policy positions and after the European elections knew something had to change, given the success of Farage’s new organisation. It also really started to draw attention to dissension within Conservative ranks, and this was most profound when working out a solution to the Irish border, where the belligerent European Research Group refused to back any deal without approval from the Democratic Unionist Party.

In 2020, far from Brexit being signed, sealed and delivered on the 31st January, the second, more complicated stage of talks begins to establish the future relationship between the UK and EU. The deadline is tight, with Boris Johnson claiming that there will be a deal finalised before the year is out. Yet, most experts doubt this is possible, given the immense scale of regulations, logistics and EU/UK procedure. It also raises the prospect of a so-called “clean break” WTO-rule Brexit rearing its head again. The Prime Minister could be on a course to disappoint the voters who “lent” him their trust by not acknowledging the gargantuan effort required.

On the EU side, there are already indications that they will not make things easy and will use a range of powerful tactics to ensure the EU’s interests are protected, regardless of whether they are at the expense of the UK, illustrated through recent negotiations with Switzerland. With the tight deadline and pressures associated, will the UK have the ability to say no, given the high stakes involved?