The Missing Election Debate

In an election called to shore up a Brexit negotiating position – with an added bonus of decimating the Opposition at the same time – it’s easy to see how the narrative will play out. Vote Conservative for a successful Brexit, vote Lib Dem as a Remain protest. Labour, with their talk of actual policies – and domestic ones at that! – seem to be the odd man out, fighting a different election.

But an articulate opposition party pushing the Government to defend their inherited and wholly disastrous welfare reform record, or to clarify their policy approach to social care funding, house building and the like would improve the calibre of the debate over the next few weeks immeasurably – not to mention spur some much needed movement on the domestic front post-Election, when everything risks being put on hold for trade negotiations.

Alas, the opposition we have is not one capable of applying such pressure. Corbyn’s first speech of the campaign did mention social care reform, the minimum wage, job creation. All vital stuff. But it was couched in a series of such dreary “them and us” clichés as to drown all impact.

The predictability was stifling from the first line. “Establishment versus the people?”  Check. “Political and economic elite?” Check. “Tax dodgers?” Check. “Rigged system?” Triple check. The populist narrative of not playing by the rules against the establishment and their high-powered media friends worked for Trump, but the big difference here is that the incumbent government already owns the ultimate anti-establishment narrative.

They are the party of Brexit. The establishment – Cameron, Osborne and their Brussels-loving Remainers – are long gone. Disgruntled working class voters will look to Mrs May and her tough talk on promoting British interests in EU negotiations, and Corbyn’s blustering about vested interests will just sound hollow.

So who’s going to fly the flag for domestic policy reform? By crow-barring a stale class narrative onto his policy ideas on wages, care and housing, Corbyn will have lost the ear of large swathes of the country. But that doesn’t mean the question he poses – What sort of society and economy do we want after Brexit? – isn’t a critical one.

And all parties have proven themselves week on this front. The Government remains rightly consumed with the process of Brexit, and all remaining attention is focused on the deals that can be struck afterwards. But these individual wins do not make for a coherent vision for social and economic renewal, nor will it give us any idea about what a post-Brexit Britain would look like.

In fact, the vision of what we want to achieve needs to guide negotiations from the outset. This could be a major opportunity for the Conservative Manifesto, laying out not just how the Government will negotiate Brexit but what they will achieve at the end of that process. While this Election will act as little more than a formality for the Conservatives, they would do well to remember that those who voted Leave did not necessarily vote against the EU – many of them voted for something. And it is in articulating that “something” that the next election in 2022 – the first real one May will face on her domestic legacy too – will be won and lost.