If you study history you will come across the phrase ‘Khaki Election’. This means a UK General Election was about the war and its aftermath. Not much else got a look in.
Usually General Elections are not quite like that. Of course there may be a dominant narrative which most people plug into—the Winter of Discontent in 1979 and collapsing public services in 1997, are two more recent examples. But usually key areas of policy such as health, crime, schools and the economy get vigorously debated. More ‘niche’ issues like cancer care, the environment, sports and arts policy also get their moment in the sun. Charities therefore get a chance to argue their case and to see politicians respond.
As a result of all this debate, in a standard General Election the parties and candidates have to paint a picture of the kind of society they want to give us if we vote for them.
But the 2017 General Election is going to be one of those one-issue elections.
Strong leadership and Brexit seem to be trumping everything else. And even when other issues emerge, for example through the manifesto launches this week, it is likely they will be discussed mainly through that lens. So the debate on the NHS becomes to some degree an argument that, with a strong mandate, the prime minister will get us a better Brexit deal which will free up more money for the NHS—even if not the full £350m a week once promised by the Leave campaign. Or housing will be solved if we get a hard Brexit deal that shuts out further EU immigration.
All this is not unexpected and not a bad thing in itself. Brexit is one of the key issues of our time and ought to be among the top issues for people on which to decide their vote. But its dominance does cause problems for many people and charities—and arguably for the health of our pluralistic democracy—for several reasons.
First, while we may agree or disagree with the particular obsessions that charities and other pressure groups have, our policy debate is surely weaker without this brief airing.
Second, we will not get to see potential ministers and their proposed policies tested as much—and as though it mattered—in the harsh light of public debate. Usually election campaigns allow all this to come out into the open, with a rare public focus before most of the country goes back to trying to get through the week successfully. It does not necessarily resolve anything but helps shine a light on where policies are weak or contradictory, or on areas that have been left out. And this can have real impacts in changing the debate longer term and getting previously neglected causes onto the agenda.
Third, without this debate across the field, it becomes hard to understand the instincts and heartbeat of the government that is subsequently elected. The winners retreat into Whitehall corridors and Parliamentary committee rooms or hide behind cleverly drafted white papers and speeches, and the raw politics of what really drives them is much harder to read. This makes working out where they will go on particular issues, and how to ensure your advocacy teams to influence them, much harder.
Fourth, and linked to the previous point, disputes within parties are less likely to be highlighted so the public can get a feel of what sort of party they are electing. While the divisions in the Labour party are transparent for all to see, the Conservatives contain a whole range of views on exactly what policies should be pursued. This will be hidden in this campaign behind some strong and resonant leadership and Brexit slogans. The argument will come after the election, in what were once called smoke-filled rooms, but far away from the public gaze. This means we will to some extent be voting for a pig in a poke (beyond the key issue of Brexit) and will have to wait until after the election to find out what it all meant.
Of course, manifesto commitments will be made and the government will prise them in when moving its policies on and daring the Lords not to attack them, but the public will not have been exposed to them as perhaps they should.
None of this is to argue that the normal General Election dance is revealing or enlightening, but the public and many charities we may well feel its absence as a result of 2017’s Brexit General election.
A version of this article was originally written for the MJ.
Download Dan’s provocation paper on the importance of civil society in Britain’s post-Brexit future.