The main political parties in this election are competing for a minority of votes in a minority of the seats. Each is therefore pushing the issue that it thinks most likely to win them: the Conservatives the economy, Labour the NHS and UKIP immigration. (The Liberal Democrats? They’re simply trying to survive.)
Within its own narrow limits – that’s to say, as a general election-winning device – this approach makes sense. Within the wider context of addressing the big issues facing the country, being honest with the voters, and helping to restore the legitimacy of our battered political system, it is at the least irrelevant and at most damaging.
There are three issues in particular which will loom as soon as the election is over, but which all four parties want to avoid.
- The constitution. Yes, there’s plenty of speculation about what might happen in a hung Parliament, and who might form coalitions or pacts with whom. But there has been no big debate to date about how we should be governed – what an English-votes-for-English-laws Commons would look like; what the knock-on effects on Scotland might be; what would happen to the Lords in consequence; how much devolution there should be in England (and elsewhere); what would replace the ECHR (if anything) were Britain to leave it; where an EU referendum fits into this picture; whether the UK will survive at all. Andrew Gimson writes about it all on this site today.
- Spending reductions. Yes, there’s lots of debate about the economy. But the aftermath of the election will see a Budget, and cuts in the rate at which public spending is rising will be set out by, presumably, a Chancellor from one of the two main parties. As Peter Hoskin has pointed out on this site, two-thirds of the Conservatives’ savings are unidentified – a total that rises with Labour to five-sevenths. So far, we don’t really know much about what these will be, and where precisely in the unprotected departments the axe will fall. Ryan Bourne will cover this in his column tomorrow.
- Defence and foreign affairs. Yes, there’s a controversy raging about whether or not government should keeping hitting the two per cent defence target, and about what the size of the army should be. But what do we want to build our armed forces up for? Who is the enemy? If Islamist extremism is the main threat, do we really want to fight more wars abroad? If not, does hitting that target really matter? Or is Russia also an opponent? If so, is it a more serious threat than ISIS or Al Qaeda? What view would we take of Germany re-arming? Where does the balance in our security policy lie? Peter Franklin will turn to all this on Thursday (and David Davis writes about defence on this site today).
Perhaps we have reached the limits of the sustainability of politics as it is currently practiced.