Voters hate elections. They tend to hate them especially if they aren’t necessary – which is so, strictly speaking, in this case. Theresa May’s case for seeking this contest (that it will help Britain’s Brexit negotiation position) is solidly formed and soundly argued. But it ducked the main point when delivering it yesterday: she wants a poll now because the chances of grinding poor old Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party into the dust have never been better.
The British people voted in a general election only two years ago. They voted in an EU referendum last summer. They have no reason to believe, at this stage, that this Parliament can’t deliver Brexit. That a new one might do so better will not strike many of them as sufficient reason for a contest. So now they are being asked to trudge to the polls for a third time in three years – indeed, in some cases, for the second time in two months, since there are local and Mayoral and police commissioner elections in May.
Many will resent it. Some will show their displeasure by the most practical means possible – namely, by not voting at all. So the Prime Minister faces a problem at the outset. Hardline Remainers are likely to turn out and vote Liberal Democrat. Committed Conservatives in Labour marginals may not, since the prospect of Corbyn winning office is remote. Convinced Leave voters, particularly in Labour seats, may think “job done” – that last June’s referendum did the trick, and that they don’t need to turn out again. May’s main problem may not be the hopeless Corbyn, or Tim Farron, or even Nicola Sturgeon, but apathy.
Against this unpromising background, the Tory campaign is bound to talk up the threat of a Corbyn-and-Sturgeon led hung Parliament. And Corbyn will take the only course that over 30 years of knee-jerk opposition-mongering has taught him to take – i.e: ranting windily about the evil Tories. Prepare, therefore, for seven long weeks of attritional campaigning. This is an unpromising background for what, once the tactical manoeuverings and party posturings are stripped away, is the most momentous election in modern times, or should be. Since Brexit is the biggest decision that the British people have made since the war, it could hardly be otherwise.
So the election that very few people want also turns out to be one that offers exciting political choice – or should do. It is a choice not so much between the parties – though the gulf between Government and Opposition is wider than at any point since the mid-1980s – as, so to speak, within them. May could respond to the unpromising background to this election by simply going negative and playing safe. Or she could follow through the logic of her complaint “burning injustices”, and contest the poll on a radical Tory manifesto that would start to build a country fit for Brexit. Here are seven broad ideas for “reform” – that favourite May/Nick Timothy/Fiona Hill word.
- Public spending fairness across the generations. Public spending on older richer retired people has been relatively protected compared to that expended on younger poorer working ones. So end the pensions triple lock. Pare back free bus passes and the winter fuel allowance And scrap ring-fenced spending (with the exception of meeting the NATO two per cent minimum). This would open up a route to that elusive prospect of ending the structural deficit. And we don’t choose to end it by these orderly means, it will eventually be ended by disorderly ones – namely, panic cuts that wreak real harm on the disabled, poor and disadvantaged.
- An Industrial Strategy that shifts resources from universities to technical education. As Mark Wallace has argued on this site, the best industrial strategy consists not of picking winner firms (or trying to), but of the grinding business of producing a better educated and trained workforce. That doesn’t just consist of consolidating the Blair and Gove reforms in schools, but also of improving the quality and availability of technical education. This won’t be realised without transferring resources from the bloated University sector – see Graeme Archer on the Great University Mis-Selling Scandal – to vocational education.
- More homes for younger people. Alex Morton, David Cameron’s former housing adviser and a columnist for this site, wrote up Sajid Javid’s new housing push as follows: “There is no point in increasing numbers in local plans if there are no new sanctions for councils that don’t have a local plan, or to introduce a system to intervene to put a local plan in place. The delivery test is rather weak, and again has insufficient sanctions. Much of the White Paper is excellent and a skeleton for delivery, but it will need work to put flesh on the bones.” The coming manifesto should produce those skeleton-strengthening proposals.
- Tax help for families. As Nola Leach has demonstrated on ConservativeHome, scaling up the transferable allowance for married couples would be an efficient means of helping “just about managing” families whose incomes will be squeezed by the changes to univeral credit. The M word is a missing word from the Government’s anti-poverty strategy (see David Burrowes’s recent article here), and Downing Street seems nervous of trying to design a families policy at all – which means, of course, that it has an undesigned one, consisting of what’s left of George Osborne’s regressive and inefficient childcare subsidies.
- Cut the size of the Lords by half. The Blair overhaul, Coalition changes to the Upper House, and the scale of David Cameron’s appointments have collectively devalued the Lords. It is too big and too Liberal Democrat – if, that is, you accept the Coalition Agreement logic of seeking to make party representation in the upper house mirror that in the lower. May should wait until after Brexit, and then (armed with a manifesto commitment) compel the Lords to find a way of slashing its numbers. And if it won’t change itself, then change must be forced on it.
- A voluntary cap on Tory donations. There is nothing wrong in principle with big trade unions funding Labour or rich private donors funding the Conservatives: the taxpayer shouldn’t be forced to fund either instead. But the wider the sources of the Party’s funding are, the more solid its financial foundations will be. May and Patrick McLoughlin should announce that they are working towards a voluntary cap on Tory donations of, say, £50,000 a throw. There has already been some diversification of fund-raising during the Cameron years, and now is the time for more.
Yes: much of this reform is very risky indeed for the kind of election that we describe. But if it can’t be attempted now with a Labour leader as weak as Corbyn, then it never will.
And that seventh proposal? The same as usual. All these policies, and everything else, is subject to the requirements of Brexit.