A week into the New Year, and it’s already becoming abundantly clear what’s going to dominate the news: four months of electioneering. The main effect of one of the Coalition’s first bits of lawmaking back in 2010 was to fix parliamentary terms, with the result that for the first time ever, we know exactly when the general election’s going to be. No more will campaigning be crammed into three short weeks. It’ll take up a third of the year.
Try to contain your enthusiasm. I’m not that sure I can.
The argument and counter-argument this time seems set to be focused around the economy, the state of the National Health Service and Europe. How we’ll manage any kind of reasoned national debate around this is far from clear, when the parties base their arguments on deeply abstruse jargon and statistics. If anyone out there is clear about how big the deficit is; how that’s changed over the past four years; whether that’s in real terms or as a fraction of something else and whether that matters; whether the deficit left by the last government was primarily a result of overspending or of bailing out that banking system after its collapse in 2008, and whether that could have been prevented; and whether the current government’s efforts to reduce the deficit have been fair, unfair and, indeed, successful: we’d be very grateful if they could tell us, because frankly we don’t see how anyone without PhDs in economics and maths is supposed to be able to follow the politicians’ arguments and come to an informed conclusion.
A cynic might say that was the point of the arguments being presented in the way they are.
We’re unlikely to hear very much about industry, manufacturing or technology in the main debates. A colleague has suggested a running game of ‘rebalancing bingo’, but whether that would drown out the constant attempts to wrench the debate over to immigration or the sniping about respective parties’ records over their records over the past five years or the 13 years before that currently seems unlikely. Again, it’s far from easy to determine how far the rebalancing all parties called for in 2010 has worked; no doubt we’ll have claim and counter-claim.
It’ll be interesting to see how the energy debate pans out, because this is an area where government policy will definitely have an effect: there are major nuclear projects on the table, as well as renewable technologies in development, and neither can proceed without an investment environment which depends very strongly on the signals sent by politicians to the major players. Plus, of course, there’s the effect of the falling oil price, which no politician can do anything about.
STEM will probably only figure in discussions on education, and there hasn’t been much to choose between the parties on this. Nobody seems to be able to come up with a distinctive policy on increasing numbers in STEM, or on how to ensure that they stay in STEM careers; increasingly, all we hear are the same latitudes on how important it is from politicians on all sides.
Of course, the political landscape has changed considerably since 2010. Parties whose influence was then negligible, particularly UKIP and the Scottish National Party, might this time manage a much stronger showing, which could have the effect of making this election even closer and Coalition talks more complex. We could even end up with a second election following hard on the heels of May’s — although this will require some legislative gymnastics, because of the aforementioned fixed term law.
Most depressing of all — and I do apologise for presenting such a dispiriting series of observations — is that one thing we learned from the last election is that manifesto promises melt like an early spring frost when it comes to Coalition-forming. Whether it’s worth us paying any attention at all to the pre-election arguments is anyone’s guess.