THE BLOG

The General Election Avoided The Issue That Matters Most

13/06/2017 13:11 BST | Updated 13/06/2017 13:11 BST
mrtom-uk via Getty Images

There's a line of thought attached to the General Election that says everyone lost, but that's clearly not true. There are more ways than one to win, and just as importantly, there are different things to be won.

The Conservative Party definitely lost even though they technically won. The same goes for the SNP. Both emerged with comfortably more seats than the nearest challenger, but it was a slap in the face both for Theresa May's garbled decision to go to the polls, and the SNP's longed-for desire to take Scotland into independence.

Coming some margin from being able to form a government, the Labour Party lost, but Jeremy Corbyn won. He confounded critics, mobilised groups usually absent from the political debate, and secured a platform from which to push on. The DUP might have won, if they can wring concessions from the Conservatives in exchange for their support, but it could come at the cost of destabilising Northern Ireland. And good old UKIP suffered humiliation when votes were counted, but we're ultimately here because of Brexit, the flame they kept alive for years.

Brexit is the reason we all lost though, because it hardly featured. Certainly not when it came to specifics or anything in the way of a concrete vision for post-EU Britain. May's pie in the sky ramblings on the matter did little to enlighten the issue. Instead, we've managed to hold a national election while skirting around the one issue dominating the future of the country.

Brexit and what it might mean, and perhaps more importantly what it could mean, never truly emerged into the open. The two main parties came with different strategies built around the same concept: don't reveal too much because we need votes from leave and remain supporters.

It makes sense politically. The country is polarised, upheaval present everywhere, while the electoral map is reshaping. England turned out to be less blue than expected, Scotland more so. Apparently, the young will vote as well, given the right circumstances and an enticing Corbyn shaped flag to rally behind.

Brexit is also a hard topic to talk about because it doesn't offer easy answers. Passions are inflamed and hard to sate, partly because so much of what needs to be resolved relies on detailed technical answers, partly because a lot of circles are left needing to be squared given the large number of impossible to keep promises floating about.

How does the UK achieve free and easy trade access while locking down borders and keeping immigrants out? Will building barriers to entry reduce terrorism more than the risk increases by withdrawing from information and expertise sharing agreements? How does a country respected for its soft power maintain influence while retreating into isolation? There may be answers, and there will almost certainly be compromise required to get to them, but the questions weren't even asked.

The public went to the polls after a campaign avoiding tough questions. Nothing even remotely resembling a post-Brexit vision exists. Labour ran a positive campaign and put out a manifesto that seems to have inspired many voters. Great credit is due, particularly when the Conservatives' cynical and inept campaign stumbles into view, run as an incoherent mix of extended character slam and coronation.

Looking forward is important, but doing so without factoring in Brexit is largely a waste of time. The future of institutions such as the NHS is shaped by areas directly affected by Brexit; like the strength of the economy and the availability of staff. Reducing energy costs while switching to cleaner sources requires investment from a mix of public finances and private money. The availability of either will alter drastically based on what we seek, and what we get from Brexit negotiations. The list can go on endlessly. It's not to say all of this can't be worked out, but little effort was made to try publicly.

Moving forward, we can't continue with May's Brexit means Brexit nonsense, which in practice means absolutely nothing. Nor can Labour avoid the questions much longer even though it will end up risking seats. Corbyn has at least garnered momentum, and has the space to use it to put forward his case. Let's hope he does so. The Conservatives don't have the luxury of time given they lead going into negotiations. Whether May is there for long, or at all remains to be seen, but it's not like a plan has emerged from other sources.

And yes, political reality suggests attempting to have this debate would have cost seats by alienating voters. Could Labour have held the line so well in areas likes the North East if they'd have embraced the pro-EU camp in the manner of the Liberal Democrats? Probably not. Did the Conservatives need to pitch for those UKIP voters because remain areas were always likely to turn away? Possibly. It doesn't change the fact we're running out of time for someone to try and offer up a vision for the future before it already arrives.

There are tough questions ahead and we've just had a national discussion that didn't discuss them. It would be nice if someone tried to find answers, because getting the next few months and years right is a big ask, and getting it wrong will be disastrous.