It’s rare that you find consensus during a general election, but in the final weekend of the campaign some finally emerged. When asked by YouGov whether this campaign had made the public think better or worse of British politics, just three per cent of people responded positively. This is hardly surprising: trust in politicians and the political process is as low as it has ever been. As we move into a new year and a new parliament, one of the key questions facing the new government should be how to restore optimism and belief in Westminster.
It doesn’t help that public despair has been reconfigured into the pervasive idea that Britain is a country hopelessly torn apart or ‘polarised’. Terms such as ‘culture war’ and ‘divided Britain’ are bandied about with little thought for how accurate or applicable they are.
The evidence for all this catastrophising is much thinner than the narrative surrounding it suggests. It is self-evident that Brexit has created new, volatile political identities. But unlike in the United States, where knowing how someone feels about a single issue – say, guns – is a strong predictor of how they feel on other, seemingly unrelated ones, in the UK there are many areas of policy in which different groups of voters are largely aligned - even if they may not always realise it.
What is happening in the UK is different. Rather than polarising, the vote is fragmenting. In 2018, only nine per cent of the electorate said they very strongly identified with a political party, compared with nearly half of the electorate in the 1960s. This phenomenon is causing our politics to become more dynamic and creating interesting areas of overlap.
Research commissioned by Engage Britain this year found that, whether it is the rising salience of the environment as a concern across all age groups, the belief that health and social care should be properly funded or that we should provide better opportunities for families living in poverty, the public are less divided on the key challenges facing the country than we are sometimes led to believe. This should be a source of optimism as the country moves forward.
Boris Johnson and his campaign team seem to have recognised this. The success of ‘Get Brexit Done’ as a slogan was no accident – the public want a government that can break the paralysis afflicting our politics.
Throughout the election campaign, canvassers and journalists reported that a powerful part of the public’s desire to move on from Brexit is the motivation to get back to tackling these issues.
The question now becomes how this government can succeed where others have failed. Part of the answer can come from understanding the power of encouraging proper engagement with and between the public.
On health care, evidence shows that Tory voters are slightly more likely than the average to support tax rises to pay for it. Few people in the UK doubt climate change is happening or the action that is needed to tackle it, the disagreement is on where it fits as a priority. These are not solutions in themselves – but they are strong places to start with the business of finding a way forward on challenges that for too long have been deemed ‘too difficult’.
Getting Brexit Done will suffice for an election campaign: getting Britain fixed will be the real test.
If the government is serious about achieving this, it will have to tackle a paradox at the heart of our politics – that the combative nature of elections is the very opposite to the essentially collaborative nature of building solutions that will stand the test of time. Political parties often struggle with making the transition from campaign into government, which hampers their ability to tackle the big issues the public cares about, which in turn breeds more public frustration and despair. This conundrum is key to understanding the widespread disdain felt for Westminster politics. Solving it is crucial.
The fact the prime minister’s mandate owes much to places that have not traditionally voted Conservative could mean that the new government decides to focus on increasing collaboration, bringing people together from across divides and giving them ‘skin in the game’. This should not simply be about finding compromise, in which no one feels truly happy and everyone has a reason to distance themselves from the outcome. A better approach would be making sure people are invested in the process by which decision is reached. That means working together with communities, frontline practitioners and those who feel most affected by policy but powerless and voiceless to influence it.
For those of us who want to ensure our policy making is fit for purpose, ambitious and robust enough to tackle the challenges we face, this is a crucial moment. Politics is, at its heart, about choices. The new government could choose collaboration over conflict. It could accept that the answers lie with an increasingly aware and increasingly engaged British public, not in the offices of Whitehall. In order for Westminster to be trusted again, it should first learn to trust.
Julian McCrae is the managing director of Engage Britain.