The perfect election campaign is a far cry from the reality. In an ideal world, the party leaders, ministers and candidates from all across the country would be engaged in interesting, passionate and fruitful discussion of how they want to take the country forward.
But we haven’t had that. We have had a chaotic, tiring, discombobulating campaign that is simultaneously too long and too short to find the space to have real debates about how to move the country forward.
The TV debates, of all types, have been poorly handled by the TV broadcasters, who cannot find a workable format that anyone can bear watching. And some candidates across the country, including in my constituency, have been too often tempted into trying to play personality politics, rather than focussing on policy differences.
We all know the principal domestic issues. Brexit, the NHS, police, education, all come up time and again on doorsteps and they dominate the media coverage and the parties’ manifestos. However, I believe the next parliament will offer some surprises on the crises and challenges with which it may need to grapple. What should we be looking out for that will affect our politics?
First up, immigration. Ever since the referendum, numerous polls have shown that the subject has dropped down the list of the public’s concerns. Yet this does not mean it has gone away. Even among fairly liberal-minded Conservative voters (like many in my own constituency of Hitchin and Harpenden), there is an expectation that once we have left the EU, we will not only be able to control immigration but bring overall numbers down. This will remain a challenge for the next government, and we will need to do that while ensuring we have the necessary young workers in areas like agriculture and social care – in addition to high skill employment in professional services and the like. This challenge will be especially acute if, as I expect, the economy starts to grow more quickly once the Brexit deadlock has come to an end.
Secondly, the world economy. Before I entered the world of politics, I worked as a corporate lawyer and then as a banker in the City of London. My friends and former colleagues, almost to a man and woman, tell me that the City’s view is that a world economic slowdown over the next couple of years is expected. Growth in both the US and China is slowing, and the trade spat between them still rumbles on. Eurozone manufacturing activity contracted for a 10th straight month in November, and the services sector is faring only slightly better. In the midst of all of these headwinds, the UK sits. Our fundamentals are strong, but if the world economy sneezes (particularly the US and Europe), it will be difficult not to catch a cold.
Every day that I knock on doors in my constituency, there is one issue that comes up more than anything else, even Brexit. It is the NHS. The public is anxious and worried that the NHS can’t cope with the growing pressures put on it, and they are concerned that no political party really has the fundamental answers to the question of how to provide first-class healthcare in the 2020s and beyond.
My sense is that they know that more money (which I am always keen to remind them the Conservatives are delivering) is necessary but not sufficient to deliver lasting improvements. They often tell me that the political class should be more honest about all the changes that will be required, and think about the long term – not just tomorrow’s headlines. I trust that the Conservative government, if re-elected, is brave enough to take the major political steps required to put the social care system and NHS onto stronger footing for the long term. I know Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has the vision and ability to deliver sweeping positive change, and I hope he can fight through the political cynicism and NHS bureaucracy to do so.
However, if the public wants the long term improvements, it will need to trust the government and parliament. As the son of an NHS doctor and pharmacist, I have a deep understanding and affection for the NHS, but those within the system know it has faults.
But if any change proposed is condemned by Labour as the government “selling off” or “privatising” the NHS, and the public believe them, it will make it harder for the government to undertake long-lasting reform to improve the NHS for the long term. A foretaste of such a political attack has been shown in this campaign, as I have spent hours talking to worried constituents about how a trade deal with the US will not allow Donald Trump to buy the NHS. Not only are such claims nonsense, they undermine any attempt to fundamentally improve the system, as politicians will be too scared to touch it.
Immigration, the world economy and the fundamental improvements needed for the NHS may well dominate the next few years. Let’s hope we can get a majority Conservative government to guide us through it, not another hung parliament that can’t make any decisions.
Bim Afolami is the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Hitchin and Harpenden