General election 2017: a pragmatic approach is needed

9 Jun 17

The unexpected election result suggests parties should come together to collaborate in policy areas where they agree

The first draft of this piece looked very different. Written before last night’s exit poll, it spoke of the opportunity for Theresa May to use her large majority to drive through wholesale (and much-needed) reforms of the NHS, social care and social security to improve public services.

The urgency of these reforms (which went largely unmentioned in a dire election campaign) remains: the UK has slipped to the bottom of the G7 growth table; the deficit remains at over £50bn. According to Theresa May’s logic, Brexit negotiations will be made more difficult with, dare I say it, such an unstable government – further risking economic growth.

But reform is unlikely to happen: both parties disagree bitterly about the need to change the NHS, how social care should be funded, and social-security policies, such as the pensions ‘triple lock’.

Given this, it is more fruitful to identify the opportunities for cross-party reform. Both main parties have committed to improving digital infrastructure, such as 5G, to address the UK’s lagging productivity. Both have committed to building new homes – Labour want 1 million by the end of the parliament; Conservatives have committed to 1.5 million. These are issues that have not been addressed by recent governments; a Labour Party willing serve the nation would work with the government to act on them. The Labour Party has not fully worked through its own ‘industrial strategy’, but this too is an area that both sides agree targeted investment is needed.

Both leaders also spoke passionately on the need to improve life chances for all. With both agreeing to loosen the fiscal purse strings, the government should invest in people. Investing in employment-services programmes is crucial to meet any fall out from Brexit, as well as to help people into work who have not yet benefited from the growth in employment. Both parties can support this. Conservative backbenchers are likely to scupper May’s plans to reintroduce grammar schools, which would at least engender a more fruitful debate about the future of the vast majority of schools, with the academy programme largely stalled and a highly fragmented system.

The result will be a shock to both parties. But challenges to the health of public services are well known to the government. With the difficulty of negotiating Brexit with a minority government, the government would be right to be pragmatic. But today’s dodged reforms will be more pressing for the next government. May must try to address these where possible. If there is ever a time for all parties to work to serve the country, this is it.

 

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