From National Service to net zero, it is policy not punditry that matters

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty leave after a Conservative general election campaign event in Stanmore, on May 26, 2024
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty leave after a Conservative general election campaign event in Stanmore, on May 26, 2024

Social media has done enormous damage to the reputations of several senior professions. From the very online and very ideological academics to the polling analysts who hawk data matching their personal beliefs, many of those who claim to be neutral and empirical show themselves to be anything but.

The desperate urgency of almost everything online has made political analysis and media scrutiny shallower than ever before, and in this election campaign we can already see the problem. When this weekend Rishi Sunak announced his plans to introduce National Service for young people the internet exploded.

Commentators rushed to dismiss the idea as “bananas”, when different forms of national service take place in many liberal and mainstream European countries. Some conflated the idea proposed by the Prime Minister – in which the majority of young people spend some weekends doing community work – with universal military conscription. Others posted polling showing opposition to “compulsory military service”, which clearly was not what was proposed.

Even though nobody had ever suggested otherwise, by day two, when ministers confirmed there would be no criminal sanctions for those who refuse to take part, some claimed the Government was “rowing back” on its policy, with the implication that it had not been thought through. Others asked sarcastically how the PM intends to deliver “compulsory National Service in Northern Ireland”, as though nobody from the Province has ever served in the military or volunteered for charitable and community work.

As the hysteria raged, fuelled by the desperate desire to join the bandwagon and issue their own particular “take”, not one of these commentators – some of them high-profile journalists – had even tried to understand the policy.

Far from military conscription, the idea is that from a competitive process, five per cent of 18-year-olds will be selected for a paid military commission lasting one year. Far from “sending kids to war zones” or “giving violent youths weapons training” they will undertake roles in cyber, civil resilience and logistics. Everyone else will be expected to do community work for an average of 25 days per year.

It is perfectly possible to imagine a scenario where such a policy had been announced not by the Tories but by Sir Keir Starmer. And it is equally possible to imagine the very same commentators welcoming the announcement as “smart strategy” and “parking Labour’s tanks on the Tories’ lawn”.

No doubt they would cite President Macron’s new Service National Universel, and David Lammy’s longstanding call for a “national civic service”. But this weekend they did not, because the policy was announced by the Conservatives.

However poor its quality, though, the argument about National Service was at least a conversation about policy. For too much of the time, our political discourse is dominated by polling-based narratives, and superficial assessments of politicians’ personalities.

The period before and since the election was called was dominated by talk of Labour’s poll leads over the Conservatives, Reform’s standing in the polls, and subjective judgments about the presentation of the parties’ leaders. Yes, Rishi Sunak made his speech calling the election in the rain, but Sir Keir Starmer gave his reply from what seemed to resemble a broom cupboard. Is this really more important than what the two sides plan to do with power?

We do not debate these plans nearly enough. Take Labour’s promise to decarbonise the power grid by 2030 as an example. This is a policy Sir Dieter Helm, perhaps the country’s leading energy expert, says “is not going to be achieved”. Three years ago, promising to be Britain’s “first green chancellor”, Rachel Reeves promised she would deliver it by spending an additional £28 billion every year from when Labour were elected until 2030.

When it was pointed out that the plan broke her own fiscal rules, Reeves started to change policy. First she said the plan did not involve immediately spending £28 billion per year, but that the funds would “ramp up” to that level halfway through the parliament.

Then she said the plan consisted of £10 billion a year already allocated by the Tories to related projects, so it was not entirely new money. And while in January, Starmer insisted he was wedded to the £28 billion promise, by February Labour changed again, promising to meet the same objective, spending a total of £23.7 billion over the whole parliament.

How will Labour deliver a policy said by experts to be impossible with any budget, while spending less than a fifth of what they said it would originally cost? No new details have emerged that explain this dramatic transformation in the efficiency of their proposed investments. But neither Starmer nor Reeves has yet been properly interrogated.

The same is true for other policies. We do not know, for example, if Starmer will match the Conservative plan to increase the defence budget, but his party says it wants to increase international aid spending. We do not know his plan for economic growth, but we know he will repay the unions that fund him by repealing the 2016 Trade Union Act and introducing French-style labour market laws, risking investment and jobs.

We know he has plans for divisive new laws on race and gender, and we know he plans to allow 16-year-olds to vote – and perhaps foreign nationals living here too – because he thinks that will help his party.

It is all breathtakingly cynical, but we are talking about the man who won the Labour leadership by promising to nationalise “rail, mail, energy and water”, scrap tuition fees and Universal Credit, and “end outsourcing in our NHS, local government and justice system” – only to junk all those policies as soon as he became leader.

This is a reminder that personalities do matter. And nobody is going to suddenly stop monitoring public opinion through polling.

But a general election determines who leads our country into the future. The campaign ought to be the time to scrutinise and test the plans the parties put forward. Thus mandates are supposed to be won – so before July 4 the public deserves an honest debate about the substance.

Nick Timothy is the Conservative parliamentary candidate for West Suffolk