The Observer view on the general election campaign | Observer editorial

Observer editorial
Theresa May announces the general election in Downing Street. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Less than a week in and there is already a whiff of absurdity about this general election campaign. Elections are supposed to provide choices: the opportunity for voters to have a say on the big issues. There is no shortage of serious questions facing Britain in 2017: not just what type of relationship we want with the European Union after we leave, but on a wide range of important economic and social challenges.

Yet the first few days of the election campaign suggested that it will be defined by a lack of choice. It looks unlikely to provide an insight on what the different parties have to offer on problems such as regional inequality, the proliferation of low-paid, insecure work or the crisis in housing affordability. Nor will it shed further light on where they stand on the key Brexit negotiating issues. Instead, it looks set to unfold into a depressingly negative slanging match.

The Conservatives are reportedly looking at producing a much shorter manifesto with far fewer pledges than they had in 2015. One has the sense of a prime minister – already forced to U-turn once – reluctant to be held hostage to fortune.

In other respects, Theresa May’s campaign is already echoing that of her predecessor’s. Despite every poll predicting a bigger Conservative majority, the first “coalition of chaos” posters have been unfurled. They will undoubtedly prove the harbinger of an alarmist campaign that will focus on talking up the dangers of a Labour-led government the voters seem to have already all but written off. No doubt May will use this as a cover to avoid answering the difficult questions that her government will face on the trade-offs involved with Brexit.

Labour won its biggest media hit in the first few days by resorting to 1980s-style comfort territory, promising to hit the rich. There may well be ample justification for raising taxes on those earning more than £70,000 a year. But that justification should be framed not in terms of taxing the affluent for its own sake, but of how it will be spent in order to tackle the growing economic and social inequalities that characterise modern Britain. On this, Labour has little meaningful to say. Its big-ticket spending items so far – free school lunches for all primary school children, scrapping tuition fees, maintaining the pensions triple lock and universal old-age benefits such as the winter fuel allowance – will do very little to improve social mobility.

It increasingly looks like this is an election campaign that will be defined by the two main political parties dodging the real questions facing Britain. The campaign will provide few opportunities to debate key questions about the shape and size of the state. Do we want the expensive tax cuts Philip Hammond has promised to deliver for more affluent families and businesses, even if they come at the expense of poor working families losing thousands of pounds a year in tax credit cuts, hospitals and schools stretched beyond capacity and declining numbers of low-income pensioners getting state support with the costs of their care?

Beyond that, there will be little airtime devoted to the important economic and social challenges that have confounded policymakers in recent years. How do we tackle spiralling house price growth? What do we do about the widening wealth gap between the prosperous south-east and the rest of the country? How do we address the relatively high rates of illiteracy and innumeracy among British young people? Why have people’s wages all but stopped growing? How do we provide enough quality care for our ageing population?

Electioneering always tends to focus political minds on the short term. But never has an election campaign felt so unequal to the debate the country needs and deserves. It feels like the only difference this election might make will be in allowing May to claim a personal mandate, but one that comes without the scrutiny of a close-fought election campaign.

This reflects the peculiar dynamic that has shaped our politics in recent months. Labour’s abject ineffectiveness means that despite her slim majority, May has faced little opposition from those to her left. Instead, the biggest threat she faces is from her right: from hardline Eurosceptics in her own party and from the right-leaning tabloid press. This has become even more striking in recent days: a pledge to keep international aid spending at 0.7% of GDP – that should be uncontroversial – has resulted in ominous warnings from Conservative-supporting newspapers that she neglects her base at her peril.

This has led her government to tack right on a number of issues: in her writing off Britain’s membership of the single market, in her continued commitment to an unrealistic and damaging immigration cap and her embrace of an increasingly aggressive set of public spending cuts. A bigger majority might mean she will be less in hock to the right of her party. Perhaps, in theory, this could lead to a better Brexit outcome. But it will hardly increase the accountability she faces from the opposition. It will give her more, not less, power, to do with as she will, after an election campaign that looks set to shed little further light on her objectives and priorities.

The prime minister deserves all the castigation she has received for the manner in which she called this election last week. There were chilling undertones to her claim this was about quashing an opposition trying to impede Britain’s exit from the European Union. Scrutinising the way in which the prime minister conducts the negotiations is the opposition’s job, but it is not one that they are doing particularly well, having failed to get any significant concessions on the article 50 bill.

It was clearly an election called primarily in her party political interests. The later she went to the country, the greater the risks, as we get deeper into European negotiations, the economic outlook looks less rosy and spending cuts increasingly start to bite over the next couple of years. The danger is that the prime minister, if re-elected, uses this general election to claim that she has a mandate for a particular type of Brexit. But this election could never provide a mandate for that when there is no clear choice on offer from the two main parties, offering different positions on the trade-offs involved in the negotiation.

The lack of a real choice at this election can in part be attributed to Jeremy Corbyn’s dysfunctional Labour leadership. But it is about more than that. Labour’s steady leaching of its traditional working class support began long before Corbyn was elected leader. This election, like the referendum, will underline the new dimension that has emerged in the British electorate in recent years: insider-outsider, pro- and anti-globalisation, Remainer-Leaver. Labour finds its voter coalition split across this new electoral axis.

Our majoritarian, two-party system is terrible at coping with multidimensional politics, in which left-right is no longer the only continuum that matters. Neither does it suit fragmented, pluralistic electorates, which is where Britain is heading: a steadily declining proportion of voters identify with the two main parties. With both a Conservative and Labour party that have become more polarised towards the left and right, it is people in the centre ground who will perhaps feel most disenfranchised in this election. The irony is that our politics is exerting centrifugal forces when the country has perhaps never been in greater need of being drawn together.

It might seem an incredible distraction to draw attention to electoral laws and rules at a time when Britain is facing such profound challenges. But the fact that this election isn’t presenting us with a real choice on the things that count should certainly give us pause for reflection. Perhaps the problem lies just not with our political leaders, but in our political institutions.

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