The formal campaign is nearly over but what happens next matters more

As the General Election comes to a close, the speculation on what happens next is starting to seem much more important than what has been going on for the last six weeks.

We have seen, as I have been arguing through these election blogs, at least three different campaign.

From the media’s point of view the most significant has been the one on TV and the radio. In this campaign the language is carefully monitored and bears very little resemblance to how we speak in everyday life, and much more significantly perhaps this campaign is regarded as legitimate. Despite the fact that much of this public campaign has little direct contact with real voters and neither does it invite public dialogue and conversation, it has been a campaign which has been based on a shared consensus.

The second campaign has been local and in some cases very real. There have been public meetings and this general election campaign has, at times, bumped into the other campaigns going on at the moment: local elections to local councils where the results on Thursday do affect what happens in local communities and especially with respect to social care , housing and economic development.

These two campaigns (local elections and local constituencies) in most cases exist in parallel. They rarely touch. And indeed what has seemed the most striking story of the 2015 Campaign is the one that current First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon thinks has little to do with policy and much more about how the post Thursday events are framed.

What we could have gained from the Nicola Sturgeon discussion is how we make sense of coalition politics rather than single party government.

Thinking of these developments, the rise of smaller parties, the cumulative impact of devolution and the consequences of devolved assemblies and parliaments, might set up more fruitful discussions.

The final election conversation is the one not covered in the campaign, but touches the size and reach of the voluntary sector and the development of services and infrastructure to support those of out of work or living on benefits .

These include the rise in food banks, the cuts to welfare, the rise in the peripheral labour force (zero hours contracts or part-time and fixed-term contracts) and the prospect of five more years of austerity. These conversations are taking place within neighbourhood groups, voluntary sector organisations and networks.

It is here, I think, that we will see new sets of activity and interest coalesce around the concerns which the first campaign has ignored. I will explore some of these developments after the election.

Why we are missing out on a genuine political conversation?

Over the past two weeks I have had the opportunity to sit and listen to ‘real’ people talk about their hopes and aspirations as well as their anxieties and fears.

Their voices, as opposed to those which we hear on the news or indeed those that we engage in at conferences or workshops, provide a very different frame of reference from that which has shaped the political and national conversation over the last five years.

In this conversation people talk about what happens when their benefits are stopped or they describe the experiences of managing on very low wages ( sometimes barely meeting the minimum wage) and how they support their extended families in very emotionally fraught circumstances.

Or the conversation has been about how to raise the question of domestic violence and gain support from local community organisations, when to raise the issue runs the risk of even further marginalisation or exclusion. What about how one individual now feels able to talk to their child’s teacher whereas before they felt vulnerable and lacked the confidence to do so. Or where an individual describes the support they have had to start a training course which they didn’t think they would be able to do?

All of these conversations (some in the different parts of the North West, others in London) are examples of how the televised general election presents a very partial and different discussion.

The alternative conversation is one in which the support to vulnerable individuals and communities is itself vulnerable. The ways on which talented and committed individuals, some paid professionals, but many not giving of their time voluntarily, support others, campaign for change or indeed just offer very ordinary but humane support is huge and amazing.

It’s a different world from one which is trivialised on the news over how many kitchens a politician has. In this conversation we see the infrastructure of the social and welfare state creaking and bending.

The risk is, apart from what happens to individuals, that the gaps between these two worlds accentuates and on so doing it becomes much harder to have the political conversation and so individuals become even more disconnected from political discussions.

This is a theme to which I will return.

Why changing how public services are run and financed is off the agenda

How public services are funded and how they are run have been two central questions to dominate news and political conversations.

The scale of problems associated with the NHS, from the crisis in A&E to the scandals revealed in the Francis Report in Staffordshire, have all been about money and staffing.

And yet, as the General Election gets closer these two questions are moving into the background. It seems to me that whilst the headlines are all about poor funding and inadequate staffing levels, both of the major parties are not quite sure what the answers are. They would rather the discussion was focussed on the personalities and the gaffes (as much as they say they would rather concentrate on the issues).

We saw last week with the news that the new Greater Manchester body is to be given responsibility (or share it with existing NHS organisations) for all health spending that the major parties were not sure how to react. In a sense it was a counter intuitive response : the Conservatives who are supposed to be sceptical about the way Labour Councils are run, is in fact, transferring millions of pounds and responsibility for a range of services to an overwhelmingly Labour dominated new authority. And Labour, who are supposed to favour greater devolution, found themselves with their national spokesperson on Health being critical of the proposal. And (predictably) the news followed these two apparent contradictions.

I want to suggest that what they tell us is that neither party is clear (or confident) about what to do next.

The funding crises in the public sector is built in for the next five years. Austerity is not over we are about to move into the next phase – Austerity 2.0. The real discussion needs to be about what we are prepared to fund (both the level and the scale of service) and that avoiding either of those two questions does not help the public conversation.

Why the public realm still matters

 The idea of the ‘public realm’ is one which is unlikely to grab everyone’s attention. But it captures an important set of ideas and they are ones we tend to take for granted.

At its heart is the simple proposition that the health of a good society can be seen through its commitment to shared and collective provision of services from public health to education to welfare and social services.

In the late 19th century the urban centres of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow were places where this set of ideas had their expression through the provision of range of services including gas and electricity as well as libraries and parks. This age of city hall being the centre of a newly emerging public realm is an important historical moment. It sets up the expansion of the public realm  following the end of World War 2 with the NHS as well as key changes too in public education.

Why does this matter? And why now? It matters, I think, because we are at risk of forgetting the long history of state funded or locally funded investment in services which were about improving the quality of life as well as improving the health and education of society more broadly. Would we fund libraries now? Or would we assume that those who wanted access to books could go and buy them for themselves ? Would we fund art galleries from scratch – without the economic case or the business case which we make now?

The recent open letter (Who Is My Neighbour : A letter from the House of Bishops to the People and Parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015) reminded me of this past history. It makes the case – not just for public engagement with the debate and voting too  but also for a debate on what kind of society we are. It is a letter which sets out a particular case (based on the values and theology of the Church of England) and, at the same time too, makes the case for the ‘public realm’.

It argues for an healthy civil society which is itself a necessary pre-condition for a healthy democratic society too. Whilst, I think there are absences too in their analysis it is a good starting point for comparing the idea of a ‘public realm’ in which there is a sense of the shared and collective arrangements of services to the market in which provision of services is determined by price and demand not by values and an ethical framework. I will come back to this tension in the next series of postings.

Why listening to what is said is as important as what is not said: Policy lesson one

In the UK back in 2010 whilst the recurring theme was that the then Labour Government had been responsible for the financial crash all the mainstream parties agreed that austerity was a necessary pre-condition for getting the economy straight.

Looking back over the past five years, one of the things which is striking is how consistent that message has been. As we approach the 2015 General Election in May there is still a cross party consensus on the need for austerity. What has changed or where the points of difference between the main parties surfaces is on the scale and pace of the austerity measures.

Why does this matter? And isn’t it common sense that austerity is needed to ‘fix’ things ?

My own view is that on two counts the common sense argument falls:

Count One – we need to be clear about the causes of the Crash in 2007/8 before we can start setting out the remedies. What is interesting about the debate back in 2010 and now is that the consensus is clear: the crisis was not because we were spending too much on education or health or public services more generally, but the actions of the banking and finance sector. Through a range of decisions from sub-prime mortgages to the miss-selling of financial products or the manipulation of interest rates, the banking and finance sector wrecked the economy and the UK Government (along with other governments around the world) bailed out the banking sector. What the parties then and now have difficulty in explaining is how we got from there to here!

Count Two – the consequence of the mainstream consensus is a package of cuts which will go for at least another four years and cuts now in social welfare, education and support to those agencies which work with the most vulnerable.

And so on the issue of Fairness and Equality I have a difficulty with what is being proposed. Why does this matter ? From a policy point of view it matters a lot. The decisions which were made post 2010 and which will be made after 2015 will have a direct impact on the scale, quality and level of social and welfare provision as well as education and training available across the country. These things do matter. They affect us regardless of our needs now because they are about the kind of society we want to live in. Throughout the next few weeks I will explore some of the issues further.