In this acrimonious election, seemingly the one thing everyone can agree on is that Britain’s future is at stake. Yet as a result, so far this election has been too much about the future and not enough about the past and the present. And one party has benefited much more than the others.
For decades, one of the most entrenched assumptions of British politics – shared by cautious campaign strategists and radical intellectuals alike – has been that political parties in general, and Labour in particular, need to “own the future” in order to win power, as Tony Blair put it at the Labour conference in 2005. “Unless our values are matched by a completely honest understanding of the reality … about to hit us,” he went on, “we will fail.”
A more positive version of this creed has been that any reforming party needs to offer a vision – an alternative to an inadequate status quo. In 1945, Labour’s hugely effective election manifesto was called Let Us Face the Future. In 1963, Harold Wilson famously promised that only Labour could successfully exploit the “white heat” of new technology.
And for the past few years – in the wake of the financial crisis and the imposition of austerity – Labour and the wider British left have been re-energised by a stream of forward-looking books and pamphlets, with titles such as Inventing the Future, Reclaim Modernity, and Clear Bright Future. Their ideas pervade the current Labour campaign. Speeches and party literature pose and seek to answer questions about the future of work, the future of the state, and the future of the planet, with an expansiveness that may be unprecedented for a major party in recent elections, anywhere in the west. How Britons live in the future can be profoundly different, Labour says, to how we have lived up to now.
It’s hard to argue that all this has been a mistake. Just imagine how Labour might be doing, given all its other difficulties, if it had nothing relevant or compelling to say about the future. Corbynism’s 21st-century quality – baffling, still, to those who lazily see him as a throwback to the 1970s – has been crucial to attracting the young voters and radical voters whom Blair, for all his talk of “modernising”, steadily alienated.
Yet Labour’s focus on the future has a downside. Often during this campaign, it has drawn attention away from another issue – one that is more immediate, more obviously party-political, and probably more electorally potent. That is the dire state of much of Britain now, and how the Conservatives should be held responsible for it, after nine years in government.
Although the Labour manifesto is wide-ranging, and often fierce and effective in its rhetoric, surprisingly few sections clearly describe the Tories’ austerity policies and their consequences. It’s not until page 34, for example, that we read that “life expectancy is stalling” in Britain. Throughout, Britain under the Tories since 2010 is summed up in pithy but usually broadbrush sentences, such as: “The last decade has seen a wealth grab by a privileged few, supported by the Conservatives.” Reading that, you might think that the Tories had been merely approving bystanders, rather than central participants, in Britain becoming a society of billionaires and food banks.
Meanwhile, the fact that the party which has presided over such social disasters is asking voters for a fourth term – usually a term too far, even for much more competent and dynamic governments – is not mentioned at all. So busy is Labour laying out all the things it could do that the sheer scale of what the Tories are already doing to Britain recedes from view.
Having a “future election” has especially suited the Tories this time. Boris Johnson has probably the worst past, personally and professionally, of any British prime minister to seek re-election in modern times. And like most demagogues, he has always been better at big, airy promises – from the “Boris Island” airport to “Get Brexit Done” – than at the actual business of government.
An election about the future can also make bad news from the present seem irrelevant – if it is noticed at all. This autumn, three of the Conservatives’ favourite economic indicators – the employment rate, the level of government borrowing and growth in the country’s dominant service sector – have turned sour. In previous, more empirical elections, such figures have been hugely damaging to governments. In 1970, a single month’s bad trade statistics, largely caused by the purchase of two jumbo jets from the US, effectively helped terminate Wilson’s “white heat” premiership. Yet this time, our flagging economy has hardly featured in the campaign coverage.
Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to attack Johnson personally – despite the relentless personal attacks on him by Johnson and his machine – has helped the Tories as well. But it is not just Labour that has failed to put the Conservative record in office under scrutiny. The media has played a big role too. To its traditional Tory tilt it has added a newer, more subtle sort of bias – an insider-ish preference for debating political strategies rather than the results of existing policies.
Since Britain entered its current chaotic era, many commentators have responded to the proliferation of possible scenarios by becoming more speculative. When political facts are constantly changing, and the ability of journalists to present them fairly is ferociously contested, weighing up different futures can seem less fraught by comparison.
In theory, this sort of journalism doesn’t favour one party or another; but in practice it has helped the Conservatives, as the incumbents. Especially during elections, they encourage speculation about Labour’s intentions. In 2015 and 2017, the Tories suggested there might be a coalition between Labour and the SNP, and that possibility became a fixation for journalists – rather than the equally controversial experiment of Conservative austerity, which had already been running for years.
In this election, the Tories are using the “coalition of chaos” bogeyman yet again. And when they can’t avoid referring to their own record, or their plans for Britain, they are saying as little as possible. Their manifesto is even more future-fixated, and much vaguer, than Labour’s: it promises the Tories will “unleash Britain’s potential”, provide “all kinds of new freedoms” and initiate “many more projects”. Their nine years in government are given a few scattered paragraphs.
It’s easy to feel furious at the failure, so far, to hold the Tories to account in this election. Yet perhaps we’re all a little complicit. In a deeply divided country, questions about the recent past can be so raw – how many people has austerity killed? – that sometimes the future is a less frightening thing to argue about.
But until Labour gets voters to look harder at Britain since 2010, and to see clearly how these years have been, the new Britain that Labour promises to deliver will be a hard sell. The left’s future will be endlessly scrutinised for flaws while the Tory present rolls on.
• Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist