Obvious as it may sound, the General Election (which we can now assume will be in May) is likely to lead to change. Not just predictable changes from the reigning in of public expenditure in the coming years, but also because the flurry of party policy announcements is quite likely to set the political agenda, regardless of which party takes the sceptre for this coming term.

Compared to the last few elections, which have seemed like foregone conclusions, this year’s is a less predictable affair, and understandably the media is rife with speculation.  Some are hedging their bets that Cameron has done enough to secure the Conservatives a comfortable majority.  Others ponder a situation akin to the ‘92 election where we saw the ruling party remaining in power but with a greatly diminished lead.  Many think that in our post-expenses climate of politicians being vilified by the press and public, we may end up seeing a “hung” or “balanced” parliament – different terms that mean different things depending on one’s view – where the Liberal Democrats or perhaps even smaller parties could determine Britain’s agenda.  Unexpected successes of independents in various elections since ‘97 could also lead to surprise victories by ‘anti-sleaze’ campaigners, and we may well see a gain in specific seats from the Green Party or UKIP.

This turbulent situation is shaping up makes to be the most uncertain and exciting election since the mid 70s.  Anything could happen in the next three months.

What sort of agenda might emerge? What are the common themes forming in the political ether?  Where might the dividing lines be and who will be drawing them? Here are a few initial thoughts on the potential changes that may face some of the areas that The Campaign Company work within:

Community Cohesion
Elections provide the opportunity to take the temperature of public opinion, and to really find out about some of the more contentious issues. This is likely to be the case for community cohesion. Election results themselves may give a good indication of the cohesiveness of a specific community when looked at in the context of the relevant Place Survey indicators. So far the evidence is that community cohesion will remain a significant issue in the coming years. The reputations of politicians and institutions are suffering a downturn in light of recent events across the whole political spectrum. This is especially true in communities with lower levels of trust, and ones that are more likely to judge things based on strong emotions driven by perceptions of unfairness, whether those emotions are justified or not. New forms of engagement are required here that help dispel these emotions; methods that don’t simply last a few months but which actively demonstrate that public institutions are working for those people who are currently sceptical of this.

There is also, perhaps, increasing recognition that diversity is much more about local identities than simply being about tick-box exercises. This is likely to see cohesion spending focused much more on ways to address people with multiple identities, rather than assuming that everyone fits into one respective pigeon-hole.

Value for Money and Total Place
The need to secure various efficiencies is likely to lead to public institutions seeking to look for innovations that help protect their “front-line services”. The sheer size of the public sector compared to previous decades does mean that we won’t simply be seeing a replay of the 80’s.  In comparison, many more services are provided as part of a mixed provision with greater amounts of money being spent on technology, something which can be reviewed for savings.  There seems to be a wide consensus between all the main parties that the Total Place programme will remain and that substantial changes in processes, transactions and back-office services will occur. While these changes will not be directly visible, the impact on staff morale could easily be transmitted to the public and thus impact on reputation.  In short, some changes may cause a domino effect leading to whole new challenges.

The development of co-production is one area that politicians and public institutions may see as a chance to improve value for money whilst increasing community participation.  It is important to move away from any simplistic ‘easy-council’ or ‘no-frills council’ political debates, and decent media coverage is vital for this issue to be properly discussed.  Conversely, local authorities also need to understand that messages about empowering people, whether it’s about saving money or allowing people more choice, are likely to seriously confuse and worry a significant number of their residents. A more subtly nuanced approach is likely to be required, and one which recognises that people may be attracted to different aspects of the co-production agenda.  A segmented approach to this is likely to make a lot more sense.

Localism and Devolution
The Conservatives are talking about increased local autonomy.  Regardless of whom the next Chancellor may be, whether the treasury will allow this to happen to any substantial degree is the real measure of whether this major shift in power would ever be able to take place. Changes to local government financing do not look likely, unless the Liberal Democrats secured a majority, which might push local income tax onto the agenda. A possibility is that the level of earned autonomy may increase, allowing Employment Services (for example) to be delivered more locally.

All the main parties are committed to protecting health expenditure. However, that doesn’t mean that there will not be a requirement to achieve certain efficiencies in order to fund the growth necessary to meeting the demands of our increasing elderly population.  Reforms of the last few years currently allow for a vast amount of ministerial discretion without the necessity for large amounts of primary legislation. It is likely that minsters, whatever their political colour, will spend time exploring the new architecture that has been created. What is very likely to happen is that there will be an increase in local autonomy on the provider side as the number of Foundation Trusts increase.  Those hospitals which are unable to set themselves up as one might instead choose to become part of an existing Trust.

Nudges and Behaviour Change
George Osborne and Andy Burnham have spoken in recent weeks about using a range of Nudges, whether in general or for specific areas such as the smoking cessation. Improving choice architecture whilst retaining choice is clearly a good thing in a more complex society where people might fall into multiple identities. Behaviour Change, through tried and tested processes such as social marketing, will continue to be an important part of a strengthened preventative agenda, especially within the health sector. However, expenditure reductions may reduce the overall level of general advertising and lead to more localised and segmented initiatives that tap into local area networks.

Democracy and Engagement
The first ever televised Prime Ministerial debates are likely to set much of the scene for the upcoming general election. No doubt the media will cover a lot of the personal aspects of these debates, making the most of the fevered excitement of the briefing rooms. Based on evidence from other countries, it’s likely that politicians will play it very safe during the debates. Perhaps more significantly, it’s likely that they will increase expectations from the public that all major issues should be expressed through such televised debates, and that more institutions should operate like this when a public choice is required. The general election will also see a vast number of “Democratic Tools” deployed using online Web 2.0 applications, following the success of these as part of the Obama campaign in the United States. In the 2005 General Election, Facebook and Youtube were not as prolific as they are now, and blogging was still in its relative infancy.  Viral emails and photos weren’t as effective a propaganda tool as they are today.  This time round, viral videos, spoof party leaflets and disinformation posters will flood the inboxes of many people within hours of being released.  This will truly be the first online election.

Mayors and Young Mayors?
Labour has of course introduced directly elected mayor schemes. The Conservatives have announced that they will allow people in the twelve largest cities the opportunity of voting for a mayor.  The results of these could well lead to mayor schemes being setup in other cities. The Liberal Democrats have become significantly less hostile to the principle of a mayor compared to the previous years.  This also provides the opportunity to develop complementary Young Mayor schemes based on the successes of those operated in boroughs such as Newham and Lewisham.

It is inevitable that the general election will lead to change, whether it’s new policies, ministers or governments. Understanding this will be an important aspect of public policy in the coming months, across these areas discussed and many more.  In future postings we will delve deeper into the intricacies and implications of policy, whichever political path Britain finds itself carving.

by Charlie Mansell, Research and Political Development Officer for The Campaign Company.

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