Whenever a crisis hits and our lives become disrupted, it is natural to speak of what we will do when life returns to “normal”. But such is the scale and expected duration of the Coronavirus pandemic that many aspects of our lives will be changed forever, and politics will be no different. There is no return to normal, only a new normal which we ought to adjust to.
Predicting the future is a fools errand, particularly in these times. However, we have detailed five aspects of our politics that we think will never be the same again. Needless to say, there will actually be a lot more than five of these, and some much more ‘macro’ than those discussed here, such as the role of China and the future of globalisation. But these are a taste of the key domestic issues where you should expect change:
- The Conservatives will fight Labour even harder to be the party of the NHS. They’ve always strived to match Labour on this but with our health service having shifted from vital public service to actual national religion, they’re going to fight even harder. Conservative market-oriented changes like the Lansley reforms of 2010/11 are now a distant memory and we can expect a full-on arms race over who can fund the NHS the most. And without wishing to be too cynical, one suspects the fact that the NHS saved his life is something we will hear from Boris Johnson again and again.
- The Universal Credit is surely toast. It’s never been popular and the system was creaking at the seams when it had 50,000 claimants a week. Well, we now have 1.4m claimants, meaning huge numbers of people are about to discover the Kafka-esque bureaucratic hell that is the UC. Fighting it was always a niche interest when it affected relatively few people. Now that it is racing to something which affects millions, change is inevitable and one suspects the Universal Credit as we know it is finished.
- “Just in time” policies and “just enough” funding for public services will never again look quite so clever. For four decades now, we have funded our public services based on the idea of giving them “just enough” to deliver the services required. Efficiency was the king and “just in time” was the mantra to make our public services operate as efficiently as, say, our supermarkets. With the consequences of that now laid bare before us, one wonders if “efficiency” above all else will ever again be quite so compelling a factor in funding decisions.
- The debate on privacy is about to get a whole lot more complicated. Within a short period of time, technology and tracking of personal health data could enable us to deal with this and future pandemics completely differently. If your phone can alert you that the person stood next to you at the bar, or opposite you on the tube, has early coronavirus symptoms, who wouldn’t want to know that? Except the price will be a level of sharing of data, and a level of oversight of our health and our movements, by the state, that has never been contemplated in a democracy. The prize is great, but is the price worth paying? That’s a hell of a big argument we’re about to commence.
- And whilst the privacy debate is about to get more complicated, the one on immigration is about to get much more balanced. Who can fail to have noticed the extraordinary contribution that migrant workers in our health services have made in the last month, and the devastatingly disproportionate number of non-white faces in images of those that have passed away. When Mayor of London, Boris Johnson was a champion of immigration. In his remarkable post-hospital video, he highlighted the role of Luis from Portugal and Jenny from New Zealand in saving his life. Might this mark a turning point, when we move away from viewing immigration as primarily a problem to be managed, towards one where we recognise the massive benefits it brings? Perhaps.
A running theme here is that UK attitudes are likely to tilt leftward on issues relating to public services. The crisis is being fought by the contents of the public purse and as such, the value of our tax pounds is becoming more apparent than ever. Furthermore, while the 2008 crisis was followed by lengthy austerity measures, the associated pain of that period is still so recent in our collective memories that the Government will not want to do that again in a hurry. They are more likely to reach for the carrot, helping us invest our way out of recession, than the stick of spending cuts.
We have seen a trend so far of a Conservative Government delivering a rather un-Conservative policy agenda. That may be set to continue longer than many of us ever thought it could.