Today, Liz Truss will address her party in an attempt to steady herself in the face of political and economic headwinds. As the political conference season comes to a close and talk of the next election seems ever more frequent, I have been reflecting on the current political offering from both main parties.
There was a distinct difference between the energy at both conferences, but two significant points are relevant to both. On the one hand, the practical. The competence of cabinet ministers, their shadow counterparts and the quality of the public policies being introduced, for example.
But on the other hand, I was also looking for something slightly less tangible. Some would call it “vision”, others would call it “brand”, perhaps it is both. Ultimately something that cuts above the noise. While strong characters and ideas are important to deliver in government, strong characters and ideas alone may not get a party into government in the first instance.
Since party conferences are where all the landmark speeches happen – where one can detect the broad contours of a party’s guiding philosophy – I was hoping “the vision thing” as George HW Bush called it, would be abundantly clear.
Vision or brand may seem like a slightly elusive concept but I think both parties would be foolish to underestimate its relevance.
We are at a unique moment. The ramifications of Brexit are still unfolding, the place of Scotland and Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom seems more ambiguous than ever, and we have a new monarch after 70 years of continuity. Our public services are falling apart at the seams – most notably the NHS, a source of profound national affection. Underpinning all of this insecurity, we are also about to enter into a recession.
These time-bound issues are also compounded by ongoing societal changes that outlive these particular events: climate change and the technological revolution will continue to transform our society arguably beyond recognition.
Responding to this moment with a coherent, optimistic narrative should be essential, whether you are the governing party or aspiring to be the next government. But it is something that still feels notably absent.
And it need not be all doom and gloom: there is a very optimistic case to be made in many of these areas. Take technology: more and better technology in our democracy, public services and our health systems has the potential to deliver for citizens at a scale governments have simply never been able to achieve before. The first industrial revolution fostered modern economies and democracies, but only once the state adapted to the radical changes such a revolution had already imposed on society.
Similarly, a wholesale revision of how we deliver education effectively in the 21st century should be an enormous opportunity for political parties. They should be thinking not just about how to fix the current problems, but also about a sustainable model of education for people to flourish in increasingly digital workplaces.
Again with health, it is not just a question of recovering from unprecedented pressure during the pandemic, but thinking about how we build a sophisticated health service that is predictive and preventative, and not just reactive.
The conferences perhaps confirmed my suspicions that the magnitude of the ongoing change (and the opportunity this presents) is not being captured in the current political offerings. Many of the policy announcements and speeches felt somewhat disparate and too reactive. They responded to very current particular issues or failures, and perhaps at times relied too heavily on the incompetence of the opposing side, as opposed to their own merit.
While this is politics, and much of political success relies on luck, luck can only carry a party so far. Having clear, coherent vision that weaves all of this collective insecurity into something more positive is a practical strategy as well as a principled one. Vision and brand can outlive responses to particular policies, and while certain failures may feel seismic right now, it’s hard to tell how relevant they could be in a month, let alone six months, let alone two years. Having the right vision is what turns good political parties into historic ones. And then most importantly, governments.