What we aren’t talking about in this election

Prospect’s panel of political experts on the big questions we should be asking
June 3, 2024

We’re a month away from polling day. As our politicians run up and down the country trying to convince us all to vote for them, voters want to know what really matters. Prospect has invited a range of writers and experts to an election group chat. Imagine a WhatsApp group of your most politically informed friends from across the ideological spectrum on-hand to discuss the biggest and smallest issues. 

How are the parties doing? Do their policy announcements stand up? Are they making a convincing case for power? We will ask our panel one question each weekday. Here’s their first: are we missing something from the political conversation?


Matthew d’Ancona

The official non-subject of the campaign is, of course, Brexit. But the more significant evasion will concern the colossal economic growth that is required to fund the public services of the 2020s and beyond—not the public services of a generation ago, but of today.

It is a matter of pragmatic reality (rather than an ideological claim) that the state is going to have to do much more in the years ahead. Any meaningful strategy to deal with climate change alone will require huge investment. So will pandemic resilience. And that’s before we get to the NHS and social care, and how they are to be funded to support an ageing population—not to mention the savage inequalities that mean (for instance) that 28 per cent of young mothers are missing meals every day.

You will hear many banalities about a “skills revolution”, “global Britain”, mysteriously enhanced productivity, economic stability spurring bountiful investment, and—when the parties get desperate—cutting waste in the public sector.

It will almost all be meaningless. Our prospective prime ministers ought to explain how exactly they will generate the growth to pay for the bills that are coming their way. And—as far as humanly possible—they will avoid the issue.

Matthew d’Ancona is editor-at-large at the New European and former editor of the Spectator 


Tim Bale

We’re only in the early days of this campaign, so we can’t be certain what the parties will and won’t talk about. Still, we can make guesses about the subjects they’d rather steer clear of, even if Prospect and other outlets will be doing their best to ensure they can’t ignore them.

The biggest elephant in the room, as others have pointed out—including veteran Tory Michael Heseltine—is Brexit. Labour doesn’t want to touch it for fear of alienating “red wall” voters, while the Conservatives are well aware that Britain’s departure from the EU has so far given them little, if anything, to crow about. In fact, reminding voters of Brexit risks, on the one hand, encouraging deeply disappointed Leavers to plump for Reform, and, on the other, making Remainers who held their noses and voted Tory in 2019 switch to the Liberal Democrats this time round.

The parties can’t forget about education but, as per, they’ll focus on mainstream primary and secondary schools. Don’t expect to hear much about post-16 provision (often delivered by colleges that also cater to older learners wanting to upskill) and special schools, even though both deserve far more attention—and far more funding. University finances are also a mess, but neither party looks set to offer a realistic solution. 

The same goes, one suspects, when it comes to the increasingly pressing need to upgrade the UK’s electricity grid to provide the power needed, where it’s needed, to get to net zero.

And finally, there are the two Ps: prisons and poverty. Sure, they’ll get passing mentions; but realistic pledges of funding? Forget it. Far too expensive—and neither Britain’s 90,000 prisoners, nor enough of its 14m poor, will be voting on 4th July.

Tim Bale is a politics professor at Queen Mary, University of London 


Nadine Batchelor-Hunt

What parties should be talking about, while arguably less eye-catching than national service or Ed Davey falling repeatedly into Lake Windermere, is what public sector budgets are going to look like after the 2024 to 2025 spending period. 

Both Labour and the Conservatives are making spending pledges, but neither is truly acknowledging how difficult it will be for unprotected departmental budgets to meet current levels of need. As economists have been shouting from the rooftops, the planned 1 per cent nominal increase in public sector budgets after 2024-25 is leaving unprotected departments—including the Ministry of Justice—facing 20 per cent spending cuts. After a decade of austerity, and amid reports that the government is urging the police to arrest fewer people because the system simply can’t cope, these cuts seem detatched from the reality of delivering services.

Both Jeremy Hunt and Rachel Reeves have pledged to ensure debt falls as a percentage of GDP. Economists have said that the cuts necessary to support both parties’ spending plans would keep that debt commitment—but would resemble the austerity era. Except, this time, there is nothing substantial left to cut down. But if Labour and the Tories acknowledge this obvious reality (that economists from the Institute for Fiscal Studies [IFS] to the Institute for Public Policy Research have been warning about) they have to explain where the money is going to come from. And given neither major party wants to raise taxes, and instead both (in varying degrees) are signalling they want to cut them, it would point to borrowing. But, of course, neither party wants to admit they’ll borrow more, either. It increasingly feels like there’s a conspiracy of silence about departmental spending. Neither party truly wants to examine the issue—the numbers are downright scary.

Nadine Batchelor-Hunt is a broadcaster, actor and political reporter at PoliticsHome


Philip Collins

There isn’t a lot of policy in this empty election campaign. The Conservatives have little to say and Labour has no great incentive to be more forthcoming. So, in a sense, you could have chosen any area of policy and identified it as the most neglected. But, in the fullness of time, the conspicuous absentee from the campaign will be foreign policy, as it so often is. 

Rishi Sunak opened the campaign with a speech in which he described a dangerous world, namechecking Ukraine, Russia and China. There isn’t, though, any great cleavage over foreign policy. The defence of Ukraine, the continuation of the nuclear deterrent, the commitment to increasing the percentage of national income on defence—these are all questions on which the Tories and Labour have converged. The Labour party is no longer what it was under Jeremy Corbyn.

Yet foreign policy is the right answer all the same. It is almost inevitable that Keir Starmer will be defined by events beyond the borders of the United Kingdom, as prime ministers so often are. Tony Blair is Afghanistan, Iraq and Ireland. David Cameron is Libya and Brexit. Boris Johnson is Ukraine. Sunak will take time off from campaigning to attend the G7 in Italy from 13th to 15th June. Five days after the election, there is a Nato summit in Washington DC. The day after the state opening of parliament on 17th July, a meeting of the European Political Community is scheduled for Blenheim Palace. 

In 1964, on the day that Harold Wilson came to power, Nikita Khruschev was deposed as leader of the Soviet Union and China tested its first atomic bomb. Starmer’s accession might not be as dramatic as that, but the attempted assassination of the Slovakian prime minister and the death of the Iranian president, Chinese aggression around Taiwan, let alone the conflict in Gaza, show that foreign policy will soon preoccupy the new prime minister.

Philip Collins is a former Number 10 speechwriter, founder of the Draft and columnist at the Evening Standard


Marie Le Conte

What won’t be mentioned over the next six weeks, even though it ought to be? That’s an easy question—it begins with a B and it hides in plain sight, lurking out of the corner of your eye like a Doctor Who villain.

Britain finally left the EU in early 2020, then it fell headfirst into a global pandemic, meaning there was little time to think about what had just happened and what should be happening next.

Brexit fundamentally reshaped the country’s foreign policy and, if you look hard enough, probably impacted most domestic policy in one way or another. Still, neither party is likely to talk about it at length during the election campaign.

The Conservatives are aware of the fact that they really did rather mess it all up, and the Labour party has no great desire to alienate the voters it’s worked so hard to get back. It is a shame; the referendum is likely to be remembered as one of the most important political moments of the 21st century, but it disappeared from view as soon as its outcome was decided.

On a similar note, the Covid-19 years changed us and our societies in a million and one ways, but there was a collective decision at the end of the last lockdown to sweep it all under the carpet.

From kids failing to catch up at school and chronic illnesses to working and socialising patterns, the pandemic’s effects on our lives can still be felt ­everywhere. Politicians should acknowledge this, as the only way to truthfully talk about the future is to be honest about what happened in the recent past, even if it is uncomfortable for all involved.

Marie Le Conte is a freelance journalist and author


Zoë Grünewald

While the NHS consistently tops voter priorities, there is a nationwide cognitive dissonance regarding social care. Doctors and nurses are lauded, but carers are often paid minimum wage and considered unskilled. Political focus turns to reducing waiting times and retaining doctors, while local authorities are blamed for wider failures in the care system.

In March, MPs reported that the government had brought adult social care in England “to its knees” through years of under-funding and a “woefully insufficient” strategy to fill thousands of staff vacancies. Funding and reforming the UK’s social care system has challenged multiple governments. Both Labour and the Conservatives have criticised each other’s plans to fund the system. Labour’s 2009 national care service, funded by a compulsory levy, was derailed by Tory claims of a “death tax”. Labour then criticised Theresa May’s 2017 proposal to assess the elderly’s finances, including property, to determine care payments. Boris Johnson’s promised “oven-ready plan” never materialised, and Rishi Sunak has largely ignored the issue. Now, none of the major parties are leading with a comprehensive plan to transform the system. 

The truth is that without social care reform, the NHS will struggle to recover. Up to one in three beds at busy hospitals are occupied by medically fit patients with nowhere to go, clogging up A&E and increasing waiting times. The elderly are also forced into acute care settings as their conditions worsen without sufficient community support. 

Reforming social care is expensive and ideologically polarising. Forcing people to pay for their care would divert funds intended for their children, a non-starter for conservative-minded families. Raising taxes to fund health and social care is equally controversial, risking generational conflict and a continuous rising tax burden as the population ages, birthrates fall, and legal migration declines.

An ageing population with complex needs and the cost-of-living crisis exacerbate the problem, reducing the capacity of younger generations to care for their parents. Politically, the issue is a poisoned chalice—ignoring it or attempting to fix it both come with significant risks. But without addressing social care, no party’s plan for the NHS can be taken seriously. 

Zoë Grünewald is a political journalist and Westminster editor at the Lead


Peter Hitchens

The thing nobody talks about is how this country can live within its means, and what kind of country we wish it to be. Almost every problem we face is the result of delusions about how rich and advanced we are, plus a complete lack of interest in moral and social questions. 

The NHS is not the envy of the world, as repeated inquiries have shown. It responds to its problems by withdrawing from things it cannot do—it simply refuses to bother with dentistry or the care of the old, and general practice is vanishing fast. We thunder like a great power while our armed forces shrink, break down and decay. Every major public account is in deficit, while private debt is beyond control. Our government machine, once smooth and efficient, is a jalopy. Thanks to “academies”, nobody now has much idea what is even happening in the schools, as academisation has killed off accountability, but it is not good. University expansion has clearly been an educational disaster. 

We appear to have a bipartisan immigration policy aimed at greatly increasing the population. But nobody will admit to this, and the social implications of it are never addressed. Our criminal justice system is so overwhelmed that we cope with it by ignoring crime in the hope that it will go away. We address the squalor of the prisons by allowing increasing numbers of dangerous criminals to wander the streets. The police force appears to have been abducted en masse, and is invisible both to the law-abiding and the law-breaking. We cannot provide adequate public transport outside London, and our answer to this is a plague of unlicensed electric motorbikes and a new ultra-high-speed train service, largely confined to a tunnel, between nowhere and nowhere. We are terrifyingly vulnerable to power cuts, as we rely so heavily on imported electricity and gas. 

The one thing we seem to be good at is family breakdown and one of the few statistics in which we can show reliable growth is the number of abortions taking place each year. I see no sign of anyone even thinking about this.

Peter Hitchens is an author, broadcaster and columnist for the Mail on Sunday 


Peter Kellner

The easy bit is listing the important decisions that the new government will have to take, and which neither main party is discussing properly ahead of the election: how to reverse the damage that Brexit is doing to Britain’s economy; a long-term plan for financing social care; restructuring the water industry so that it stops polluting our rivers and beaches; the need to raise taxes in order to end poverty, improve the NHS, repair our creaking infrastructure and fix our crumbling courts and prisons… and so on.

But is a general election the right time for the parties to air all these issues? When politicians are competing for our votes, is that when they should set out their big plans to tackle big problems?

The trouble is that, for this to work, other things have to happen. The parties need to be honest not only about themselves, but about their rivals. They should steer clear of slogans and cherry-picked statistics that inflate their own case and exaggerate the weakness of their opponents. Newspapers and all television stations should approach each election story with an open mind, a commitment to truth and a devotion to fairness. Social media should block lies.

Until that wonderful day arrives, parties must operate within a messy, destructive environment. They have no alternative but to use any method short of outright falsehoods to make their case, and to minimise the opportunity for their detractors—in politics, the media and elsewhere—to malign them.

As a result, I accept that, the moment the election was called, serious politics went on holiday. It will return on 5th July. The real test of our political leaders is not whether they are candid now, but whether, behind closed doors, they have worked out robust plans to tackle the problems they are currently evading. Have they? If not, that’s the real scandal.

Peter Kellner is former president of YouGov and a political analyst and commentator


Matthew Lesh

Amid the farcical first weekend of the campaign, the page-two advert in the Mail on Sunday went largely unnoticed. But the full-page letter from Liz Kendall, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, could hardly be more significant for the nation’s finances. It committed a future Labour government to supporting pensioners, including maintaining the triple lock. 

 This is an entirely sensible electoral strategy. Four in five elderly voters turn out at elections, compared to around half of those in their twenties. The Liberal Democrats have also committed to the triple lock, while the Conservatives have announced a so-called “quadruple lock”. This would mean raising the income tax threshold just for the elderly, so their pensions are never taxed.

 But this straightforward electoral calculus does not make the prospect of an ageing population any less worrying. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that it will cost an extra 11 per cent of GDP by 2072 to fund pensions, social care and healthcare for the over-65s. That amounts to £285bn in today’s money, more than is raised by the combination of corporation tax, council tax and business rates. 

 At the same time, there will be significantly fewer people working compared to those in retirement. By 2072, there is expected to be 1.9 workers per pensioner, down from 3.3 today. So comes the toxic mix of a declining number of workers expected to pay higher taxes to support an increasing number of pensioners.

 The parties should be talking about how we can ensure the needs of the elderly are met without placing undue tax burdens on younger workers. Ideally this would be achieved through a large amount of economic growth, making the pie big enough so we can afford our liabilities. It will also likely require better targeting of public spending towards the neediest, alongside the development of additional fees for the wealthy. 

However, with the parties squarely focused on winning votes in the next five weeks, we are unlikely to see a difficult discussion about Britain’s unsustainable welfare state.

Matthew Lesh is the director of public policy and communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs


Moya Lothian-McLean

Politicians aren’t talking about money—not in an honest fashion. Of the two main contenders, the Conservatives are desperately trying to pretend they’ve returned the economy to an even keel, which might mean all the measures of “growth” centred around things such as speculative capital in the City are broadening out, but the trackers of how well off ordinary people like you or me are all point to noon on the Doomsday clock. Meanwhile, Labour is promising various improvements to the likes of the railways or the NHS, but isn’t backing up these pledges with the sort of money that would be needed to really rebuild the UK’s crumbling infrastructure. Both of these approaches are misleading to the general public. One is a lie of obscuration, the other is a lie of omission. 

Both parties are bound by chains of their own making: the “fiscal rules” that treat the UK economy like a household budget. Time and time again, this approach has proved to further impoverish the country. But, at this stage, it doesn’t look as though we’re getting anything else.

Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara media and freelance writer 


Frances Ryan

One of the ironies of a general election campaign is that some of the biggest issues facing the country will barely get a mention. Few areas are going to show that more over the next six weeks than social care. The sector is crying out for reform and funding, but the memory of Theresa May’s “dementia tax” disaster in 2017 will be a warning to Sunak and Starmer to treat it less as an urgent matter to fix and more a landmine to avoid.

That goes for wider local council funding too. Nearly one in 10 councils in England expect to go bankrupt in the next year. “A long-term funding solution for local government” isn’t exactly sexy, but, outside the NHS and schools, these are the services that affect people most day to day: from playgrounds for their kids to regular bin collections. No one—particularly Starmer—will want to admit just how much cash is needed to get local councils back on track. 

It may feel very 2010 retro but “austerity” is going to be the unspoken ­buzzword of the campaign. Both Labour and the Conservatives have effectively signed up to deep cuts in the next parliament. Yet it’s unlikely either leader will admit to that. In fact, we’re in the bizarre situation where the two major parties will spend the campaign pledging to improve public services whilst simultaneously promising not to hike taxes (or even claiming they can reduce them). 

As Paul Johnson of the IFS put it last week: “It would be nice to hear from both parties where [austerity is] going to fall, or we’re going to see some tax rises to avoid the cuts.” It would be nice—but don’t hold your breath. 

Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist and author