It is time to build a new national consensus.
Is Britain becoming a more divided nation? The polling certainly suggests as much. In 1994, when voters were asked whether immigration was a burden on the country, there was a 25-point gap between supporters of Labour and the Conservatives. By 2014, that gap had grown to 33 points. There has been even more division on display in election results. At the 2017 General Election, Labour beat the Conservatives by a remarkable 52 points among 18 to 24-year-olds. But among people over the age of 65, the Conservatives beat Labour by 29%. Age is one of the great dividing lines in our society and politics. So too is faith. Another country of birth.
Our economic fortune is another key factor. When you look at Brexit, you find that the people who swung the vote feel that the system is not working for them as it once was. Economically, they feel that they are going backwards. They cannot rely on the simple process that if you work hard, play by the rules, better your life, then you can deliver something better for future generations. We live in a prosperous country, but its prosperity has been hidden from too many people. In the year of the EU referendum three years ago, my company asked voters whether they thought their children would be better off financially than they were. Only 24% in the UK said yes. In a developing nation like India, around three quarters of people thought so – it’s mainly in the West that we see this kind of pessimism.
Along with a loss of confidence in the economic and social promise of globalisation and technology, any trust indicator one looks at shows constant declines over recent years in the West in relation to institutions. The powers people relied on – religious institutions, financial institutions, political institutions, the media and more – were once the bedrock of trust and the foundation for progress. Now they are increasingly challenged by the community.
It is hard to build a national consensus amid so much polarisation, anger and declining trust. Yet that mission – to find a new national consensus – is exactly the right one and it is wise for Policy Exchange to be focusing on it in its new research on Place, People, Prosperity and Patriotism, especially as a new Prime Minister is chosen. Nothing is more important than unlocking aspiration and providing people with the opportunity to realise their ambitions.
Without finding consensus and building on it, it will be very difficult for the next Prime Minister to deliver on Brexit and so much more. And the good news is there may be more consensus in hidden areas – as Policy Exchange has shown, for instance, in its housing work, which demonstrates that Nimbyism melts away if you build new homes in ways that are popular with existing local residents and with the wider public.
In my view, the next occupant of Downing Street should set themselves three big tasks. We need a leader of the UK who deals in hope – someone who can give people a sense of optimism about what the future can bring. We need the Government to deliver unifying economic progress – shared prosperity, and a sense of people being able to improve their lives over time. Finally, we need to make sure that politicians are connecting with the people they represent in our democracy and anchoring what they do to in the values that people hold dear. It is time, as Policy Exchange argues, to build a new national consensus.