Why a focus on the short-term issues won't help find solutions to the UK's long-term challenges

Why can't they all just get along? Calls for more consensus in UK politics to fix long-term problems. Credit: PA images

Back in 2010 David Cameron coined the phrase "Broken Britain", making it the cornerstone of his election campaign.

That phrase might well feature in the run-up to a likely General Election next year, but this time it will be deployed against the Tories.

In a new opinion poll from Ipsos, it found more than three-quarters of those questioned thought Britain was becoming a worse place to live. Just 6% believed it was getting better.

Increasingly, many people believe that the focus on short-term gains is coming at the expense of the kind of long-term planning needed to tackle some of the major challenges facing the country.

The topic was discussed and explored in the latest Anglia Late Edition.

This has all come to the fore due to the concrete crisis. The government is under fire for its handling of the use of Raac concrete - a lightweight material used in buildings between the 1950s and 1990s with a 30-year shelf-life.

But while accusations fly about the lack of long-term plans to rebuild the UK's crumbling schools and public buildings, it is not the only area impacted by short-term thinking.

Take the NHS. In 2017 Parliament's Select Committee on the Long-term Sustainability of the NHS and Adult Social Care said the services were impacted by a "culture of short-termism".

In a report the committee said it had uncovered "endemic short-termism in almost every area of policy making".

It added: "Those charged with planning and making decisions which affect the whole NHS seemed to be plagued by short-term pressures and, as a consequence, lacked the ability to look beyond the ‘here and now’ to the longer term."

That's a view backed by the independent health think tank The Nuffield Trust.

In July its chief executive wrote to the leaders of the three largest political parties in England, urging them to "make the upcoming general election a decisive break point, by ending years of short-termism in NHS policy-making".

Helen Buckingham, the trust's director of strategy said that politicians' constant need to respond to today’s headlines led to quick fixes but did not prevent the problem from recurring."It’s really interesting when we look at the policies of the major parties now; actually they’re not that different.

"They are talking about prevention, they are talking about the needs to ensure waiting times are reduced, they’re talking about things that absolutely matter to patients.

"It would certainly be helpful if, instead of the healthcare system being used as a political football, people could recognise that they have far more in common than that which divides them and work together more effectively.

"In our political system, whether that will actually happen... we will wait and see."

Credit: PA

The same could be true of energy. Just this week the government passed its energy bill, reversing restrictions on the development of onshore wind farms.

But Greg Clark, the Conservative Chair of the Science, Innovation and Technology select committee, said he believed there already was a degree of long-term planning when it came to keeping the lights on.

Talking about the development of Hinkley Point in Somerset and Sizewell C in Suffolk, he said: "I don’t know whether there is any thinking about the election - when it comes to something like nuclear power there shouldn’t be short-term choices.

"It’s in the national interest that people work together on this. A nuclear power station, if it’s built, lasts for 60 years, long beyond the time of any one government and for too long if we had an on off, stop-go approach to nuclear.

"That’s no good for the long-term investment that’s needed. So there’s a big cry from my cross party committee to have a cross-party approach to give dependability to nuclear policy."

Short-termism is also putting the brake on the UK's "global potential", according to the world's most venerable scientific society.

The UK's world-leading work in science could be better supported, says the Royal Society. Credit: PA

The Royal Society said the UK's role as a world player in science and innovation is under threat "by the lack of a long-term vision, and by short-termism in political priorities and funding cycles".

In written evidence to a select committee on the need for a science and technology strategy pointed to the success of long-term support of research.

"The science that has been critical to keeping economies going in the pandemic – the remarkably fast progress in detection, diagnostics vaccines and treatments – is built upon key discoveries from the 1960s.

"Yet despite the hugely important role science has in our lives and society, science policy has tended to suffer from inconsistency as it is passed from one administration to the next.

"Many of the innovations that have saved lives and rescued economies during the pandemic originated from basic research more than 50 years ago.

"Short-termism hinders the efficient use of resources and is an unnecessary brake on global potential."

The adversarial style of UK politics often undermines attempts at consensus. Credit: PA

Many of the decisions taken by government are based on financial pressures, but more long-term planning could actually help save cash.

In her annual report, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee Dame Meg Hillier said: "Short-termism in government and the desire for quick results hinders proper investment in evaluation. It can take many years for the ultimate impact of a policy decision to be fully assessed...

"For example, HM Prisons and Probation Service (HMPPS) still doesn’t know if tagging -which allows justice agencies to monitor offenders’ compliance with court orders - helps reduce reoffending.

"This is despite government investing £153m in a tagging transformation programme."

More than once a move to wards a more consensual style of politics has been attempted.

Tony Blair said: "By nature, I am a unifier. I am a builder of consensus. I don't believe in sloppy compromise. But I do believe in bringing people together."

His successor David Cameron exclaimed that he was... "fed up with the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster, the name calling, backbiting, point scoring, finger pointing."

Both seemed to suggest a desire for a more bi-partisan approach to some important issues. So could we see a more collaborative Parliament in future?

To paraphrase Brian Clough, consensus politics looks great on paper, but our adversarial political system does not operate on the pages of books.

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