Will Covid kill populism and short-termism?

This Covid crisis has laid bare two fundamental issues that have increasingly plagued our politics – populism and short-termism.

Firstly, populism. Government spin is an inevitable feature of political life; and not only at election time: inevitable but nearly always detrimental to the political conversation in Parliament and the country as a whole; to the policy formation; and to the tricky business of policy implementation on the ground.

I had hoped that spin would be relegated to the side-lines of the government’s management of the Covid crisis. On the one hand, it has been tremendous to see real life experts – scientists and engineers take centre stage and find themselves back in favour with public and politicians alike.

It has been less tremendous, however, to see them caught up in something that too often bears the hallmarks of a political, and populist, campaign.

Two examples:

  • The 3.5 million antibody tests that were lauded, and on their way to us, but hadn’t actually been approved; and in the end proved to be so inaccurate as to be unusable;
  • The curious way the promise of 100,000 daily tests – actual tests – first turned  into a promise to create the capacity for 100,000 tests and then to become tests that had merely been posted, and not yet returned, contributing to the total.

It seems we put more emphasis on the slogans than we do on the purpose behind them. Of course, we need to significantly increase testing, but by focusing so much on the number, we failed to target where the tests were most needed; like the care sector.

I’m not quite sure what the purpose of our new ‘stay alert’ slogan is, but the fact that it needs so much explanation, means it lacks precision. I suspect the strategy behind it also lacks the necessary detail.

My purpose here is not to criticise the Covid response.  I appreciate as well as anyone the scale and difficulty of the task the government has on its hands.  It is to question why this is feeling like a PR campaign and the nation is often not trusted with the truth.  Most people would have considered 82000 actual tests an impressive achievement, especially if we saw more of that capacity targeted at care homes. So why wasn’t that honesty enough?

The answer is that it seems to pay, to play games with the truth.  Donald Trump and Brexit would support that argument. And if spinning, lying and sloganising win popular support and ultimately political power – in other words, if populism pays – who is more likely to win ministerial ears:  the populist advisors and campaigners?  Or the experts, the civil service and those with the country’s long-term interests at heart?

Which brings me to my second issue: short-termism. Britain needs a stronger industrial base. Indeed, its weakness has been one of the principal reasons for our under performance, relative to Germany, in the fight against Covid.  The problem is that we won’t get one for as long as government ministers continue to be driven mainly by the issues and crises of today. I have been supporting the development of UK’s industrial strategy for over a decade now and whilst the need to create one is now better understood, our approach is not strategic enough.

And the alternative would be so much better; a long-term industrial strategy that creates real and long-lasting wealth. With the right focus, and the right policies, we can help the right industries – those that are R&D intensive, high tech, high productivity and above all zero carbon – to emerge stronger from this crisis; and, in the process, create many well-paid jobs in the regions, and launch a green industrial revolution.

This can be delivered; we have a tremendous engineering sector and incredible universities, engineers, innovators and scientists. We just need Government to partner with the industry; in longer term thinking and allow this approach to be cross-party and to be delivered through local Governments and communities.

We will know when we have succeeded, with a new engine of vibrant new exporting industries; the British Huawei’s, Tesla’s and health technology companies, with their ecosystem of many 1000’s of technology start-ups around them. And that’s also how to generate the prosperity and tax income we need to pay for the public services we all deserve.

All it needs is to kill populism and short-termism