There are times when I seem to be out of kilter with the current political and media debate. Political commentators assume that I should be ‘angry’ or ‘furious’ with Boris Johnson, and all linked to Downing Street, over ‘partygate’ or the drinks during lockdown scandal. However, I am not furious about partygate, but I am furious about partygate representing another example of the politics of absence, or a political and media debate that avoids exploring key societal challenges impacting on all living in the UK. Journalists and politicians are distracted by trying to identify more examples of political lockdown infringements. The latest involves Labour leader, Keir Starmer, as a photograph has emerged of him drinking a bottle of beer in a constituency office with people located in the same room. I have three points regarding partygate to make and what I label the politics and journalism of absence.
First, in the UK alcohol plays an important role as a social lubricant. There will be many examples during COVID lockdowns when regulations were breached as people engaged in alcohol-related socialising. One absence from the partygate debate is a discussion of the role alcohol plays in British society and political life.
Second, partygate is an example of a political and media debate focused on playing the individual instead of the ball. This approach to politics was explored in the British sitcom, Yes, Prime Minister. In this episode, the ploy failed as too much emphasis was given to discrediting the individual rather than the policy. With partygate there is no debate on policy.
Third, partygate provides politicians and journalists with an opportunity to play a political game constructed around individuals designed to discredit and to result in some form of political advantage, but this process is a distraction from the immediate and critical societal problems that the UK is facing. Partygate operates as a shadow that obscures extremely serious societal challenges. A more constructive political and media debate would revolve around identifying these challenges and developing solutions. This is a call for such a debate. I want to begin this by highlighting five challenges that require immediate solutions.
- Energy poverty and the escalation in energy costs. Energy supply has been a political hot potato in UK politics for over two decades with governments continuing to push the problem down the road. The immediate problem revolves around energy price escalation, but the focus of political debate needs to be framed around immediate solutions to the decarbonisation of heating.
- Town planning and the design of buildings. Major alterations are required in town planning combined with building design. Current approaches to town planning continue to be based around designing towns, cities, and buildings to support energy-intensive lifestyles. We are planning for the past rather than the future. We need a robust debate on what principles should underpin town planning and building design that will support the emergence of carbon-light living.
- Air quality is a major societal problem that has been acknowledged by politicians and policymakers. Nevertheless, current air quality interventions are not solutions to reducing individual exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5). Here it is worth noting that electric vehicles produce particulates.
- COVID-19 continues to act as a major societal and economic shock and political interventions are still required designed to overcome immediate and longer-term impacts. The longer-term impacts have implications regarding town planning and building design as both need to focus on designs that reduce individual exposure to the transmission of infective respiratory droplets. There will be other respiratory droplet pandemics or epidemics and the UK must become pandemic prepared.
- The economy is at an inflection point that represents an escalation in the ways in which data and data analytics underpin economic and social activities. There is an on-going escalation in the data-intensity of economic and social activity. This has major implications for cyber security combined with the design of the national educational curriculum. A debate is needed regarding the national curriculum and the role this plays in delivering the training needed to live in an increasingly data-intensive society.
Cutting across all five challenges is a concern with levelling-up. Many other major societal challenges could be added to this list. However, my point is that politicians and journalists are currently debating Whitehall alcohol related lockdown infringements that occurred in May 2020 rather than the primary challenges that face the people living in the UK. We need a more constructive political and societal debate framed around discussions regarding solutions to societal challenges.