Skip to main content

01 July 2024

Politicians are promising a better tomorrow. The future of democracy depends on their ability to deliver it

Thomas Hale and Cat Zuzarte Tully

Short-termism is leading to disillusionment with politics

Parliament at night

However you cast your ballot on 4 July, you’ll be voting for someone promising you a better future.

Front-runner Keir Starmer has premised Labour’s bid on “getting Britain’s future back”, while Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives slapped “Long-term decisions for a brighter future” in all caps on the podium of their last party conference. The Liberal Democrats, Greens, Reform, SNP, and others have all made similarly forward-looking appeals, albeit with starkly different visions for what they want to come next.

But if we’re all voting for the future, why do we feel our politics are so trapped in the short term?

Polls show a dangerous trend. Around the world, people of all ages are increasingly disillusioned with electoral democracy, and the drop is sharpest in 18-34 year olds. Worryingly, authoritarianism is increasingly attractive to younger people, as we see in rising support for the far right across the world.

In Britain, younger people are particularly unlikely to vote if they are struggling to get on the housing ladder or lack a degree. In other words, it is those who feel they don’t have a future who are turning away from our current systems.

At the root of this disconnect is a sense that politics as usual cannot address the immediate things that matter in people’s lives, like the cost of living, housing, and failing public services. On top of this, people have even less faith in the government's ability to deal with the deeper drivers behind these short-term needs – “long problems” like climate change, an aging society, technological change, degraded infrastructure, or geopolitical turbulence.

The result is a ticking time bomb of disillusionment that threatens democracy as we know it. Indeed, that stinging indictment of the status quo was the conclusion that a Parliamentary committee from across the political spectrum reached in an extraordinary report issued this month just as the election campaigns kicked off.

The Liaison Committee – Parliament’s “committee of committees” for addressing crosscutting issues – sits at the core of the political establishment. And yet grandees from different parties came together to lament the country’s inability to tackle problems that last more than one electoral cycle. Neither the machinery of government, nor politicians’ incentives, are suited to deliver a coherent national strategy on the issues that matter most for the country, the committee found. The implications for democracy may be existential.

However, the report also shows that it does not have to be this way. Around the country and all over the world, innovative policymakers are finding dozens of ways to make governance more long-term.

In Finland, the legislature has a committee on the future, as does every governmental department and major lobby groups like the national business association. They all come together every year to consider the long-term issues the country faces. In the US, federal rulemakers are required to include the long-term impacts of climate change in their cost-benefit analyses. In Japan, town assemblies invite citizens to imagine themselves speaking to their future grandchildren before deciding on local business. Closer to home, Wales has a Future Generations Act and an independent commissioner to hold the government accountable for long-term priorities.

There is no “silver bullet” for overcoming short-termism in politics. But there are dozens of useful innovations that make a meaningful difference in how we conduct public business. Taken together, they can help make democracy more fit for purpose in a world where long-term challenges generate short-term crises. These and other examples of anticipatory governance will take the multilateral stage at the UN’s first Summit of the Future in September this year, where member states are set to commit to a Declaration for Future Generations.

Whoever is elected on 4 July should turn the future from a campaign slogan into a plan of action. They can start with the Liaison Committee’s recommendations around a Parliamentary Committee for the future, upgrades to the government's strategic planning capacity, and reviewing legislation for intergenerational fairness, among other measures. But we can also go further and consider a national Future Generations Act or other measures to hardwire real incentives to serve the long-term interest into the machinery of policymaking.

Crucially, this agenda must connect with the people and their daily concerns, perhaps through an intergenerational national dialogue to capture a collective vision of the UK that we’d be happy to leave behind for our children and all those who come after.

Politicians talk about our future so much because voters deeply care about how our lives will develop, and what we will leave to those who come after us. Now we need them to do something about it.

Thomas Hale is Professor of Global Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, and author of the recently published book Long Problems. Cat Zuzarte Tully is Managing Director of the School of International Futures and Specialist Advisor to the House of Commons Liaison Committee Inquiry.

Related departments