Here we sit, a couple of weeks away from the General Election. An election that Theresa May didn’t need to call. Ostensibly, the initial argument from the PM, and an argument that has continued to be rolled out throughout the campaign, is that a comprehensive election win at this time would strengthen the government’s hand during the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. Quite how this works has never been explained though: the people with whom Ms May will be negotiating surely couldn’t care less what size her House of Commons majority might or might not be, so how will her negotiating position be strengthened? That’s not a rhetorical question, I genuinely don’t understand how this is supposed to work. If the idea is to come back to the House during the negotiations to debate about, and vote on, issues arising then what does this mean for her unambiguous commitment to withdraw from the single market and customs union and “no deal being better than a bad deal”. What is left to discuss?
Happily, though, General Elections are never single issue events and so it has proved once again with Brexit relegated to little more than a footnote in much of the political to’ing and fro’ing that we’ve seen. This is probably for the best because another pre-vote diatribe focussed on the exact same subject as the last pre-vote diatribe would probably have driven the electorate into widespread apathy. However, we have had some policies to talk about if you can dig yourself out from the dung-pile of the name calling, mud-slinging and fatuous tabloid headlines that typifies modern political discourse.
On a purely Conservative vs Labour comparison, the relative ideologies of the two parties have probably never, in my voting life at least, been so starkly differentiated. For 25 of the past 38 years, we have had a Conservative-led government. It could be argued, if you view the Blair/Brown years as broadly Tory-lite, that we’ve had 38 of 38. Consequently, the assertion that all politicians were “pretty much the same” had a certain validity, especially when you look at the prevalence of spin and the rise of the slickly marketed politician. However, Corbyn victory in two Labour leadership elections (like the rise of Bernie Sanders in the US during 2016) has cast that aside and we are faced with a clearer choice. The beauty of an election is that for a brief moment, the agenda-driven media and the cult of personality politics has to be put aside and policies need to be discussed as parties launch their manifestos and battle for the crosses in their boxes.
Given the surprise that everyone felt at the election being called, even within the Cabinet itself, and at such short notice, one could be forgiven for assuming that the manifesto launch would be an ill-thought through affair. Indeed, when news arrived that an early draft of the Labour document had been leaked about four days early, one could be forgiven for thinking that the wheels were coming off already. However, there was many a raised eyebrow when it was noted (albeit reluctantly in some corners) that the policies contained therein were actually quite appealing. The leak had the added impact of stealing some headlines for a few days while their opponents tried, unsuccessfully by and large, to pick holes in populist policies like scrapping car parking fees at NHS establishments, and abolishing tuition fees.
When the Labour manifesto finally got its official launch, it went one better by releasing it with a full costing of how all the expenditure would be funded. Inevitably, “Can’t be trusted on the economy!” was how large swathes of the right bleated their response, curiously failing to point out where any of the sums might actually be flawed. Followed, just as inevitably by “Higher taxes, more borrowing under Labour”. Higher taxes? Sure. But only for people who can afford them. More borrowing? I’m not so sure. There are a lot of myths about government borrowing, and the nature of debt and deficit management that need to be debunked following a pretty crass but widespread oversimplification in the years following the crash of 2007, all while the Conservatives have attempted to justify their decade of austerity. I’m not suggesting that we should all become economists but let’s at least listen to a few experts, rather than subserviently rattling off the rhetoric of the conservative right’s troubling demagoguery.
So, let’s take a look at the Conservative’s strong and stable manifesto, even if you agree with some or all of the content, there is barely one iota of how it will be paid for and who would be paying for it. A mandate for the next five years was promised. Five years?! It hasn’t lasted five days before the signature social care plan policy has imploded under its own weight of implausibility this afternoon. U-turns aplenty it seems to me. This following the last budget’s NIC announcement and Theresa’s own denial of ever thinking about doing anything so rash as holding a snap election. Strong and stable, my arse.
“Don’t let Labour take us back to the 70’s” is the latest pithy catchphrase that has been bandied about since Labour articulated their position in their “For The Many. Not The Few” document. Again, this doesn’t actually tell us anything of substance, instead, just trys to instil a little fear into an already cautious population that we shouldn’t even entertain the notion of trying, heaven forfend, something different. We’ve had 38 years of a broadly capitalist approach to running the UK and just take a look around: a devastating and increasing wealth gap; education, health and care services on their knees following decades of under-investment now being exploited by the private sector; desperately misguided foreign policy choices; and essential utilities and services being run for the profit of (frequently off-shore) investors.
Just a cursory glance at a handful of the key Conservative policies fills me, at best with a despairing sense of ‘meh’, at worst with a seething anger at just how nasty they can be… Means test winter fuel payments: Either overly costly to implement fairly or not worth the fuss. Cut net migration to the tens of thousands: Promised before. Failed before. Budget surplus to zero by 2025: Thought they were planning on achieving this years ago. Promised before. Failed before. Cutting corporation tax to 17%: Trickle down economics doesn’t work, nowt more than a fat cat tax cut? Fox hunting and lifting restrictions on the ivory trade: Oh, for crying out loud, posh people letting their dogs rip animals apart? Talk about wanting to take us back to an unpleasant bygone age?! Scrap free school meals: Really?! Utter bastards. Scrap the second part of Leveson: Rupert probably didn’t want this so let’s do what he tells us, shall we?. Force people to use Photo ID at elections: Who’s most likely not be able to produce a passport or driving licence? Would it be the people most like to vote for someone else, perchance? Take control of the internet: No really, that’s what they’re saying. On and on the list goes. I am trying to be balanced when I read the manifesto, but it’s just so hard to find anything to like about them.
Despite my left-leaning tendencies it is sensible to acknowledge some of the realities of the situation. Theresa May is a savvy politician who certainly had (at the time she called the election) a largely positive public image. Furthermore, the Labour party was consistently portrayed, perhaps rightly, as being irreparably split and therefore the gap in the opinion polls must’ve swayed the PM into consolidating her position with an impossible-to-lose election. While the campaign has resulted in the gap narrowing, I am still reminded by many that it is the Labour leadership, not the Labour manifesto that will eventually consign this campaign to a losing cause. But is this really true?
As an individual, it seems fashionable to say that Jeremy Corbyn seems like a nice enough chap “…but he’s not a leader”. If you were to ask a thousand people to outline their individual political ideology within a single paragraph of text, I bet you any money you like that you will get a thousand different answers. The idea that a voter can find an exact match with a political party is, at best, unlikely. Even the idea that any two members of a political party would perfectly match one another is probably just as unlikely. By extension and by necessity, a political party needs to represent a broad church of opinion, and I do get frustrated when commentators and politicos alike see Corbyn’s leadership of a party with a large and well-known Blairite contingent (just like when Blair had to lead a party with an ‘old left’ contingent) as a reason to cite that he is failing to unite the party. Sure, his leadership prowess might lack the oomph to make us think that he will lead us into a brave new world but he is a genuine and gently spoken guy, a man of conviction, a person with a passion and dedication to his cause, and a listener and a talker in a time where there isn’t enough of either. The more I see and hear of him, the more I like. Certainly, no better not worse a person to sit on the Brexit negotiations and work his socks off for what is best for Britain.
There is a conundrum at the heart of anyone who goes to the election booth in a General Election to cast a vote and that conundrum is to establish the basis of WHY you are voting for the candidate. Do you vote based on what is best for you individually or may be for you and your family as well? Do you vote entirely based on your trust in the leadership of the party? Or perhaps you might vote based on habit or just who think of at the time? Whatever the answer, there is undeniably a mountain to climb either for Labour to pull a Leicester City and win the damned thing, or for them to lose the election and keep this new socialism at the heart of the party. They get my vote. I hope they get yours.