Not since 1923 has Britain held a general election in December – a month most politicians want to avoid as voters are more preoccupied with Christmas shopping than politics. But this time there was little choice: Boris Johnson’s government had lost its majority, Parliament was deadlocked over Brexit, splits and tensions were destroying both main parties and voters had lost patience with the political wrangling and with all politicians. They will now have a chance to sweep out hundreds of MPs and vote for a whole range of different faces on December 12th.
Inevitably, the election will focus largely on Brexit, the most vexed and divisive issue facing the country since the Second World War. At the last moment, with only days to spare, Johnson was able to secure a revised deal with the European Union on Britain’s departure from the EU. He has also won vital time to try to pin down the details: under the latest extension granted by Brussels, Britain with leave on the 31st January. Johnson’s campaign slogan, therefore, is “Let’s get Brexit done”.
This will not necessarily win him the election. Many liberal Conservatives, especially younger voters, are likely to abandon the party and vote instead for the Liberal Democrats, the small centrist party that strongly opposes Brexit and says it will halt the entire process and keep Britain in the EU. Johnson is hoping instead to pick up seats in traditional working class areas in the north of England, where many Labour voters, especially the older generation, strongly support Brexit. Whether he can do this depends on whether the Labour party, the main opposition party, can heal its own divisions between Leavers and Remainers and between left-wingers and moderates, and overcome the damaging perception that the party leadership is strongly anti-Semitic.
At present Labour’s policy is to “sit on the fence”. Many of its supporters want a second referendum or want to campaign to remain in the EU. But Jeremy Corbyn, the quasi-Marxist leading the party, is unenthusiastic about the EU. He insists Labour will renegotiate a deal with Brussels and then put this deal to voters in a second referendum. To many, this looks like prolonging the agony of Brexit and satisfies neither Leavers nor Remainers. In addition, Labour is deeply split between the hard-core Marxists close to Corbyn and moderates who preferred the centrist policies of the previous leader, Tony Blair. They have little confidence in Corbyn and are looking for a chance to remove him from the leadership.
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Alarmed by the polls that show Corbyn as the most unpopular Labour leader in history, the party is hoping to forge an alliance with the Scottish Nationalists. They now controls nearly all the seats in Scotland and are campaigning for Scotland’s independence from the rest of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Nationalists already had a referendum on independence in 2014, but lost. Now, led by the charismatic Nicola Sturgeon, they are calling for a second referendum which they believe they will win – largely because Scottish voters are strongly pro-EU and want to stop Brexit.
The Scottish Nationalists, a left-leaning party, are also keen to defeat the Conservatives, who have made it clear they will not allow a second referendum. And although the Nationalists face tough competition from Labour in Scotland, they are ready to make an alliance with Corbyn if, in turn, he will promise them a second referendum on independence.
All politicians know that most voters are sick of the turmoil over Brexit, which has become such a complex and emotive subject that few people understand all the political and economic implications. Instead, therefore, most parties are trying to woo voters with promises of massive new spending to repair crumbling public services, invest in infrastructure and end the eight years of economic austerity that have cut deeply into people’s incomes and into social services and local council sending.
The focus of these promises is the National Health Service, Britain’s cherished free public health system that is extremely popular but is costing ever more money as the population ages and more medical treatment is available. The NHS is now critically short of money, which has put a huge strain on doctors and hospitals. Waiting times for emergency treatment in many hospitals are often as long as four hours. Johnson and his predecessor Theresa May promised an extra £20 billion for the struggling health service. Labour has said it will give more, promising some £26 billion. Labour is also promising to move the country to a four-day week, to renationalise the railways, to increase spending on social care, schools, low-income earners, housing and a range of causes to promote equality. The cost could run into trillions of pounds, to be raised by higher taxes and borrowing, which the Conservatives say would bankrupt Britain. But even the Conservative plans would force the government to borrow more and raise taxes.
The election campaign has become unusually dirty and aggressive, with insults flying, personal hostilities dominating the headlines and accusations of dishonesty, lying and bullying. The insults, magnified on social media, have become so intimidating that dozens of current members of parliament have decided not to stand for election again. The smear tactics have taken a heavy toll especially on women politicians. Many have quit politics, together with moderates and liberals who complain that British politics is becoming more and more extreme. This has alarmed many people, who say that the present levels of bitterness are destroying Britain’s tradition of tolerant democracy and are leading to a breakdown of civilised debate. All 118 bishops of Britain’s established Church of England, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the church, recently signed a letter calling on politicians to moderate their language and end their insults.
The real danger is that the election will not lead to any clear-cut result. The Conservatives currently have a lead in the polls, and are likely to be the largest party. The Liberal Democrats will increase their vote, but not enough to win many more seats. Labour will probably lose seats, leading to an ideological split and a crisis over its future identity. The small Green party, though popular with young voters and the strong environmental movement, is unlikely to win many seats. And the Brexit party – which has campaigned for a total break with Europe without any deal – is now split over whether to support the Johnson deal or to oppose it.
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If Johnson and the Conservatives are re-elected without an overall majority, he will find no other party willing to form a coalition. It will be impossible to run a minority government in an atmosphere of such bitterness. Labour, too, will find it hard to win enough allies to make a coalition, especially with Corbyn as its leader. The result will be a new stalemate. Britain may become like Italy or Spain, with frequent elections unable to resolve any big problems.
Johnson is hoping that his charisma, energy and self-confidence will be enough to overcome a disastrous start as prime minister and the splits within his own party. He is a forceful character, and many voters are ready to forgive his lies, philandering and naked personal ambition if he can deliver a result. Whether he can, in the end, lead Britain out of the EU in an orderly manner, and negotiate a future trade relationship with its former partners, is the question on which Britain’s identity, economy, politics and future place in the world now depend.