We’re fast becoming a nation of political junkies: wired into 24-hour political news culture, the armchair activism of social media, a background hum of Br*x*t and now it seems, we can no longer stay away from a polling booth.
A fourth UK general election in 10 years is unlikely to give any answer as convincingly as the preceding four, which spanned the course of 18 years. The political landscape has become considerably more complex in the last decade, which has seen the outcomes of the Great Recession play out, the maturation of social media and the fracturing of the two-party system. Our democracy blithely asks voters to apply new rules to the old — and out-of-date system.
The British electorate are being asked once again to decide on what path to the country will take over the next five years. Will an election fix a broken political system and a divided country?
Despite the huge list of domestic issues that the UK is currently facing, the election is being framed in terms of a proxy referendum — a ‘Brexit election’ — just as it was in 2017. Labour’s position on Brexit is now clearer at any point in the last three years. The voters will now choose from the Conservative’s Withdrawal Agreement, Labour’s offer of a second referendum or the Lib Dem’s firm ‘Revoke and Remain’ stance.
British politics is in crisis. A general election will not (likely) supply any party with a large enough mandate, and neither will a second referendum heal the gaping chasm caused by Brexit. Yet, in due course, both of these are required to fix the Brexit conundrum impasse and form a functioning government for the next parliament. The country is stuck in the mud.
The next government must sooner-or-later ditch the first-past-the-post electoral system for proportional representation (PR) or the alternative voting (AV) system to galvanise our sense of democracy and give voters a sense that their vote is meaningful; PR was comprehensively rejected in a 2011 UK referendum, but this was still assumed the two-party monopoly was steadfast. The fracturing of political parties since 2015 — with the Conservative Party lurching further to the right, Labour moving further to the left, the rise and fall of UKIP, the renaissance of the Liberal Democrats as pro-EU and the stalking horse of the Brexit Party (and this is before mentioning the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales), reflects the tribalism that is becoming entrenched in UK society.
After nine years of power, it would seem logical that the Conservative Party has had its day. Yet, with most polls putting them roughly 11 points clear of Labour it’s likely they will be returned to power for another years with a small majority or a power share in a minority government. Much depends on the actions of Lib Dems voters at the ballot box: will they vote tactically in Labour/Conservative marginal seats to vote for a party least likely to offer Brexit?
Corbyn’s Labour have failed to reach out beyond their base and many voters are unconvinced by the party’s hedged Brexit stance; the party has come in for huge criticism over its inability to deal with antisemitism, while Corbyn’s radical past has also been used to demonstrate his lack of suitability to lead the country. Labour have failed (so far) to amplify and persuade floating voters with their positive radical policies of public investment, and at times fail to demonstrate the easy charm of government-in-waiting.
Despite being behind in most recent polling, the truth is that nobody knows how Labour will perform at the ballot box. Labour’s best hope for the keys to power remain not in increasing their share of the vote, but in the hope that moderate Conservatives across the UK give their votes to the Liberal Democrats.
Having seen key defections from both the Tories and Labour and returned good results in recent European elections, Jo Swinson and Lib Dems have a swagger about them. Their strong pro-remain message masks an absence of their wider policy objectives, and will no doubt fight the election on their flagship pro-EU pledge. Questions regarding their political integrity remain, having helped push through some of the more odious reforms — such as tripling tuition fees and cutting disability benefits — during their coalition with the Conservatives.
During the course of this decade the Conservative Party have been the architects of division and impoverishment. A scorched-earth policy under the pretence of balancing the nation’s finances has resulted in a bitterly divided nation. They have won the ideological battle, but failed to win the the war. In 2010 upon taking office, they framed the global financial crisis as an issue created by the previous Labour government and set about slashing social support funding, the NHS and the education system. Rather than decreasing the nation’s debt, it has nearly doubled from £1.03 trillion to £2.2 trillion, spent mostly on tax cuts for their voter base. Indeed, research suggests the Conservatives and not Labour are the biggest borrowers for the public purse.
But massively increasing the national debt while promising to reduce it, is among the lesser transgressions of the Conservative government.
A litany of shame
The cuts to the UK’s public services have almost exclusively been aimed at the country’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. The last nine years have been an ideological attack by the Conservatives on a significant proportion of their own country. These include:
- Scrapping housing benefits for 18–21 year olds. Homelessness and rough sleeping has risen by 165% since 2010
- Denying disability benefits to 165,000 people
- The introduction of the ‘Bedroom Tax’, that cut housing benefit to those in properties with a spare room — affecting thousands of people who act as carers for loved ones
- The three-fold increase in university tuition fees, which has greatly curbed social mobility and left hundreds of thousands of working-class students in debt — or deterred them from pursuing a university education
- In 2010, 41,000 foodbank parcels were given out annually; by spring 2019 this number had risen to 1.5m
- A reduction of £320 million a year to legal aid funding, a service that allows those on low incomes access to justice
- The introduction of fees of £1200 for employment tribunals in 2013, a service that was previously free, that allowed employees recourse to workplace injustices, such as unfair dismissal. This decision has since been ruled unlawful by the supreme court.
- Announced a spending freeze for local governments, that has seen local authorities slash services to the most basic provision; Liverpool mayor, Joe Anderson has recently said that it’s the worst crisis to face the city since the Second World War; Northamptonshire County Council suffered financial collapse in 2018.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the way that the incumbent government has chipped away at civic society and led us to the current point, where we now blame the European Union for our social ills. This of course also fails to highlight the many ways and means it has also actively misled and lied to the public about the Brexit process, and the implications of uncoupling from the world’s largest trading bloc, and the second biggest economy after the United States.
How it could be won
It is an astonishing fact that a deeply unpopular government have a double-digit lead in the opinion polls. The number will change over the coming weeks but it remains a troubling reality that a political party that has played so fast-and-loose with the truth — and public money — is not staring down the barrel at electoral annihilation. In less febrile times, this should would be the case.
A winter election will suit the Tories, as turnouts are often lower during the winter months as will the fact that many students will have returned home for Christmas and might not be able to register to vote. However, a surge in younger voters registering might be good news for Labour:
For the Lib Dems to to return a positive result and a gain in seats, they will hope for an informal positive alliance with Labour voters in Lib Dem — Conservative marginals. Neither Corbyn nor Swinson have any desire to formalise that pact, so it’s unlikely they will make the huge returns they’ve optimistically set.
However, a huge factor that will come into play will be those eligible voters who have not registered. Political apathy and perhaps Brexit fatigue, might play some small part. Yet, with average household debt in the UK now reaching £15,400 per household (excluding mortgages), there are hidden thousands of eligible voters who live in fear of being traced by bailiffs and who have not registered themselves on the electoral roll. Needless to say, these people are unlikely to be Conservative voters.
The insecure housing situation that many now face, might also play some part. There has been a 63% rise in the number of people using the private rental market, and nearly two-thirds of those have spent less than three years in the same accommodation. The precarious nature of private rented accommodation means that people are now moving with increasing frequency, which is likely to impact on electoral roll registration.
A government that does so well out of a broken housing market is of course, going to be in no haste to change it: nearly a quarter of Conservative MPs have a property portfolio and are active landlords. How can society be fixed when the solution is to enrich those who are breaking it?
The cronyism prevalent under the Conservatives is no better exemplified than by Adrian Beecroft, a major investor in the now-defunct payday loans company Wonga, which charged loans at an eye-watering 1,509%. Beecroft was a significant donor to the Conservatives — donating £800,000 to the party over a seven-year period including during the 2017 election campaign. Beecroft also authored a report for former Prime Minister David Cameron, which recommended slashing a swathe of employment rights and regulations, which led the way to the introduction of tribunal fees.
The forthcoming election will likely offer parliament a wealth of new faces, but it is unlikely to provide fresh answers to the on-going Brexit dilemma. Sure, the UK will get another fix for its polling addiction — another barrage of information, counterclaims, debates and policy championing. It won’t be pleasant.
This will not truly satisfy the country, a now insatiable nation: the shot in the arm that could cure or kill, is a second referendum that gives British democracy the final hit that it craves. It could be fatal.