The UK General Election, June 2017
Just as the polling stations are closing, I’m sitting down to write this blog. Of course we won’t know who our new Prime Minister is to be until well into tomorrow (Friday 9th June), but most of the polls are predicting a victory for Theresa May and her Conservative Party. Will they be proved right?
What a strange election campaign it’s been, blighted by the terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London, which have forced security to the forefront of political concerns, temporarily (but perhaps crucially) displacing Brexit, immigration and the NHS as the topics of greatest concern to voters. But the strangeness began before those incidents took place. Indeed, it began right at the outset, when Mrs May called the snap election – having repeatedly promised that there would be no election before 2020 – with the intention of greatly increasing the Conservative majority in the House of Commons in order to ensure we have a “strong and stable government” to take into Brexit negotiations. At that point, the Conservative lead in the opinion polls was around twenty points; the main opposition party (Labour) was in disarray. Since then, the gap has narrowed considerably. It looks as though Mrs May won’t achieve the size of majority she sought. Indeed, one or two polls imply there won’t be a majority at all.
The campaigns of the two main parties haven’t been altogether impressive. The Conservatives, after seven years in power, have been guilty of more than a hint of post-truth. For example, on employment, they claim to have created a million or more jobs and to have done more to support poor working families than their predecessors did. However, if you remove the ‘post’ from the ‘truth’, you find a Trade Union Act that seriously cripples workers’ rights, and steadily increasing numbers of workers on zero-hours contracts, in insecure part-time occupations, and involved in the so-called “gig economy”. The Conservatives have also proved adept at pinching other parties’ ideas (which they’d previously rubbished) and claiming them as their own. One example is the big increase in income tax threshold, a policy of the Liberal Democrats who were in coalition with them from 2010 to 2015. Another is the plan to cap energy bills, previously a Labour policy which the Conservatives dubbed ‘Marxist’. (There are other examples.) And when Mrs May assured the country that she was on the side of the ‘people who are barely coping’, she carried about as much conviction as an elephant hang-gliding. It was reminiscent of her immediate predecessor’s promise of ‘Compassionate Conservatism’, which turned out to be a policy of austerity, which hit (and continues to hit) the poorest people hardest. Mrs May’s other achievements have included annoying the EU leaders (openly fighting with Mr Junckers, for example) and inspiring them with a kind of irritated contempt; pronouncing (in the wake of the recent attacks in London) measures to be taken against terrorism that have been proposed for some two years by the security committee and individual parties such as the Liberal Democrats; changing her mind on national insurance charges, the caps on care costs for the elderly… and indeed almost every policy that promised to be controversial. She’s made herself appear anything but strong, let alone stable.
Under Jeremy Corbyn, an avowed Socialist, Labour has had a rough eighteen months. Many in the parliamentary party don’t like their leader and at the start of the current election campaign only about one fifth of the British electorate considered him to be Prime Minister material. It’s a tribute to Mr Corbyn and his team that his personal rating has increased dramatically, and the Conservative lead in the polls has diminished concomitantly. Nevertheless, some of his policies (such as a proposed tax on gardens) are weird, and others (such as the abolition of university tuition fees) seem unworkable. Overall, the mechanisms by which Labour intend to finance their very expensive manifesto plans are so unlikely to succeed as to be downright far-fetched. Those plans are popular with traditional Labour voters, and indeed others, but informed opinion (e.g. from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a politically independent organisation) deems them doomed to financial failure. But at least Labour have made an effort to cost their plans and to show how the costs could in principle be met, and they’ve disseminated a message of hope. The Conservative manifesto contains no costing of any policies; no numbers at all. Their pledge is to continue to impose austerity, with the socially and culturally disastrous consequences I discussed in an earlier blog: incalculable and probably irreversible damage to the NHS, social care, school and university education, the police service, the prison service, security…
Why do so many people appear on television saying they trust Mrs May, who has an unenviable track record for vacillation and failure and plainly doesn’t mean what she says, but they don’t trust Mr Corbyn because he’s honest and straightforward? What does it say about us? Of course, the right-wing press (which is most of the press) has a substantial influence on public opinion, but surely a fair percentage of the electorate can see through the posturings of the Daily Mail and other merchants of fake news?
The other oddity of this election is the apparent squeezing-out of other parties. Recent elections have indicated a trend towards increasing third-party popularity: first the Lib Dems, then UKIP – and, of course, the SNP in Scotland (in the Scottish parliament, the SNP is by far the biggest party). The Conservatives have now moved to the right and Labour to the left, so one would expect a further increase in (centrist) third-party support. But it hasn’t happened. If the polls are to be believed, the overwhelming majority of the electorate will vote either Conservative or Labour, and the former – despite all rational arguments against – seems to be attracting most favour. Of course, our absurd first-past-the-post electoral system strongly favours a two-party state, but I’ve beaten that drum several times in the past. And it doesn’t wholly account for the apparent squeezing-out of our other available political options; the electoral system isn’t new, after all.
Anyway, our votes have been cast, and now they’re being counted. The chances are that we face another five years of Conservative rule, though with less of a majority than Mrs May supposed she’d have.
But predictions can be wrong, and polls can be wrong. By tomorrow we’ll know.