Britain is like a ship that swings amid strong winds on troubled sea, its passengers feeling dizzy more than three years after entering rough Brexit waters amid nearly 10 years of economic austerity under Conservative governments.
There are two different approaches to ending this dizziness. The first is to steady the ship slowly and paddle cautiously till passengers catch their breath and regain balance. The second is to change the ship’s destination altogether to avoid this turbulent route.
These different approaches are what the two major political parties in the UK — Labour and the Conservatives — offer British voters in the upcoming general election scheduled for 12 December.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, has introduced a manifesto that includes nationalising Britain’s transportation, pumping hundreds of billions of pounds into infrastructure investment, raising taxes on the middle class, upper middle class and businesses, and boosting public spending on schools, hospitals, welfare and council housing.
In contrast, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made modest promises. His priority is to “Get Brexit done” — ie exiting the EU by the end of January 2020, which is radical enough and he may have thought it would be better not to complicate matters with any other controversial policies.
Many in Britain have labelled Labour’s manifesto as “radical” and described its leader as “Red Corbyn” because of his apparent left-wing policies. Others see the Conservatives as “boring”, “uninspiring” and cautious, “as if Mr Johnson [is] walking while holding a Ming Vase”.
POLITICS FATIGUE: This general election, the third in less than five years, is not necessarily about issues, but about moods and personalities as well.
Both parties believe they have “seized the moment” in their respective manifestos. The Labour Party believes that after 10 years of austerity, economic hardship and the chaos of Brexit, the British public want radically different policies. This includes an end to austerity immediately, investing big in infrastructure and increasing the budget for public services such as schooling, the national health service (NHS), housing and social care.
“These radical policies are exactly what the British people need,” said Corbyn, emphasising that the Brexit vote in the 2016 referendum was evidence of the British desire for radical change.
In contrast, the Conservative Party believes that the British public would prefer a “steady as she goes” approach, less radical changes and “less politics”.
According to this logic, the party promised in its manifesto not to raise taxes for the coming five years, and to increase the current budget by only £2.9 billion per year.
This increase in the annual budget is very modest compared to what the opposition parties promised. The Liberal Democrats have promised to raise taxes and raise the budget by £48 billion, while the Labour Party promised to raise taxes and increase the budget by £83 billion.
With regard to infrastructure investment, the Conservative Party announced that it plans to spend £100 billion over the next five years on huge infrastructure projects, including roads, housing, Internet and transport, while the Liberal Democrats promised to spend £130 billion, and Labour pledged to spend £275 billion on mega infrastructure projects, fighting global warming and nationalising the transportation network.
BIG IDEAS VERSUS “A STITCH UP”: “The Conservative manifesto is a stitch up. The £2.9 billion announced by the party as an increase in the public budget is just tinkering. The manifesto is not the vision of radical change that the Labour Party is proposing,” said Christina Patterson, a prominent British political commentator.
“The Conservatives are leading in the polls and on their way to victory, Johnson’s advisers would say: Why change anything? This is the reason behind the cautious manifesto,” argues Patterson.
But the question is, have the Conservatives misread the public mood?
The Conservatives are still leading in the polls, but there was a flat reception to their manifesto. Meanwhile, Labour has received a boost from the latest voter registration figures, with around two-thirds of 2.8 million recent applications coming from people under the age of 35 (under 40 is a strong Labour base). Labour has also cut the Conservatives’ poll lead, with the party reaching its highest level since May.
Also, there is a big gap between Johnson’s language and the party’s manifesto. When he launched the manifesto, Johnson pledged to “release the lion from its cage” and to “forge a new Britain” in the aftermath of Brexit. However, at the launch of the Conservative manifesto in Telford, the prime minister made it clear he will not enter a spending competition with Corbyn as he unveiled an unapologetically cautious programme.
“The Conservative manifesto is devoid of big ideas. And its launch on Sunday, during the weekend, indicates that the Conservative Party does not want anyone to talk about it,” said Patterson, referring to some of the pledges, such as increasing the number of nurses by 50,000 and abolishing parking fees in hospitals for the elderly and some workers.
GET BREXIT DONE: The cornerstone of the Conservative Party manifesto is Brexit. Johnson promised to leave the EU by the end of January 2020, then start the transitional phase during which the future relationship between Britain and the European Union will be negotiated. He pledged not to extend the transition period beyond December 2020. This means leaving without a deal if London and Brussels failed to reach a deal about their future relationship come December 2020. The pledge to crash out without a deal at the end of the transitional period satisfies Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage and Brexit supporters, but worries the majority, as crashing out without a deal would have a huge economic cost.
Johnson will not worry now about what might happen in December 2020. He is focused on January 2020 and to implement his Brexit policy he needs to win a healthy majority in the elections — between 30 and 40 seats. Anything less will be problematic.
Some within the Conservative Party fear that the lacklustre manifesto may have a negative impact on the party’s fortunes with three weeks still left to campaign before the election. They also fear three scenarios that could keep the UK in the current dreadful limbo.
The first scenario is a hung parliament in which no party has a majority to govern alone. This would be the worst result for the Conservatives. Because winning a small majority will put Johnson in the same predicament as Theresa May before him, meaning he is unable to pass any policies. The Conservatives have no natural allies among other parties, especially after their relationship with the Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was destroyed.
In contrast, this is the best scenario for the opposition Labour Party. As some say, Corbyn does not need to win a majority to be in 10 Downing Street. If a hung parliament is the outcome, Labour will find it easier to form a coalition or a minority government with the support of parties such as the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, as all of them support a second referendum on Brexit. But this scenario will not end uncertainty in Britain. Minority governments are usually short-lived in the UK. Thus, a narrow majority for Labour or the Conservatives would probably mean that the country is heading towards a new general election before December 2020.
The second scenario is that the Conservatives lose the election. Although opinion polls show they still lead, it is almost impossible to predict election results in Britain. If Labour wins, Britain will be on course for new Brexit negotiations with the European Union, a second referendum on Brexit, and a new referendum on Scotland’s secession from Britain. This would mean 2020 would be another turbulent year.
The third scenario is that the Conservative Party wins the election while Boris Johnson loses his seat in parliament. The prime minister is facing a fierce election battle in his constituency and is at risk of losing. But he is not alone. According to polls in several swing seats, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and Conservative MPs Iain Duncan Smith, Zac Goldsmith and Steve Baker are all at risk of losing their seats.
If Johnson loses his parliamentary seat, it would be a big blow for him and his party. Never before has a party won and its leader lost his parliamentary seat. If that happens, Johnson will be forced to give up leadership of the party and also the premiership. No wonder opposition parties are putting enormous efforts into ousting Johnson from his constituency.
This election campaign is entering its decisive stage after the manifestos were unveiled, but the result is still anyone’s guess.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.