For the first time in a generation, this election has offered real choice between the two parties that have dominated British politics since the war. After the implosion of New Labour and the subsequent rigour of Conservative austerity, both movements have veered significantly away from the centre ground that Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron sought to control.
The Tories have embraced Brexit and a fiscal strategy that has created more wealth inequality than Britain has seen in generations. Labour is led by an unapologetic socialist who has promised to govern for the many, not the few: the High Sparrow leader who was found to have the lowest expense claims of all 650 MPs during the scandal about members’ expenses. No one can say with credibility that in this election, it doesn’t matter who you vote for, that the parties and policies are all the same. Whoever occupies 10 Downing Street after the election, Britain be taken on a sharply different path than the one that would have been followed by their main rival.
So, there is a genuine decision to be made. And yet for the entire campaign, the Conservatives have sought to frame Labour and Jeremy Corbyn as the epitome of non-choice, as if there is no validity to anything that Labour has to offer. In this they have been aided and abetted by the shrapnel of the New Labour project and the multiple rebellions of the Parliamentary Labour party. Prior to the campaign, when the Tories had a huge opinion poll lead, it seemed inevitable that a landslide majority would follow. Tonight, on the cusp of the count, it seems likely that Labour will not be eviscerated and may even be re-invigorated by the Conservative’s failure to dominate a poll they thought to win hands down. Even if the best it can hope for is to speak for those who have no truck with contemporary Conservativism, that is a powerful platform upon which to build.
The reluctance of Theresa May to debate her record, and her stuttering discomfort when ordinary people do manage to gain access to her inner sanctum has made the original Tory strategy look rather foolish, especially as –against the odds – Mr. Corbyn has had a good campaign. Instead of the jaded political journalism of “business as usual” at Westminster, the electorate has had more original coverage of the Labour leader and been able to make its own mind up about whether his policies really are as dotty as they had been led to believe. The narrowing of the polls would suggest that they’ve been surprised at – and liked – what they’ve found.
Backbench Tories and their acolytes in the press snipe about Labour’s ‘unaccounted for spending plans’ and yet Theresa May has asked the electorate to vote for her without a shred of certainty about the costs, shape and scope of Brexit. In terms of an unaccounted and uncosted policy, it’s hard to think of a comparable peacetime leap of faith in British history. Most experts, including the government, agree that we are going to be worse off for a number of years to come, but nobody really has a clue by how much.
Meanwhile, we are told that any failure in sum checking contained within a radical and visionary Labour manifesto is a symbol that the party can’t be trusted to plan for the future. The only thing that doesn’t add up is the criticism.
Part of this stems from the myth of Labour’s recession and the notion that the last Labour government was responsible for the financial crash of 2007. This is a great falsehood but the party has an almost impossible task in the current media climate to put across the message that there are credible alternatives to right wing othodoxy.
Right wing social media sites selectively edit interviews to create fake narratives of what Jeremy Corbyn may have said or done in the past. Newspapers conflate the Labour leaders to a terrorist stooge in cartoons and editorials that go far beyond political debate and spiral into the realm of hysterical propaganda. The polarisation of this vicious online discourse creates a febrile nasty atmosphere where it becomes difficult to simply agree to disagree. The new politics is like a death match. The only victory worth having is the one where you stamp your opponent into the ground.
The degree of antipathy towards Labour’s economic plans also originates from the Tory government’s almost magical ability to deceive the public about the real purpose of its cuts in public spending. The real objective of austerity was to reduce the size of the state and protect the rentier interests of wealthy individuals and corporations. The last seven years have been a disaster for the ordinary British household and the outlook for the future is uncertain. Since 2010, the Conservatives have failed to meet every single fiscal target they set to reduce the level of deficit spending and Brexit looks set to add a new raft of borrowing costs on a stuttering British economy. But we are told we must continue and that there is no alternative. It is economic mismanagement on an epic scale and yet the only party which must be held to account for its spending plans and competency is the Labour Party.
Theresa May describes the jobs created under the Tories as proof of their economic miracle. What kind of jobs? It’s no solution to say ‘we have created 1 million jobs’ if those posts are so poorly paid that the taxpayer has to subsidise low incomes with in-work benefits. Critics say Labour would take us back to the 1970s but under the Conservatives, Britain has returned to the 1930s such has been the level of reduction in funding for public services and welfare programs.
The NHS is dying on its feet because the Tories have starved it of funding for the last seven years. Britain spends less per capita on healthcare than many EU and G20 countries. One of the reasons there is less money is because corporation tax, which stood at 28% in 2010 is now 17% and will become lower if Britain becomes a free trade zone. This is not about taxing business unfairly: even Labour’s manifesto pledge of a 26% corporate tax rate would be lower than the US, Canada, France, Belgium and Italy, and the Tories tax generosity has hardly created an economic miracle in the UK given our woeful productivity and low skill, low wage economy. Tory misrule of the Health Service is a basic fact of every Conservative government since 1951; the NHS is always going to be at risk when they hold the reins.
At least Labour is honest enough to put a figure in there. How can anyone vote for a government that derides its opponents for having unaffordable plans whilst at the same time refusing to state what its own intentions are. Take the ‘dementia tax’ debacle. What will the cap on social care be and will it be affordable? Voters don’t know. Will it be comparable to other G20 nations? Again, we don’t know. Will the policy be dependent on future GDP growth or will tax increases be needed? We don’t have a clue because the government won’t say. Last week, Michael Fallon categorically ruled out tax cuts, later on the same day, his leader contradicted him. The cadence of debate was hugely disrupted by the terror attacks in Manchester and London otherwise the Conservatives might have really struggled to regain the momentum of their campaign.
I think the Prime Minister’s response to the London Bridge incident has been unfortunate and ill-judged. Using the aftermath of a tragedy to indulge in party political grandstanding seems opportunistic even by the standards of her undistinguished and mean-spirited campaign. As Home Secretary, Theresa May did little to implement policies that might have addressed the rising levels of radicalisation in a minority of young, angry, disenfranchised British Muslims. Undoubtedly, Muslim clerics and scholars in community mosques have a vital role to play in educating their youth and countering the relentless poison spread by jihadists over social media. But since we have to assume it’s almost impossible to stem the flow of unhinged internet sermons about the apostasy of the West, the only way to tackle the problem is to win the war of ideas and deprive the agitators of their platform. The Muslim community has a responsibility but it’s not an isolated one.
The reality is that the government has a role to play just as much as the Islamic theologians do, by leading the tone of public discourse and opinion and being seen to be engaging with Muslim society in a fair and positive way. This is obviously not something you can flick a switch to achieve; it requires months and years of steady rapprochement. Under Mrs. May, any sense of there being progress towards the long-term objective of neutralising fundamentalist viewpoints has been missing, lost in the tough talking rhetoric. Instead, Islamophobia and religious tension has increased on her watch. Soft methods, like supporting community programs and youth outreach, have had their funding cut even though the police say these initiatives are vital to neutralise the risk of radicalisation and terror plots in the future. All too often they’re written off as being weak or wasteful when in reality it’s just the fact they aren’t macho enough to satisfy those who want to shoot first and ask questions later. The baiting of Jeremy Corbyn over his reluctance to trigger nuclear Armageddon was an appalling moment, a pivotal example of the lurch towards intolerance, fear and loathing. Is this really who we are?
Spiritually, I fear we are regressing to a jackbooted age of anger, division, envy and self-hatred in which the United Kingdom itself is at risk. How can a nation this divided and ill-at-ease with itself survive the stresses of racial tension, inequality and Brexit?
I said earlier that Brexit looms over everything. It is the poisonous bane of David Cameron, a toxic lodestone unearthed from the stinking ooze of Tory Eurosceptic antipathy towards Europe. Its ill effects are to be found everywhere and its influence makes this an election not just for the next five-year Parliament but for the next three or four election cycles afterwards. No future government for decades to come will be able to escape the decisions and choices made by this one; that’s why it is so depressing that the Conservatives seem hell bent on destroying so many things we depend upon to remove some of the negligible compromises that only offend the lunatic fringe.
And they say Labour would wreck the economy?
But we’re taking back control of immigration scream the headlines. All those “bloody foreigners” taking our jobs. Except they aren’t. They’re not taking our jobs. They are paying for our health service and our elderly care. I hope all those Brexit voting pensioners who want to be rid of immigrants noticed the line in the Tory manifesto about having to use their house as collateral for health services in their dotage. Not only will there be no one around to help them get dressed, but the inheritance they thought to leave their grandchildren will now being spent so Google gets lower corporation taxes.
To see how far we’ve lost our way, you only have to listen to Paul Nuttall, the Ukip leader, talking about our “bloated foreign aid budget” during the campaign. By bloated what he really means 0.7% of GDP for the world’s seventh largest economy. For a person on average earnings, that’s the equivalent of three cappuccinos per month.
I am pretty sure that most reasonable British people would feel that three coffees per month is a reasonable sacrifice to make to assuage famine, disease and the impact of war and conflict.
If we crash out of the EU with no deal, the Chancellor has stated that business taxes will fall even further as a retaliatory measure. It’s also inevitable that VAT will rise (by virtue of being applied to everything, as in other tax havens). This will put even more pressure on what remains of the welfare state and ordinary household budgets. This what Tory taking back control really looks like. A death tax and a seething British teenager to look after you when you can no longer control your bladder.
But aren’t we going to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands? No, we are not. We never have and we will never will. Nobody is going home anytime soon because our economy would stop working if they did. Whether or not people will still want to come to Britain thanks to the rancid atmosphere the right wing is fermenting is another matter, but all those people who don’t like hearing foreign voices on trains had better get used to it. Britain needs immigrants and will always need immigrants. Demographics make that plainly obvious. And it’s in our interests to make immigration frictionless rather than tied up with a bloated bureaucracy that doesn’t function. As Home Secretary, Mrs. May completely failed to get a handle on non-EU migration. There’s nothing to suggest she will be any more successful as Prime Minister.
Another reason to get used to it is that foreigners will own even more of Britain in the future than they do already. A weak pound and a pressing need for investment will see large swathes of industry and real estate be snapped up by foreign investors. Most of our energy is already in foreign ownership, profits disappearing offshore to benefit non-British shareholders and national governments. Meanwhile our Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, flies around the globe for photo-ops with Middle Eastern despots and leaders like Rodrigo Duarte who advocate vigilante style justice and the abolition of the rule of law.
Of course, what people are really angry about, and rightly so, are the lengthening NHS waiting times, the crumbling schools, the growing class sizes, the cuts in police numbers, the relentless drive to mediocrity that the world’s seventh richest country has been focused upon since 2010.
This is the decade of repeated economic failure, fiscal targets set and missed, wage insecurity, income erosion, zero hour contracts and the rest of the blasted Tory plan for protecting the wealthy and squeezing the 95%. But this election is about none of those things, issues that the public really should be concerned with. The nostalgia freaks have won. They can’t understand that we never had it so good to begin with and we certainly won’t have it better in the future.
Persuading people it’s somehow the fault of anyone but the Tories is the greatest political confidence trick in modern British history.
Vote Tory if you want. Vote for taking back control or strong and stable leadership or whatever vapid slogan you feel comfortable with. But after June 8th, you will own it, all of it 100%. Whatever happens next will be on your shoulders, not Remoaners, not Corbyn, not the EU, not foreigners: you. This period of Conservative government has been a disaster and under Theresa May it’s about to get a whole lot worse. Taking back control? If you still believe that, your reality is broken.
Larry Eliot summed it up in ‘The Guardian’ recently:
”Think about this for a moment. Real incomes are falling. Inequality is rising. The NHS is kept going on a wing and a prayer. The economy is barely rising despite more than eight years of unprecedented stimulus from the Bank of England. Personal debt is heading back towards its previous record levels. International co-operation has rarely been weaker. There is a profound disconnect between the financial markets, where asset prices regularly scale new heights, and the state of the real economy. Now ask yourself this. If any of the above rings true, what is the real fantasy: Labour’s idea that income, wealth and power should be a bit more evenly distributed or the idea that the current state of affairs can be sustained for very much longer.”
I can’t help but feel distraught tonight. Perhaps Larkin was right. Most things are never meant. This won’t be, most likely. But it’s too late now. Good luck.