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This election is a battle for Britain’s soul 

United Kingdom
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn head the procession of members of parliament to listen to the Queen's Speech in London, Britain. October 14, 2019. Daniel Leal-Olivas/Pool via REUTERS

British elections do not usually take place in December. After weeks of door knocking, we understand why: it’s dark and it’s cold, deeply discouraging both for campaigners and for the voters we want to convince.

But Britain is experiencing one of the deepest political crises of its history. Nothing is normal. And so, with Boris Johnson’s Conservative parliamentary majority wiped out, unable to get any legislation passed, let alone his highly contentious Brexit deal, he has gone to the polls in the country’s first Christmas election since 1923.

Not since the early 1980s has the gap between the two major political parties, Labour and Conservative, been so wide, the different visions on offer so distinctive. What is at stake in this election is what sort of country Britain will become over the next generation. It is a battle for Britain’s soul – and with wide international implications.

Trade justice

This has allowed some unusual but important issues to dominate the election debate. In the first British election to be dominated by trade issues for 100 years, the potential post-Brexit trade deal with Trump’s US has become almost a symbol of the divergent politics on offer.

Those Conservatives who are ideologically pro-Brexit have always seen exiting the European Union (EU) as a route to deregulation and liberalization – ‘completing the Thatcher revolution’ as former chancellor Nigel Lawson put it.

The US administration has been clear that a trade deal between our countries would need to mean radical changes to our food standards, the prices which the NHS pays for medicines and our ability to levy a digital services tax on internet giants like Amazon and Google. It would bring us a step closer to the deregulated, low tax ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ which so many of the leaders of the Brexit campaign always wanted, not to mention pulling us even closer to US foreign policy goals.

Unsurprisingly such a vision is not shared by most of the British public – however they voted in the EU referendum. That’s why Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn has focused on the US trade deal – waving around the redacted minutes of the US-UK trade talks, obtained by Global Justice Now under the Freedom of Information Act, to expose the secrecy inherent in these trade talks, and more latterly showing how the leaked copies of those same papers prove the US is interested in a series of rules which could provide the mortal blow to Britain’s much-loved National Health Service. 

For trade justice campaigners, attention to the dangers of modern trade deals – which go far beyond tariff reductions – is welcome, and has translated into some positive manifesto commitments. Even the Conservatives have been desperate to claim that they will never allow a US trade deal to threaten the NHS or our environmental standards. Most of the public seem rightly sceptical about those claims.

We recognize the need to address historic injustices and will reset our relationships with countries in the Global South based on principles of redistribution and equality, not outdated notions of charity or imperialist rule

The mantra that ‘free trade is good’ is clearly no longer working for politicians. Labour, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), the Green Party and Plaid Cymru all call for a more transparent and democratic system for negotiating trade deals – replacing the closed-room negotiations where elected representatives can’t even stop a bad trade deal.

All parties call for the protection of standards in trade deals, with Labour explicitly rejecting  a ‘race to the bottom’ by proposing a binding charter to protect workers’ rights; while the Greens call for an end to the toxic ‘corporate court’ or Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS)  system which allows big business to sue governments in secret tribunals, and promises to hold corporations to account for their operations overseas.

The SNP, Labour, Greens and Liberal Democrats all call for a tightening up of the arms export regime, reflecting the public disgust at escalating sales to Saudi Arabia as that country continues to pulverize Yemen. 

Climate justice 

There is a huge amount about the climate emergency across the manifestos, including the all-important target date by which we need to reach net zero emissions (the Greens win that one, promising to reach net zero emissions at 2030, with Labour promising to be ‘mostly’ there by that date). ‘Green New Deal’ is the buzz phrase for a carbon-neutral economic transformation, and the understanding that dealing will climate breakdown requires more than producing droves of electric cars is welcome.  

However, what remains to be seen is how the said parties plan to transform our economies so that, rather than just plunder the Global South for precious metals for renewable batteries or land for food, we help other states to develop sustainably too.

We owe a huge ‘carbon debt’ already. Labour does talk about Britain’s historic responsibility, answering the call for compensation to loss and damage to the Global South. The £4 ($5.25) billion per year in climate funds that they promise is a good start and shows global leadership on climate finance.

Perhaps most interesting of all – and despite the work of the largely pro-Conservative British media – this is an election which shows neoliberalism is crumbling

All parties, except the Tories, include aviation as an emission issue. Labour, Greens and the Liberal Democrats also mention the need to tax or address climate impacts of corporations, while the Conservative manifesto insists that free markets, innovation and prosperity can protect the planet (even The Economist has given up on this line of argument). Oh, and the Conservatives have given the green light to a new coal mine.

Migration

Surprisingly, migration has been less of an issue in this election, perhaps because Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has been squeezed in the polls, and opposition parties are almost unanimous in calling for an end to the government’s ‘hostile environment policy’. This set of policies, designed to make migrants so uncomfortable that they ‘self-deported’, and which effectively turned teachers, doctors, even bank managers into border agents, has been responsible for enormous suffering.  

The Labour Party promises to end indefinite detentions of migrants, to close two detention centres, scrap the minimum income requirement for migrants coming to live with families, and pledge to restart Mediterranean Sea search and rescue missions and work with France to close the terrible migrant camps there.

The Liberal Democrats also promise to prevent sharing of information between public bodies and the Home Office – used to deport undocumented workers – and reallocate refugee policy to the Department for International Development. Meanwhile, the Greens promise to scrap the Home Office altogether and create a Ministry for Sanctuary, close all detention centres, suspend deportation flights and give migrants access to public services.

Politicians on the Left and in the centre are much less willing to engage in migrant-bashing, signalling perhaps a change in this discourse which has been so toxic to British politics in recent years.

International development

International development secures a predictably low billing in this election, with all parties (except the Brexit Party) promising to maintain aid spending. But we shouldn’t ignore Labour’s transformational manifesto pledges on development – the most radical set of development policies advocated by any mainstream party in the western world. As the manifesto says: ‘We recognise the need to address historic injustices and will reset our relationships with countries in the Global South based on principles of redistribution and equality, not outdated notions of charity or imperialist rule.’​


The question is, what replaces the free market for the Right? There is every danger that Johnson, a man who has spent his whole life trying to win power and who will surely do anything to hang onto it, will tack towards Trump

Labour recasts international development as an issue of social justice, and makes equality and peace-building central to its strategy for change. Among the many excellent specific policies are renewed support for decent public services across the world, rather than privatization of healthcare and education which has characterized aid spending in recent years; a food sovereignty fund to help small farmers produce sustainable and locally needed food; radical reform of the UK’s development finance institution, the CDC Group, which currently funds some awful private sector projects, into a green development bank; and a shake-up of the international patent system to ensure pharmaceutical giants are unable to prevent hundreds of millions of people getting vital medicines.

The Green Party’s manifesto is also positive, promising an increase in aid, and a pledge to share sustainable technology with countries in the Global South; and an ambitious drug reform policy which looks to ending the devastating war on drugs, which has fuelled so much violence across the world. The SNP calls for a ‘climate justice fund’, mimicking its own fund set up several years ago. 

The power of big business

Perhaps most interesting of all and despite the work of the largely pro-Conservative British media - this is an election which shows neoliberalism is crumbling. Even Johnson, with his love of the free market and harking back to the glory days of Britain’s trading empire, recognizes the serious damage austerity has done to his party’s electoral chances. In this election, he’s rolled back his proposal for tax cuts in favour of spending and investment – even if only at a rhetorical level.

The question is, what replaces the free market for the Right? There is every danger that Johnson, a man who has spent his whole life trying to win power and who will surely do anything to hang onto it, will tack towards Trump. He hopes to win working-class seats in the north of England not by talking up the market, but through nationalism and a reactionary ‘law and order’ policy. Even where this conflicts with democratic norms, Johnson will not flinch. In fact, in an age where climate change and inequality are so severe that more and more people are demanding radical action to tackle the wealth and power of the minority, democracy becomes a real threat to economic privilege.

On the Left, Corbyn has put a strong emphasis on public ownership – of railways, energy and, to some degree, pharmaceutical development and telecommunications (the election was launched with the promise of free public broadband!) – as well as taxation and an ambitious investment programme which would transform Britain from the laggard of Europe.

Politics is in a state of severe flux here, anything could happen, and what happens will not just be felt in Britain. The repercussions of the choice the British people make could be felt for a long time, and a long way from these shores

Who will win? This election is utterly unpredictable. Corbyn is behind in the polls, but catching up rapidly – which is no wonder as he is so consistently demonized in the media –when the public see him out on the campaign trail, they warm to him.

But still, huge numbers of people are still undecided, and parts of Britain are so deeply scared by neoliberal policies, so hopeless about the future, it’s impossible to predict exactly how people will vote. Britain is now a deeply divided country, especially along generational lines with an overwhelmingly Left-leaning, outward-looking younger generation and a Rightwing, insular older generation.

The vote is likely to be close. The result could indeed be another ‘hung parliament’ where no party commands a majority. The price that smaller parties might demand for their support of the bigger parties in this instance could mean the beginning of the end for the United Kingdom, with significant calls for independence in Scotland, and the unification of Ireland. Another election next year is not impossible.

So, dark and cold as the weather might be, this election will be heated because the stakes are so high. One thing seems certain though. Politics is in a state of severe flux here, anything could happen, and what happens will not just be felt in Britain. The repercussions of the choice the British people make could be felt for a long time, and a long way from these shores.

 

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