Britain goes to the polls on December 12, in what could be the most important general election in a generation. Boris Johnson’s increasingly right-wing and chaotic Conservative Party is generally seen as the likely victor, but Labour’s left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn could once again surprise commentators. Whatever the result, the ongoing story of Britain’s crisis of identity and its relationship with the European Union (EU) is likely to continue.
Currently, polls make depressing reading for those of us on the left. The governing Conservatives are polling a steady 10% more than Labour, and in a winner-takes-all first-past-the-post voting system, are on target for a landslide victory.
Boris Johnson was elected Conservative leader and thus Prime Minister in August. He has had a rocky ride, taking his governing majority down to minus 43, after expelling MPs who would not support his hardline anti-European stance. However, his main policy to fix the Brexit crisis and negotiate an exit from the EU looks like a winning strategy.
Since the referendum in 2016, when Britons narrowly voted to leave the EU, the European question has dominated British politics. Voters, whether for or against Brexit, are weary with delay and uncertainty, and look likely to be persuaded by a promise to finally leave and settle the debate, so things can move on.
Media backs Boris
The British media are fully behind Boris. There are suggestions that the BBC have edited news footage to make Boris Johnson look better.
The pro-EU remain vote is split between several political parties and the pro-leave camp is increasingly firmly voting for the Conservatives. The right-wing Brexit Party is refusing to contest Conservative seats. A recent poll by the Economist magazine puts the Conservatives well ahead of Labour with 44% of the vote in the previous solidly Labour but pro-leave working-class constituency of Great Grimsby.
Britain’s billionaires and hedge funds have been pouring money into the Conservative campaign.
Every day since he was elected Labour leader back in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn has been attacked relentlessly, labelled an anti-Semite and a friend of terrorists. Former Labour MP Ian Austin was wheeled out in the first week of the election, to condemn Corbyn and insist that Labour voters should vote for the Conservatives.
The election result could lead to a large majority for an increasingly right-wing Conservative Party. More centre-right MPs have been expelled from the party and Johnson is known to be close to United States President Donald Trump. Trump will be visiting Britain shortly before the election and a significant trade deal with the US could see the reengineering of British society.
Britain’s beloved National Health Service, a socialist medical institution, could be privatised and sold to US health corporations, as part of any Trump deal. Trexit, a Brexit favouring Trump, could result in an assault on trade unions, animal welfare conditions and environmental standards.
Johnson is taking other lessons from the Trump playbook. If elected, he has promised to introduce identity checks to make voting more difficult and is likely to redraw constituency boundaries to cement Conservative domination in future elections.
The Centre for Social Justice, a Conservative-sympathetic think tank, has revealed plans to raise the pension age from 67 years to as much as 75.
However, a Conservative victory is less likely than the bleak polling figures suggest. There is a possibility that in 2019 there will be a repeat of the 2017 General Election. When former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called an election with the promise of exiting from the EU, hoping to take working-class votes, she too was riding high in the polls.
May went to the election with even stronger polls than Johnson — on average 20%. She looked likely to win a huge majority on a right-wing programme. Instead, on election day the Conservatives polled 42%, closely followed by Corbyn’s party on 40% and she lost her majority.
Media campaign against Corbyn
Corbyn is unpopular with the British media and some older voters, but he still has a number of advantages. His clear left-wing program for tackling climate change and ending austerity has allowed Labour to build a membership of more than half a million people. This gives it a formidable election machine able to mobilise voters on election day.
Corbyn is also very popular among young voters, who have been registering to vote in record numbers. “Grime4Corbyn” is just one dimension of the rush from musicians to support him. Corbyn has performed well in the first two General Election debates and the more voters see of him in action the more they like him.
The third party, the centre-right Liberal Democrats, seems to be being squeezed. While strongly pro-EU, the party looks likely to support the Conservatives, as it did in the governing coalition between 2010–15. However, there is huge pressure to vote tactically for Labour in key marginal constituencies to beat the Conservatives.
Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson was ridiculed after a poor performance in a televised debate. Her assertion that she would press the button and launch a nuclear war if necessary has also gone down badly. A bizarre social media hoax that she hated squirrels and hunted them with a rifle has also gone down badly in a nation of animal lovers.
All this helps Corbyn. However, it is far from certain that Labour will close the gap this time around and the election race has a number of additional complexities.
In the north of Ireland, where the Conservatives are a fringe party without MPs and Labour does not run candidates, whoever wins the present government loses.
The right-wing sectarian Democratic Unionists, who feel betrayed by Johnson after supporting his government, won’t help him in a future parliament.
A range of pro-remain parties, including Sinn Fein and the Greens, have stood down candidates in key constituencies to maximise the vote of anti-sectarian and pro-EU candidates.
In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has risen sharply in the polls and looks likely to take constituencies from both Labour and the Conservatives. While Labour has traditionally been a pro-union party and has lost support to the SNP, it is possible that the SNP would give a Labour minority government support after December 12, perhaps in return for a new referendum on Scottish independence.
The Green Party of England and Wales is running more than 470 candidates.
The Scottish Green Party is an independent party and the Northern Irish Greens is a regional party in the Republic of Ireland.
In 2017, it promoted a progressive alliance to challenge the Conservatives. This proved unpopular with Green Party members and Labour refused to participate. This time, it is running a controversial “remain alliance” with Welsh party Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats.
This has been condemned as a move to the right, as the Liberal Democrats supported David Cameron’s Conservative government and now includes many former Conservative MPs.
There is also a risk that Greens candidates will split the vote in some marginal constituencies and deliver victory to Johnson. However, in a number of marginal seats such as Canterbury, the Greens have stood down.
The complexities of the British political scene make any description of the situation difficult. However, a Labour Party fighting on a clear socialist program might just win and change British political history.
Corbyn has promised a new vote on the EU and is perhaps the only leader trying to bridge the divisions on the EU among British voters. Whether he can win — in the face of a well-funded right-wing Conservative Party, strongly supported by the media, Trump and Britain’s billionaires — remains to be seen.
Corbyn certainly has some fight in him and is boldly in solidarity with all those in struggle. Typically, he tweeted in support of striking university workers: “Staff at universities are striking over the next eight days, and I stand with them. University staff deserve fair pay, secure contracts, reasonable workloads and decent pensions. Labour will end the marketisation of education, and we'll put staff and students first.”
With a wave of strikes, including by university lecturers and rail workers, it is clear that militancy is rising in Britain, so win or lose on December 12, the Conservatives face an increasingly united and vibrant left.
[Derek Wall is a former international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales.]