In the UK, Christmas has come early

In the UK, Christmas has come early

Britain's PM Boris Johnson and Conservative party candidate for the Mansfield constituency Ben Bradley speak with people as they campaign in Mansfield, Britain, November 16, 2019. (Reuters)

As Christmas fast approaches and with it the season of “peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind,” there are many pretend Santa Clauses roaming the streets of the UK. They are not necessarily dressed in red or sporting a white beard, they are neither travelling in a sleigh pulled by reindeer nor are they sliding down chimneys to leave presents for the family. Instead, looking deceptively like ordinary citizens they knock on front doors, and if nobody answers they stuff through the letter box leaflets full of promises, asking the British public to vote for them on the fateful forthcoming general election day of Dec. 12. Genuine presents from real Santas pale into insignificance compared to the versions of heaven on earth that they are promising the electorate if they would only entrust them with running the country for the next five years. It is one of these rituals in which both sides of the equation are playing a charade, even enjoying it, although no one genuinely believes in a fraction of the pledges made by politicians. However, like lottery tickets, they give those who buy into such pledges short-lived illusion.

The 2019 election is like no other in living memory. There is a gigantic Brexit cloud hanging above Britain: The cloud of a fragmented, some might argue broken, political system. According to the Ipsos MORI Veracity Index, less than one in five voters trust British politicians, and this figure was arrived at even before the most recent Brexit deadline of Oct. 31 was missed. It is the public demonstration of dismay of the incompetence and broken promises of the political system, mainly but not exclusively over Brexit, that has left voters disillusioned.

There is a complete and utter Brexit fatigue, to the extent that many have resorted to the view that they no longer care whether the final outcome will be leave or remain, as long as this embarrassing saga is put behind them. Needless to say, this is not a rational approach to a situation where the outcome will be crucial for the long-term interests of the country. But this fatigue and sense of national embarrassment is understandable. It is testimony to the quandary in which UK finds itself, as it faces its third general election in four and a half years, in addition to the Brexit referendum and the Scottish independence referendum, while none of these previous plebiscites have provided any sense of closure.

Opinion polls confirm that Brexit is the most important issue for British voters, but if this is the case a straightforward referendum could have been the most logical option to settle this issue, even if not resolving it entirely. Instead, two years after the previous general election, which produced a hung parliament, the two major parties are dragging the country into a further round of electioneering which is deepening the divisions within the country and will not necessarily produce a conclusive result. And while Brexit rules supreme, other issues are of immense importance: first and foremost is the future of the National Health Service that is suffering from a chronic shortage of resources and the threat of further privatization; but in recent years there has also been massive under-investment in the education system, in the police service and the armed forces, and in transport and affordable housing.

There is a gigantic Brexit cloud hanging above Britain: The cloud of a fragmented, some might argue broken, political system.

Yossi Mekelberg

In this season of goodwill, both main parties are promising substantial investment in public services, but there is little evidence that they have carefully costed these commitments. After more than a decade of enforcing austerity, all of a sudden the leadership of the Conservative Party claims to have miraculously found billions of pounds for investment in public services. Can anyone believe that this is no more than an obvious and short-lived stunt to entice voters? Similarly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s declaration that he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than not deliver Brexit on Oct. 31 left a taste of immaturity, even if it was quite a relief to know that Johnson came to no physical harm after he failed to deliver on that promise.

On the opposition side, things are not much brighter either. Labour has been dithering on Brexit from very early on, and none more so than its leader Jeremy Corbyn. His promise to negotiate a better deal should they win next month’s election should encourage Remainers to vote for him, but what better deal is he going to obtain? One can think of many versions of a Brexit agreement that are a huge improvement on the one Johnson has signed up to, but it would be helpful for the average confused voter to know what issues Labour would like to renegotiate, especially those concerning the freedom of movement. 

Labour’s nationalization plans for the water and energy utilities, for the railways and the Royal Mail service, are attractive, as privatization has not brought about the promised benefits of healthy competition with better services at reasonable cost to consumers. Instead, it has created mini-monopolies that have provided mediocre services, increased prices and worse deals for employees. However, the estimated cost of nationalization is £196 billion, equivalent to all income tax paid by UK citizens in a year. It might be an unrealistic objective, and instead it may be wiser to take a more progressive approach which combines rigorous regulation and the compulsory involvement of employees in running these services.

There is little enthusiasm for this forthcoming election and even less for its result, as both Johnson and Corbyn are far from capturing the public’s imagination. Both fall short when it comes to competence and integrity and both are populists in their own different ways. Both have shown lack of coherent policies over Brexit, and in addition Labour has failed to adequately address the persistent anti-Semitism within its ranks, just as the Conservative Party has failed to deal with its own ingrained Islamophobia. Under these circumstances, come Dec. 12 we might witness large parts of the population tactically voting in their constituencies, based on the issues that most concern them, and with little enthusiasm for any of the parties or their candidates.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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