Realism in short supply as UK election approaches

Realism in short supply as UK election approaches

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn walk through the Commons Members Lobby in Parliament. (Reuters) 

The 2019 UK election campaign has now entered its final sprint as all the political parties have released their manifestos. Interestingly, they go well beyond Brexit, painting a picture of what Britain should look like by the middle of the century.

However, Brexit does loom large. The Conservatives never tire of declaring that “getting Brexit done” equals fulfilling the democratic mandate of the 2016 referendum. Taking back control of money, laws and borders is a large part of their manifesto. They say they will take the country out of the EU by Jan. 31 and that Boris Johnson will have negotiated a favorable trade deal with the EU by December next year. The transition period will end then in any case — again opening the backdoor to a no-deal Brexit. The Conservatives claim that being out of the EU would free up resources to spend on many other priorities.

The Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party (SNP) advocate stopping Brexit. They are both in favor of a second referendum but, when Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson asserted she would campaign to stop Brexit even if that referendum returned a leave vote, it was not well received by voters and she had to backtrack somewhat. The Lib Dems managed to convince several MPs from both Labour and the Tories to join them and their popularity surged in late summer. However, they have lost points since their party conference and their rhetoric has turned more moderate. Still, the Lib Dems claim a £50 billion ($64 billion) “remain bonus,” although it remains unclear exactly how they calculated that eye-watering sum.

The SNP also insist on a second referendum on Scottish independence, especially if the UK exits the EU. Leader Nicola Sturgeon insists that Scotland would then be free to join the EU on its own. While that may go down well with her voters, there is no official position from the EU on the subject as of yet.

Labour claims that Jeremy Corbyn would negotiate — within three months — a “better” deal with the EU than either Theresa May or Johnson managed, and then put this deal to the people with an option to remain. Corbyn would remain neutral in the referendum campaign, allowing his flock to vote with their conscience.

Elections are the time for politicians to make promises. The British people have had enough of 10 years of austerity. This explains why all parties promise a spending spree. The Tories say they will put 20,000 new policemen on the street, refurbish 20 hospitals, build new ones, hire 50,000 nurses and put an extra £1 billion into social care. They also promise to fund schools to the tune of £14 billion. The Tories promise to make the UK a net zero carbon emissions country by 2050, delivering 90 percent of electricity and 50 percent of heat from renewable sources. They promise to spend 3 percent of annual gross domestic product on innovation and support the “Northern Powerhouse” proposal, including high-speed transport links. The Conservatives are the only ones to so far produce a costing document, although it looks optimistic.

The Lib Dems and the Greens are the most radical in promising a green new deal. The Lib Dems promise a 10-year emergency program to cut greenhouse gases and offer big investments in schools, with free childcare for all. The National Health Service (NHS) and social care are big priorities for them. However, it is doubtful the promised remain bonus will be enough to fund their ambitious program.

Not since the Margaret Thatcher years has a party and presumptive prime minister proposed embarking on as ambitious a program of economic and social reengineering as Labour does now. Its manifesto is entitled “It’s time for real change” and proposes the renationalization of railways, telecoms, mail and energy. It wants to increase the health budget by 4.3 percent per annum and put more money into social care and schools. A Labour government would also bring free high-speed internet access to all corners of the country. The Tories claim the Labour program would result in a spending increase of £1.2 trillion, the equivalent of an average of £2,400 for every taxpayer. Not so, says Labour. It claims that a wealth tax and tax hikes for high earners would fund their ambitious program. A classic “he said, she said” scenario.

The British people have had enough of 10 years of austerity. This explains why all parties promise a spending spree.

Cornelia Meyer

Few voters will look at how the aspirations and promises can be funded, and none of the parties are too clear about that either. It is more of an “it will be all right on the night, just trust us” approach. While it is good and necessary to improve public services after a decade of them having been scaled down due to austerity budgets, a realistic approach is also important. In the end, politics is the art of the possible.

The Dec. 12 vote is easily the most important general election for a generation. There are alliances, such as the pact between the Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru not to compete against each other in 60 seats, and the Brexit Party not fielding candidates in Conservative-held constituencies. Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair asked the electorate to engage in tactical voting to avoid either Johnson or Corbyn gaining a majority, both of whom he sees as a danger to the future of the country. If we are to believe the latest YouGov poll, the Tories are in the lead.

In the end, voters will have to choose between the Brexit options on offer; while they can also express a preference on more or less influence of the state. The latter choices remain unclear though, because none of the programs are realistically costed or seem particularly achievable.

  • Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macroeconomist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources
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