UK voters not feeling lucky ahead of Johnson-Corbyn election

UK voters not feeling lucky ahead of Johnson-Corbyn election

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Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn debate on the BBC. (Reuters)

For voters, election seasons have generally become something that resembles buying a lottery ticket. For a brief moment, one deludes oneself that tomorrow holds a better future than today, as if miraculously getting the winning numbers right or voting for a particular party will usher in a bright new beginning. In both cases, there is a rude awakening awaiting the vast majority, as their hopes are dashed rather quickly. While the odds of winning the UK lottery jackpot are about 1 in 45 million, one can only hope that selecting our parliamentary representatives, and hence the makeup of the next government, has a better chance of producing a more promising future than there has been for quite some time.
Although voting influences the daily life of each and every citizen — from health to security, economic prosperity, education, and even the quality of the air we breathe — we have very little trust in those we vote for. The Ipsos MORI Veracity Index of 2019 found that politicians are the least-trusted professionals in Britain, commanding the respect of only 14 percent of the public. And this survey was conducted even before the 2019 general election campaign had started. Just imagine what the result would be if the same question was put to the British populace after weeks of them being exposed to mountains of empty promises that, in most cases, are greeted with great skepticism; reflecting a complete distrust of politicians’ ability to tell the truth.
In this case, consulting the parties’ manifestos is almost an exercise in futility. At the end of the day, the party in power should be judged by its record in government, and those that challenge it by the prospect and conviction of its leadership and policies. Neither of the two main parties has remotely ignited the imagination of the British electorate.
Understandably, the 2019 model of British politics has been severely crippled by the Brexit calamity — an issue that most parties have not covered themselves in glory with their handling of, including the two main contenders for power, the Conservatives and Labour. If the 2019 election campaign was an opportunity for them to redeem themselves on the most crucial issue for the nation since the end of the Second World War, both have failed miserably in terms of a coherent approach to future relations with the EU; and even being truthful with the British people that leaving the EU is a long and bumpy road into the unknown, putting at risk the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland itself.
Boris Johnson, who according to polls is likely to retain his residency in 10 Downing Street, has the biggest challenge to gain the trust of the British people, and not only on Brexit. For someone who previously declared that he would rather “die in a ditch” than not achieve his initial timeline on Brexit, there is another ditch waiting for him in the form of the new deadline for leaving the EU by the end of January 2020. Should he win Thursday’s election, he might pull the Brexit trigger, but this will be the first step in many years of negotiations with our European neighbors and on how we trade with the rest of the world; and it most certainly won’t bring closure.
How can Johnson be entrusted with such complex negotiations after he struck a Brexit deal clearly inferior to the unattractive one signed by his predecessor Theresa May and that he opposed vehemently, while in the process breaking his promises about the Irish backstop?
Johnson’s sheer opportunism on Brexit comes up against Jeremy Corbyn’s unconvincing approach on the matter, which epitomizes the Labour leader’s lack of the required characteristics to become prime minster. His promise of a second referendum on Brexit should be applauded, even if it was made under duress from his party. Nevertheless, his declaration of “neutrality” on whether we should stay or leave falls somewhere between the ridiculous and the pathetic. How can a serious candidate for prime minister be neutral on such a crucial issue for the country he aspires to lead in the next five years? By all accounts, Corbyn is a closet Brexiteer and, had he wanted to command any trust, let alone respect, he should have come clean on it with the electorate, while still presenting himself as a champion in giving the British people the final decision. This would have been a much more credible approach.
Despite this election turning into a mini-referendum on Brexit, issues such as the lack of funding of the National Health Service, the rising costs of housing and education, and the increasing inability of the growing population of retirees to be able to survive on their pension, are of deep concern to most voters. Both parties are offering miracles instead of solutions, anchored by overused formulas. The Conservatives would like us to believe that they can improve public services with a minimal increase in investment, while Labour promises massive budgetary increases but without being honest that it will not only be the very wealthy who pay for it. Neither is realistic.

Neither of the two main parties has remotely ignited the imagination of the British electorate.

Yossi Mekelberg

And, on one of the simplest and most obvious issues for Johnson and Corbyn to take a principled stand on — that of racism in their parties — they have failed miserably. Anti-Semitism in Labour and Islamophobia among the Conservatives have not been handled with the conviction and determination both deserve and require, which taints both parties and especially their leaders, leaving a cloud of suspicion hanging over them personally.
When people cast their vote on Thursday, many will do so not in the joyful hope of celebrating democracy and a better future, but as an exercise in damage limitation. Strangely enough, for those who see neither Johnson nor Corbyn as a suitable prime minister, their big hope is that the polls are wrong again and the election will result in a hung Parliament. This might not be conducive to effective governance, but at least it may prevent either side from pushing the country to the brink of becoming irrelevant.

  • 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. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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