LONDON – “In my very humble opinion there’s hardly anybody in any of the parties that you would put your life on the line for. We need somebody who’s got a little bit of guts to get us all going” declared Brenda of Bristol to a BBC interviewer gauging reactions to the announcement by Prime Minister Theresa May that there would be a British general election on June 8.
Brenda never expected that her off the cuff remarks would go viral as they did in the media. They struck a chord with many. Disillusionment with politics and irritation that Britons were being asked to vote for the third time in just over two years could lead to a low turnout.
May’s decision to call a snap election after repeatedly saying she would not do so has dented her reputation for honesty. This has also been knocked by the reasons she gave for her decision. She said that she was concerned by the opposition in Parliament to her strategy for negotiating the terms for Brexit. In fact she had never lost a vote in the House of Commons not least because the opposition Labour Party is schizophrenic about Brexit. Her call for unity rang hollow as she has done nothing to appease the 48 percent of the electorate who voted to remain in the EU.
May’s real reasons for calling an election are related to party politics. The Labour Party leadership is feeble and divided. Even some staunch Labour supporters would rate May as a more convincing candidate to lead the country than Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
May also aims to win a personal mandate and bring the various factions in her Conservative Party under her sway. The former may be easier than the latter. She is by upbringing a “one nation” Tory who wants to win votes from ordinary working people, but the hard Brexiters in her government and party have grown arrogant and support increasingly right-wing policies.
None of the parties have yet published their election manifestos. Not many voters will read these in full and the drafters of the Tory manifesto will not want to give hostages to fortune by repeating in detail the campaign promises made by the party in 2015 on taxes and old age pensions that limited the government’s room for maneuver over the economy.
The Brexit negotiations will be important for some voters and much will be said about immigration, sovereignty and “freedom” from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Defense issues especially Britain’s nuclear deterrent will also be used to challenge the Labour Party.
But as U.S. President Bill Clinton famously said, “it’s the economy, stupid.” This is where the electorate is likely to put the greatest emphasis, although most attention will be given to socio-economic issues, particularly the National Health Service and social care for the elderly. There is no disagreement on the basic principles of the NHS but there is ample room for argument about funding, accident and emergency services, provisions for mental health and the conditions of nurses and junior doctors. The need for improvements to social care for the elderly is widely recognized but it is unclear how this can be paid for.
Another key topic will be devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as to the English regions. Cuts in local services as a result of the austerity policies pursued by George Osborne, the former chancellor of the Exchequer, could also lead to hot debate.
May’s government has already postponed the achievement of a budget surplus, but the Tories will once again argue that it is the only party that can be trusted with the public finances. They will accuse the Labour Party of profligacy and declare it incapable of running the economy efficiently.
All parties will attack tax dodgers. Business”fat cats” will be damned and the bankers won’t find any sympathy. A key issue for all voters will be promises of tax cuts or hints of tax rises.
The parties can’t afford to forget about pensioners. Their numbers are increasing every year and they constitute the largest group likely to vote especially as the popularity of postal voting has increased.
Although it seems that this is a two horse race between May and Corbyn with the odds very much on the former, the other smaller parties in the election cannot be simply classed as “also-rans.”
The Scottish Nationalist Party is run by Nicola Sturgeon, one of the cleverest politicians of her generation, whom May has gone out of her way to offend. The SNP may not have quite such an overwhelming victory in Scotland as it had in 2015, but the future of Scotland and its relationship with England are important factors in the election.
Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to remain in the EU, but it is deeply divided between Unionists, who want to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Sinn Fein, which seeks a united Ireland. Wales, which voted to leave the EU, is predominantly Labour supporting, but the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru may get a few seats. The Green Party, which won one seat in 2015, will try again but has little chance of increasing its representation. The UK Independence Party is fighting on but with a government committed to Brexit it has to reinvent itself.
The Liberal Democrats, punished for joining the Tories in coalition in 2010 and reduced to eight seats at the last election in 2015, could make gains as they are the only party that continues to represent the interests of the many who voted to remain in the EU. It also has some experienced and effective supporters. They have already made it clear that they would not join a coalition with Labour. They appeal to the liberal center ground in British politics, an area sadly depleted by the right-wing swing in the Tory party and avowedly left-wing policies advocated by the Labour Party’s Corbynites.
The polls have suggested the possibility of a landslide victory for May with perhaps a majority of over 100 seats or even more. But a lot can happen before June 8. A terrorist incident remains sadly a possibility. The French election results cannot be ignored. U.S. President Donald Trump is an unpredictable factor. North Korea, Iran and Syria are all danger spots. The Russians will doubtless try to upset the electoral process by some injudicious hacking. Embarrassing gaffes or political scandals are always possible.
Even if electioneering runs relatively smoothly, turnout can be affected by the weather as well as by the Brenda factor. May cannot yet be certain of the size of her likely majority.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.