British Election Tragedy (?)

Theresa May had set an election on June 8, and the polls indicate that it could very well backfire for her. When she had announced the election in April and had the parliament vote for it on April 19, the Tories were leading by 20-25 points. Now the polls narrowed to 5-10 points, and some polling agencies would go as far as predicting a hung parliament. The gap had narrowed as the electorate is searching for a political alternative amid the turbulent Brexit negotiations. It still takes some time for people to link their political dissatisfaction with the Tory policies of austerity, especially for local, social and health services. In this article, I claim that the British people are better off voting for Labour and have them negotiate the Brexit than the Conservatives.

Needless to say, it would be a tragedy for the Conservatives to win re-election (and they might given that polls tend to skew Labour, while election results favor Conservative), but there is now mounting evidence that May had miscalculated and that the expected expansion of a Tory majority was too ambitious. May had thought she could wing the elections and be guaranteed more support in the current leadership, so she “can negotiate a good deal for Britain” amid Brexit. Part of the challenge for her comes from the poor handling of the conservative campaign. Because she thought that she would win by a landslide, she refused to participate in a leadership debate, which to her is not as useful as “being quizzed by the British people”, even as she cancels the last interviews right before the election. May is clearly not a seasoned politician, as she excels better sitting behind closed chambers as opposed to performing in public and debating with an opponent that has better arguments than her.

Her second mistake was that her smug attitude had emboldened her party to put forward a draconian social agenda, which revolves around reducing social care and pensions spending, both areas hitting the core Tory voters (senior citizens) really hard. Will her loyal voters call out the Tories for their stupid austerity? The conservatives backtracked on these cuts, but who will believe them?

Relatedly, the third problem is a matter of credibility. It was the Conservatives, who called for the EU referendum, hoping to undercut the EU-skeptic Tories and the UKIP, which had much more support back then (now no longer, because the independence desires of the Independence Party are realized by the Brexit, so what’s the point of voting for them now?). Blaming EU migrants was also a convenient way to cover up the folly of austerity. (“You lose your pension because of the benefits for EU migrants and the EU contributions.” No, because of Tory austerity!) Then they (both David Cameron, then-prime minister, and Theresa May) had campaigned for remain, but now that the narrow Brexit vote was realized, Cameron retreated and May announced to carry out the Brexit, even as she was opposed to it.

How are people going to trust the Tories when they are so unreliable, and with the full extent of the Brexit might have caused the greatest economic calamity in recent British history? Also, why does May first say she does not want to vote until 2020, and now says that this is what she will do? Her reasoning was that there are some people in her own party and in the opposition that want to undermine her political position (and she really trusted the polls to get the landslide).

The political weakness and lack of credibility of the May administration is counter-balanced by the growing popularity of her nemesis, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Having been shouted down by the Blairite centrists, who are only different from conservative policy in that they support moderately greater social spending, but otherwise support the same neoliberal initiatives, Corbyn had risen to the Labour leadership since the last parliamentary elections two years ago to return to a more classic social democratic agenda. Corbyn is not a charismatic figure, as his speeches appeal mainly to more intellectual audiences, who rightfully attack austerity policies.

The Blairites were in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and fought back against Corbyn by pushing for a second leadership election after the Brexit referendum. The Blairites were represented by Owen Smith, who ironically supported a similarly populist agenda to Corbyn, claiming that he would be taken more seriously by the mainstream media, i.e. he will fake left (for the public) and act right (for the media and the powerful), the oldest trick in the hat. Corbyn’s party supporters were not fooled and mobilized for a second time to re-affirm Corbyn at the party leadership, but this time all of the attempted caesar-murderers in the PLP resigned their positions, and Corbyn had to fill the shadow cabinet positions with younger and less experienced allies.

Corbyn is not only opposed by his own party but also by the entire business community and the powerful media conglomerates, who control the political discourse in Britain (some newspapers like Independent and Guardian have exceptionally pro-Corbyn coverage). No wonder that Corbyn had been viewed so negatively by the public. But the election campaign changes the picture, as Labour more successfully mobilizes in their campaign trips. The young voters are overwhelmingly favoring Corbyn, though they are not voting in the same numbers. Now the older voters will have to recognize their self-interest and give their vote for the Labour Party, which could create a political upset. Further, the higher the vote participation rate the better for Labour.

On the other hand, the overall strategic position for the Labour Party is less favorable than for the Tories, because the Tories rely on the English heartland, which has the most amount of seats. Labour is fighting off Plaid Cymru in Wales and, more importantly, was literally wiped off the map in Scotland after the SNP had won most of the Scottish seats. It would be big if Labour could even receive some more seats and thus undermine a possible new Conservative administration.

There is a genuine choice for the British electorate, though I am not so sure whether the short amount of time that is given to the campaign (less than two months) will give people enough time to think about their choices. To some extent, that is what the Tories think will directly benefit them. The short campaign will lower the public exposure that the destructive Tory agenda will receive and time for the public to recognize the utter incompetence of the May administration. Also, Labour benefits from a high voter participation, while the Tories want a lower voter participation, because in that case it tend to be the older Tory voters, whose vote carry the biggest weight.

More importantly, the May administration justifies the short campaign with the 2 year time frame that Britain has to negotiate a Brexit deal with the EU. Article 50 was triggered in March, so March 2019 is the deadline for the Brexit negotiations. May argues that she needs to have a big majority, so she can negotiate the Brexit and have it be rubber-stamped by the parliament. But why is she the person and the party that should have the majority? Further, what can the UK expect from a Brexit?

The downside risk is substantial, because losing access to the single market will force the British to potentially pay tariffs for exports and reduce overall trade as parts and goods that seamlessly cross the channel are now subject to border checks. The UK government prefers access to the single market, but knows that it probably won’t work without guaranteeing the right of all EU nationals to stay, live and work in Britain. May can’t bring herself to sell it to the voters given that the sentiment for Brexit derives from the angst and anger against EU migrants taking British jobs. The fear has no basis in reality, and, in fact, by making it harder for qualified EU migrant workers to enter Britain, the health or transportation service will face shortages that can’t be filled by British nationals.

Within the EU there is not much of an appetite to be lenient on the British, given that the Eastern Europeans have sent a large contingent of their people to Britain, and the Poles are not really keen to welcome all of their compatriots back given that they have more opportunities and income in Britain. Poland is thus unlikely to back a weakening of the free movement of people within the EU. But even other EU countries are unwilling to grant a generous Brexit deal, given that they all belong to the pro-EU political establishment and are unwilling to have more countries leave, thus resulting in a full implosion of the EU. That’s where we would be had Marine LePen won the French presidential elections.

The European leaders, who want to maintain the EU, therefore, have every interest to make it as difficult as possible for the British to leave the EU to discourage more countries from taking that step. But that is really a reflection of the failure of the EU at the present moment. The EU used to inspire people based on the idea of peace and unity, but they have now gotten to a stage to have to defend a construct by the barrel of a gun. “We are bad, but the alternative is worse.” If the EU leaders can’t come up with better ways to address dissatisfaction (e.g. by easing on austerity, promoting eurobonds, and a new Marshall plan), the EU will fall apart in a matter of a decade or two.

British nationalists will latch onto the apparent crisis of legitimacy of the EU, and merely state that they are about to end a project on which they had always been quite lukewarm. But the death of the EU is a long-term process of decline, while the immediate pain to the British population is acute and might not be worth the sacrifice. To be quite frank, I thought the worst thing that would happen with Brexit was that Britain would become another Switzerland or Norway. Naturally, given the relative size of the British economy (second largest behind Germany), they would get some nice deal, such as perhaps a British negotiator working in “consultation” with EU negotiators for international trade deals, but the four freedoms would remain untouched (including access tot he single market and free movement of people). But that’s not the intention of the May administration.

“No deal is better than a bad deal”, says Theresa May over and over again with little regard for the negative repercussions for Britain. May has no basis on which to walk out from negotiations given that its economic fate is so closely linked to what happens across the channel. And how is Britain going to negotiate the over 700 trade treaties that the EU currently has across the world? It is another empty bluff, or let’s call it a lie.

Now the relevant question for the British electorate (given that the EU-internal issues can’t be solved in the next few days) is whether prime minister Corbyn would produce better results for Britain in a Brexit negotiation? Corbyn clearly backs the Brexit, having himself only lukewarmly endorsed the remain campaign. Corbyn’s reservation is similar to my own position, which is that EU workers rights do make sense, but that when it comes to the essential topics of public interest the EU is incompetent at best (no common social policy) and harmful at worst (permanent austerity and pro-business “competition” policy).

We can’t know whether Corbyn will be a skillful politician, and I suspect that a left-wing leader leading the Brexit negotiations is in no more of a desirable position than Syriza when it won elections the first time in 2015 and having to negotiate with hyenas at the IMF and the EU without pity or economic foresight. The only thing that would endear a Corbyn premiership to the electorate is that he would argue for a soft Brexit, which would be in line with what I had proposed. The Tories will put him up as a sell-out, and any residual dips in the economy in the form of a recession will be blamed on him, yet the Tories would have to account for a counterfactual of even more economic deterioration under a hard Brexit.

A soft Brexit may also allow the Corbyn administration to promote a greater investment agenda, higher taxes on corporations and high-income earners, and a needed shoring up of university and health care funding. That in turn will make the British people more relaxed, and I subsequently wish the Labour Party the best in the general elections.

On a final note, will the three recent terrorist attacks (two in London and one in Manchester) swing the vote either way? One might think a terrorist attack helps the governing party, but one does not get the feeling in the polls, which means that either voters are more concerned about other issues or that voters realize the gross incompetence of the Tory government, which has slashed public security and police spending amid these terrorist attacks.

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