Opinionista Peter Hain 9 December 2019

Toxic Tories look set to win UK elections

Boris Johnson’s Conservative government is the worst in living memory, and his hard-right agenda is poisonous, but despite this, the Tories are still leading Labour in the latest opinion polls.

In today’s Britain of Brexit toxicity and populist volatility, predicting election outcomes is a mug’s game, so best not to volunteer for that.

Last week’s polls showed Boris Johnson’s Tories leading Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour by nine points, down from 14 a month ago, but still big.

A mammoth parliamentary constituency-by-constituency poll showed the Tories beating Labour by 148 MPs, giving them a comfortable majority over all other parties of 68.

The polls have shown a consistent if narrowing Tory lead since the election began over a month ago – and for many months before that. Commentators suggest voters have long made up their minds, particularly since they are mightily fed up with the three years of crises over Brexit, so Johnson’s mantra of “we’ll get Brexit done” is music to their ears. Of course it certainly “won’t be done” by the end of January as he promises: that will simply be the end of the beginning of years of tortuous trade negotiations.

Corbyn’s entourage also point to his unexpected surge from nearly as far behind in the 2017 election to end up nearly level in voter share but, in Britain’s first-past-the-post single constituency system, still some 60 seats short.

And who knows what the effect may be from the extraordinary intervention of former Tory prime minister John Major urging people to vote tactically against Johnson?

If Johnson wins, his neoliberal Hard Right, Hard Brexit agenda will have delivered the majority he craves.

And if so, his even harder right Tory members and MPs (their ranks purged of centrist Brexit-sceptical Tories) could well demand what Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party wanted all along: namely a complete de-aligning from a 40-year-plus trade relationship with by far the UK’s biggest economic partner: the European Union, which accounts for half the UK’s global trade and services. That would be the outcome of a “No Deal” or “Clean Break” as Brexiteers variously advocate it.

It would also guarantee a resurrected customs and security border on the island of Ireland, toxic for the peace process, not to mention a probable exit of Scotland from the UK. So much for the Tories’ official label as the Conservative and Unionist Party.

Labour’s campaign in key seats has attracted vast numbers of activists to knock on doors, and huge enthusiastic crowds at Jeremy Corbyn’s meetings and rallies. He has no peer in his ability to fill any town or city hall to overflowing anywhere in Britain. Yet his negative poll ratings are worse than any of his Labour leader predecessors.

The frustration for Labour members like me who have been canvassing on doorsteps is that Johnson’s Conservative government is the worst in living memory, and his hard-right agenda is poisonous. His first step will be Trump-type tax cuts, while people wait or die on hospital trolleys in queues for operations or spend forever on lists for urgent appointments.

Because of chronic underfunding these past 10 Tory years, Britain’s cherished National Health Service is at breaking point, short of thousands of doctors and nurses, many of these having fled due to Brexit. Elderly-care services are at breaking point, exponentially rising dementia cases are causing misery for families across the country.

But at least we Labour supporters were cheered by a Guardian article by Susanna Kierkegaard, a Swedish journalist, who announced that she was coming over from Sweden “to volunteer for the Labour party, handing out flyers and knocking on doors. Having grown up in Sweden, I already know some of Jeremy Corbyn’s proposed policies can work. I’ve benefited from free school lunches, have had access to university without tuition fees, and received free dental checkups into my 20s.”

Studying at Oxford University a few years ago she described how “the cultural difference was shocking as I got a glimpse of the class divide in Britain and what life outside the Scandinavian welfare model looks like. People were sleeping rough all over the city. My fellow students often needed counselling to help cope with the financial stress caused by debt, tuition fees and high living costs. Mental health problems and anxiety were more the rule than the exception.

“‘While social democracy in Scandinavia is slowly being eroded, for me the Labour Party has started to represent something beyond just change in the UK, and feels like it could be a force for transformation on the left across Europe. Where Sweden’s Social Democrats have lost the plot, the UK now has an opportunity to undo years of austerity and stop the constant scapegoating of migrants. Corbyn may not be everyone’s cup of tea. He has taken the Labour Party in a new direction. He has remained frustratingly neutral on a Brexit referendum. He still needs to deal with anti-Semitism within the party.

Still, I think the number of radical new ideas that the party has presented for this election shows that Labour has the potential to lead the way for social democracy in Europe. We want a chance to build something new and radical, not just fix the current, malfunctioning system.”

Meanwhile, I have predicted for a year now that Brexit will get worse. And it still will as Johnson’s Tories, cleansed of their centrists, are poised to drive forward regardless.

Regardless of the proven cost in jobs and prosperity. Regardless of a likely hard Irish border. Regardless of Britain’s diminished status in the world. And so on and so on.

What a way to run a country once admired – if not necessarily for its policies (especially in its plundering, racist colonial times), at least for its reliability and stability. DM

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