The Election Choice: Labour Boldness Or Tory Timidness
This is the “get Brexit done” election. Or so Boris Johnson would have us believe. His line that nothing else can be done until Brexit is sorted may go down well with many leave voters, but others may not be convinced. Nor is Johnson himself, as his boastful claim that he is already delivering on the promises he made before parliament was adjourned, clearly prove. He, and his right-wing government want Brexit done so they can embark on their plan to further deregulate the economy and shrink the state, which to their regret remains roughly the size it was in 2010.
The long-term budget aim of a Johnson government is to reduce public spending as a proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP), so that in real terms it will be spending less, making more room for tax give-aways to business and the rich. The short-term policy is to increase public spending in cash terms to at least partly address the serious damage done to families and the public services by Tory austerity policies since 2010. The damaging effects of austerity have been verified by independent analysis, but Tory Home Secretary Priti Patel has refused to accept that her government is responsible. Nothing to do with us, guv! And Boris Johnson, claiming that austerity was wrong, having supported it in principle and practice, is yet again being dishonest with voters.
Tory Chancellor Sajid David criticised Labour’s spending plans claiming that they amount to an extra £1.2 trillion, before Labour had actually published its manifesto. £1.2 trillion is a bogus figure, calculated by taking Labour’s spending intentions announced in the 2017 election and adding them to all the spending policies adopted at Labour’s annual conferences since then. But Labour, unlike the Tories, has costed in detail all its intended spending, as it did in 2017. At the launch of the Tory manifesto Sajid David said that their plans were “responsible and fully costed”, without providing any detail.
According to Sajid David a Tory government will spend more within “fiscally responsible” budgets; a euphemism for tighter spending and lower taxes. This coincides neatly with Johnson’s pledge not to raise income tax, VAT or national insurance for five years. But this can only mean more borrowing to pay for extra public spending. So having promised since 2010 to get the national debt down to a more manageable level, a promise they have failed to deliver, the Tories now intend to increase it further. Moreover, Johnson’s promise of more public spending will take it to about the level Ed Miliband proposed in the 2015 election campaign and for which he was criticised by the Tories.
Labour’s manifesto was described as “Marxist” by the Tory press. This is an absurd use of the term. Broadly speaking its ambitions are in line with those of other social democratic parties in Europe, although more radical in some areas. Even more absurd is the notion that nationalisation is crackpot and communist, as Johnson described the proposal to part nationalise BT. The most popular nationalised institution in England, described by former Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson as the jewel in the crown, is the NHS. Presumably, Johnson believes that is also communist.
As well as its commitment to provide substantial extra funds for the NHS, a key Labour promise is to reinstate the nurse’s bursary, taken away by the Tories, which financially assists the training of new recruits to the nursing profession. Currently, there are about 100,000 vacancies in the NHS, of which nurses account for more than 40,000. The recruitment of nurses within the UK will help to ease the pressure on health services overseas. As a quid pro quo for the reinstatement of the nurse’s bursary Labour should make it a condition that newly qualified nurses commit to staying in the NHS for at least five years.
Labour is also committed to building 100,000 council houses a year over a five year period, plus 50,000 housing association homes. These would be at an affordable rent. Availability of land could be a problem, unless councils are in possession of such an asset. As could capacity in planning and building. But housing experts have said that with the available capacity and the right budget the
target is achievable. Labour, unlike the Tories, are committed to carrying out a badly needed, long overdue council and housing association house building programme. Former Tory Chancellor George Osborne was opposed to building council houses because he said their occupants vote Labour. Could that attitude help to explain why just 6,287 council homes were built in 2018-19, the second lowest total since 1921, outside of the war period? If Labour succeeds in building just half the target of council and housing association homes it will have exceeded the Tories’ record of completions over the period of a statutory parliament.
In some quarters Labour’s manifesto has been accused of overkill, but many of its policies are popular with voters. Whether this will translate into votes for the party remains to be seen. Its policy on Brexit, where it promises a second referendum should it form a government, is criticised for kicking the Brexit can further down the road. And also on the grounds that Corbyn has said he will adopt a neutral stance during the referendum campaign. This appears to be simple political pragmatism. It was pressure from his political opponents that forced Corbyn to adopt publicly a neutral position, having initially refused to say whether he would support leave or remain in a second referendum. Voters seem to prefer a leader to adopt a firm position. Corbyn’s neutral stance will make it difficult to sell its Brexit policy to leave voters in the Labour seats it needs to successfully defend.
Johnson’s “get Brexit done” mantra, on the other hand, is grossly misleading. Assuming the election of a majority Tory government the UK will not be out of the EU by the end of January 2020. We will still be in the EU until a trade deal has been negotiated and finally agreed. We will still be subject to EU rules, paying into the EU budget and accepting the free movement of people. Johnson and the Tories are also misleading voters by claiming it will all be over by the end of 2020. If a final deal has not been agreed by then, and only a foolish person would be certain that a good deal will be agreed, the UK will only be out of the EU if it leaves without a deal. Johnson has publicly ruled that out, but it is still a possible outcome.
For the Tories to form a government they must win seats from Labour where there was a majority vote to leave the EU. This is by no means certain, given all the other issues that are getting in the way of Brexit. And they cannot afford to lose too many seats to the Liberal Democrats in Tory held seats that voted remain. Or lose their thirteen seats in Scotland to the SNP. The Tories current lead in the opinion polls will count for nothing if they fail to hold those seats. If Jeremy Corbyn is unpopular with voters as the polls show, then Tory members, who voted for Johnson as the party leader most likely to form a Tory government, may be disappointed if the hostile reception he has received on his public appearances proves to be an accurate guide to the final outcome.
Politics is a dirty business. Since the beginning of the campaign Labour has been on the receiving end of a mostly hostile media. Corbyn himself has been the object of a constant barrage of lies, distortions and misrepresentations. In spite of this he has remained calm. Aggression is not his style. His purpose is to create unity, to bring people together. Not to create further division. Corbyn’s aim is for a clear working majority. There will be no deals with any of the other opposition parties, although he may be forced into doing so. However, to achieve a clear majority Labour must hold on to its current seats and win in others where it is a close second to another party. Labour Affairs hopes that 12 December brings in a Labour government that goes on to achieve all the radical left proposals set out in its manifesto.