UK’s ‘make or break’ election sees clash of radically different visions

The result of this election could have global implications with the UK likely to go further down the path of neoliberalism in the wake of a Conservative victory

December 10, 2019 by Anish R
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn face-off in the final TV debate in the run-up to the general election

The United Kingdom is set to vote for a new parliament on December 12. The Conservative Party or the Tories are promising to “Get Brexit Done”, while the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party is asserting that “It’s Time for Real Change”. These are not merely slogans and reflect the serious implications these elections have for the people of the UK.

From climate change and NHS to Brexit and the sovereignty of the British union, UK voters are faced with a variety of pressing issues. Apart from the two main parties, a number of smaller parties have presented a wide range of solutions to such issues. The Greens are demanding an equivalent of the Green New Deal in the UK, while their partners in England and Wales, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, want to stop Brexit, as does the Scottish National Party under Nicola Sturgeon.

On the far-right, the Brexit Party and UK Independence Party have stuck to their single-point campaign for a “hard Brexit”, barely distinguishing themselves from the political agenda of the Conservative government under Boris Johnson.

Johnson vs Corbyn

This election has been described by the British and international media as a “make or break” one. For Boris Johnson, it could either mean a mandate for five years which could lead to the creation of a neoliberal haven in a post-Brexit UK, or an end to one of the shortest serving governments in two centuries.

Even though Johnson is leading in most opinion polls, the government has been on the defensive ever since leaked documents of trade negotiations were released by the Labour Party.

For Corbyn, this is a chance to prove himself as an effective leader of the Labour Party. A victory could mean significantly more control over the party, but a loss may be followed by a rebellion from the Blairite sections within.

Core Issues

Two major concerns have dominated the ongoing elections, according to recent opinion polls, viz, public healthcare and Brexit. The concern over healthcare has risen over the past few weeks following the explosive revelations of secretive US-UK trade talks, in which consecutive British governments put healthcare up for trade negotiations with the US.

In a recent Ipsos-MORI survey, the National Health Service (NHS), which Labour has alleged will be put on sale under a Conservative government, has replaced Brexit as the biggest concern for voters. While the proportion of people concerned over the NHS increased, concern over Brexit has remained steady and unaffected by recent developments.

Environment and climate change have also become major issues, thanks to mass mobilization by environmentalists and the youth. According to a YouGov opinion poll, since the 2017 election, the environment has steadily become a key issue among voters and is now the third most important one following Brexit and healthcare.

Neoliberal status quo vs leftward shift

For decades, the political agenda of Tories and Labour has almost converged to facilitate massive marketization and imperialism, almost making them indistinguishable. Corbyn’s emergence as the leader of the Labour Party considerably shifted its political direction, pushing it substantially to the left.

This can be seen as a response to the emergence of the far-right in Britain, especially in England, culminating in the rise of Boris Johnson as the leader of the Conservative Party and the prime minister.

In this election, Labour has shifted decisively to the left, offering free universal education, an overhaul of the prison and criminal justice system, greater support for immigrants, a fast-track and comprehensive plan for a “Green Industrial Revolution”, replacement of the House of Lords with an elected parliamentary chamber, and an ambitious expansion of welfare programs.

The Conservative manifesto has not changed that significantly from previous manifestos. But there are certain notable promises that stick out, including an expansion of the police, a vague zero-emission commitment by 2050 even while it plans to expand car usage, a strict immigration  and asylum regime at par with Australia, and free trade arrangements with the EU and the US.

Moreover, if the leaked documents released by the Labour leadership are to be believed, the government also plans to make way for the penetration of US commercial interests into the UK’s healthcare and consumer goods sectors.

Fears have been raised about the possibility of changing patent laws that can drive up costs of medicines and drugs, and also changing regulations on standards that can effectively bring products of questionable quality into the market. The UK has had a more rigorous regulation system on drugs and consumer goods, which unlike the US system, is geared more towards protecting consumers.

Imperialism-as-usual vs New Internationalism

The UK continues to be a major imperialist player. Foreign policy issues, especially concerning its former and current colonies, and its alliance with NATO, has always found a place in public discussions in the run up to a general election.

Brexit currently tops the list of foreign policy issues. The Conservatives promise a clean exit from the European Union, a complete closing off of borders to free movement of people while maintaining a certain level of free flow of trade, and close relations with other western imperialist powers.

Labour, on the other hand, has promised a “meaningful” Brexit, which will entail a close relationship with the EU, and at the same time use the opportunity for labor protection, a more comprehensive environmental policy, and a gradual nationalization of the railways. It has also promised a second referendum for the people to choose between such a Brexit deal or the option to remain in the EU.

Labour has also taken up other issues that can alter Britain’s imperialist line. For starters, it promises to recognize Palestinian sovereignty and condemn Israeli atrocities and settlements, something it shares with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

Labour has also promised to apologize for the past atrocities of Britain, like the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in colonial India, and also review its policy with Chagos Islands, which is under British colonial control and houses a major US military base. It has also promised to review Britain’s colonial legacy and push for inclusion of that in school education.

Under the headline of “new internationalism”, outlining its foreign policy, Labour has also promised to review Britain’s policy in Yemen, Kashmir and Myanmar, to support reforms in the United Nations, and honor the international commitments it has made for nuclear non-proliferation, climate change and global food security among other things.