WE STAND ON A PRECIPICE – THE SNAP GENERAL ELECTION

by Chris Jarvis

With Theresa May having all but called an early General Election, on June 8th, the UK will go to the polls for yet another vote that will have long-reaching consequences for the future of the nation, the third in as many years. For the people of Scotland and Wales it will be the fourth – and those living in Northern Ireland will face their fifth. Right now, our political leaders can’t seem to get enough of sending people trudging out to schools, churches and community centres to scribble little pencil crosses in printed boxes.

As fascinating and exciting an experience this period will prove to be for political pundits and obsessives, the ramifications this election could have on the country are vast. The UK stands at a precipice.

June 8th could result in a reaffirmation of Tory government and all the unpleasantness that would accompany it: an increased majority in parliament, a renewed jingoistic fervour, an aggressive and draconian political project. Five more years of Tory rule would see our public sector decimated to skeletal proportions, with yet more services cut, outsourced and privatised. Our NHS, already crumbling under the weight of an ageing population and chronic underfunding would see more and more market influence, public health would decline and the independent providers would provide more and more key aspects of delivery.

June 8th could result in a reaffirmation of Tory government and all the unpleasantness that would accompany it

A foolhardy approach to Brexit negotiations would leave the UK outside of the single market, no bad thing in and of itself, but coupled with it, the most regressive, xenophobic and damaging migration policy that we have seen for decades. Our benefits system would be distorted even further into a system of punishment, rather than social security. Climate change would fall to the bottom of the agenda. International development budgets would be slashed, only offered to countries who accept liberalising trade deals and adhere to dominant economic models. The dream of comprehensive education would be long forgotten, as grammar schools are re-introduced and the true horrors of selective schooling are brought back the fore. Civil liberties would be eroded. Islamophobic rhetoric would be ramped up in the name of counter-terrorism. The borders would be closed. Military intervention in the middle east would be pursued. Incarceration rates would increase. Social fabric would creak, ache and tear.

This picture is not mere scaremongering. It is not ‘project fear’. This would be the reality of unabated Conservative government under an increased parliamentary majority. This is what could come to pass after the UK votes for its next Government on June 8th. With all other parties languishing far below in the opinion polls, this is also looking more likely than any other outcome.

But while this is not some abstract dystopia in the long and distant future, it is also not inevitable. There is an alternative that we could build. There is the possibility that people up and down this country could reject this future, could reject this model of society and instead vote for something very different. Creating that alternative won’t be easy, but there are three things that could help make it happen:

1. Transforming the progressive alliance from theory to reality.

Those of us on the left are bitterly divided. Rarely are we divided on the destination we wish to get to. Always, we are divided on how to get there. Do you vote Green or Labour? SNP or Lib Dem? Sinn Fein or SDLP? Owen Smith or Jeremy Corbyn? These debates and discussions are important and worthwhile, but right now the stakes are too high. Should we continue to bicker over the next seven weeks, all we will achieve is the Tory dream of what our society could look like.

Rarely are we divided on the destination we wish to get to. Always, we are divided on how to get there.

Right now, the most pressing and important priority for the snap General Election is to oust the Conservatives from power and remove them from Government. There is no straightforward or easy way to do that, but it must involve collaboration from progressives across political spectrums. We desperately need to reach an agreement where even in just a few dozen seats, progressives agree to stand aside to avoid splitting the vote and allowing the Tories in. Labour cannot win an outright majority under the current electoral system and at it’s current standing in the polls. No other progressive force will emerge as the largest party in parliament. Parties of the left need to set aside their differences, as important and as stark as they are, and work together to remove the Conservatives from office, instigating a different kind of government and a different kind of politics in the process.

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A meeting on post-Brexit alliance building. Image via The New Statesman

Labour, Greens, Lib Dems, Plaid and the SNP aren’t going away any time soon. It’s a cop-out to say that we should all just get behind the Labour Party and it’s a Pontious Pilate-esque hand wringing to entertain the idea of collaboration on the grounds of political purity. If we fail to see the impossibility of a left wing government under our current electoral system, we will also fail to see the looming Tory landslide.

2. Mobilise: Win hearts and minds.

One of the biggest criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn’s project since becoming leader of the Labour Party is that despite the vast increase in the party membership under his watch, this has not translated into an army of electoral foot soldiers, willing to deliver leaflets, knock on doors and get the message of the party out to the public. Similarly, since the 2015 Green Surge, the Green Party have not, as of yet, been successful in galvanising the new membership to be its cheering advocates across the country. Labour and the Greens have a lot to learn from the Liberal Democrats, who are the pioneers of mobilising their base.

radical shifts in public opinion can happen over unfathomably short periods of time.

Opinion polling is universally reported badly. People never report that a poll is a snapshot of a particular time, and that the polls can change, and change quickly. An effective ground campaign mounted by progressive parties, organising volunteers to spread messages, win arguments and entice voters is central to a successful campaign. In the era of Bernie Sanders, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Melenchon, we’d do well to learn this lesson and recognise that radical shifts in public opinion can happen over unfathomably short periods of time.

3. Nail the TV debates

Theresa May is almost uniquely placed in this election. Excluding Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood, who, thanks to the makeup of our parliament will only be able to have a minor impact on the outcome of the election, she is the only party leader who has a universal cut-through across the country. Everybody knows who she is, has a vague idea of what she stands for, the kind of Prime Minister she would be and what kind of future she wants for the country. For all of the other leaders – Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron, Paul Nuttall and Caroline Lucas & Jonathan Bartley – their exposure to the public has been limited.

Corbyn has not yet taken, or indeed been given, the opportunity to openly present his vision to the public in a lengthy and clear way. Tim Farron is largely an unknown quantity to many, as the airtime his party gets dwindled substantially after the electoral defeat of the Liberal Democrats, the fall from grace of their former leader Nick Clegg and the movement of the party from government to opposition. Paul Nuttall, Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley have all been in post for less than a year.

Should televised leaders’ debates take place again this year, they will be vital for all parties vying for exposure, and could prove to be pivotal moments in the campaign. Fortune is with the progressives in this regard, as the leaders of Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats are at their best when in the throes of debate, speaking from a platform and arguing against a Tory leader. Getting these debates right will only serve to narrow the gap between progressive parties and the Conservatives, and Theresa May could begin to rue the day she called an early election.

***

The prospect of removing the Conservatives from Government is infinitesimal. Even if progressive parties were to carve a path to victory through electoral alliances, even if there was an incredible and phenomenal people-powered ground campaign, even if the leaders of the left were to perform beyond our imaginations, the country still seems set for five more years of Tory rule. But the possibility remains. Politics is changing at an astronomical pace. It is possible for us to get this right, and maybe, just maybe, we could be pulled back from that precipice.

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