Thursday, 7 November 2019

Not The Brexit Election

Sick and tired of Brexit?
Sticking to the Tory script, Sky News is running every single new bulletin with a "Brexit Election" tagline, even when the subject doesn't feature on the news for a rare change. Similarly, the one-trick ponies that are the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats feature their respective demands on Europe prominently, if not in their actual name then at least on the side of their bus.

Yet, after almost four years of relentless debate about our EU membership, are the public really aflame and up for another five weeks of intensive debate about it? As Jo Swinson hypes her mission to save us from ourselves, Johnson bumbles about unleashing creative forces not even his grandiose imagination can comprehend and Farage drinks for England, they need to hope that everyone else is ready to squeeze into their Brexit Bubble, where nothing matters more than whether we are outside a trade block pissing in or inside pissing out.

The Green Party co-leader Sian Berry yesterday argued that "some things are even bigger than Brexit" as she declared this to be the Climate Election and outlined ambitious plans to tackle the global warming crisis with £900 billions of investment over ten years to make the UK carbon neutral by 2030. It is perhaps surprising that just a day later her party has made a deal with the Lib Dems, who, as well as accepting funding from frackers, take a much more leisurely approach to the climate crisis with a net zero target put well back to 2045. This is just a mere five years ahead of their former Tory partners' mid-century "objective". Nevertheless the Greens' core point is well-made and the urgency palpable.

Her words echoed the declaration a few days earlier by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, that "This election is our last chance to tackle the climate emergency with a Green Industrial Revolution at the heart of Labour's plan to transform Britain." Backing this up was a pledge to insulate every house in the UK to cut energy costs and carbon emissions, as well as massive investment in clean public transport and bringing the energy companies back into public control. Labour have also dwelt heavily on a range of other issues including ending austerity, redistributing wealth, ending student fees and investing in the health service.

It might be argued of course that Labour wouldn't want to talk about Brexit given their complex history on the issue. Yet Corbyn has devoted a speech to this too - reflecting on the need to talk to "the 99" rather than "the 48%" or "the 52%" he accused the other parties of focusing on to the exclusion of roughly half the UK. But it is clear that his strategy is to campaign on a much wider range of issues - the General Election should be just that, a general election on a variety of policies and initiatives stretching across the next 4 or 5 years. It should plainly not be a substitute referendum - Corbyn has made clear that Labour will hold a real one if they become the government.

So are Labour ignoring reality by moving on from Brexit to other issues?

Possibly, but probably not. Already several polls show that the NHS is seen as a bigger issue than Brexit by most votersand this is an area where Labour remain more trusted than any other party and where the Tories and Lib Dems are vulnerable given their opening up of front line services to private providers from 2012 onwards. And while it doesn't register as the highest concern, there is little doubt that climate change is a much higher priority for many voters than previously - and 56% of voters back the Green and Labour 2030 date as the zero carbon deadline. Even 47% of Tories support that compared to 16% for the official 2050 one. A YouGov survey shows that 25% of voters view the environment as one of the top three issues compared to just 8% at the 2017 election.

Similarly, crime has risen substantially as a concern with 26% rating it compared to 11% previously, and the Tory/Lib Dem slashing of police numbers back in the Coalition days make them vulnerable. So too the fallout from the initial Grenfall report has highlighted a range of concerns from cuts to fire services from austerity through slum housing, underhand contract deals and Tory elitism to the rampant inequality that stains our country.

Faced with this battery of critical issues, although it remains a key issue for now, it seems that a public that is palpably sick to death of Brexit is less than likely to want to think of nothing but Brexit for the next month and a bit. Given this, Labour have everything to play for and their slow but steady trend upwards in the polls, matched by a slow but evident decline for the Lib Dems, is evidence for this.

Heath's winter election gamble
Boris Johnson claims to be a historian. So he might want to dust down the archives from winter 1973 when one of his predecessor Tory Prime Ministers, Ted Heath (ironically the man who took us into Europe), faced a crisis when a national miners' strike left electricity power plants short of coal. Simultaneously, after the Yom Kippur war between Israel and the Arab states, oil and petrol prices were rising sharply, offering little in the way of any affordable or practical alternative to coal for much of Britain's energy.

Heath dramatically declared a State of Emergency.  His Chancellor, Anthony Barber, implemented a crisis budget just before Christmas. A three-day working week was introduced, TV stations were compelled to stop broadcasting at 1030 pm each night to reduce energy consumption and regular power cuts were implemented with householders huddling round candles to keep warm. All in the middle of winter.

In spite of the crisis, the Tories' poll ratings were generally favourable and a much-trumpeted "Liberal surge" seemed to damage Harold Wilson's Labour Party most. Enjoying as much as an 11% lead, Heath was convinced that because of Labour's close relationship with the trade unions, he would be able to sweep to victory.

So far, so familiar.

And so he went to the country in our last winter election (February 1974) believing that he could triumph on the single question he pompously put to the nation in a Prime Ministerial broadcast: "Who Governs Britain?"

The voters' answer, when it came?
"Not you."

March 1974 - Labour's Harold Wilson began his third term as Prime Minister

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