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  • Brendan Shaw

Bungled Brexit, Bad Boris and a Broken NHS: the issues stalking Britain’s national election

Brendan Shaw




"This is now a nation of self-loathing globalists."


-Janan Ganesh, Financial Times, 30 March 2024

It’s become a cliché in politics to say that a particular election is pivotal, but in the case of the upcoming United Kingdom election, it is. In talking with friends and colleagues and watching politics when I was there, you get the sense that this one will be crucial to the UK's future.


Britons must go to the polls by January 2025 for their next parliamentary elections, but the election will most likely be in the 2nd half of this year.


This year’s election will be the first national election since Brexit actually happened (31 January 2020), since the Covid pandemic (2020 – 2023), since Boris Johnson’s ‘Partygate’ scandals, and since the rolling Boris Johnson/Liz Truss/Richi Sunak leadership changes for the Conservative Party. It will be the first chance the British public has a chance to pass judgement on all of this. The previous election was the winter election of 2019 where then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, won in a landslide. Johnson's rise and fall is one of the backstories to where the UK is today.


 

How do the parties stack up?


The simple truth is that the ruling Conservative Party is on the nose. Some commentators are calling the upcoming election an 'apocalypse' for the Conservatives.


The average of the political polls shows that the Conservatives have been consistently around 20 points behind the opposition Labour Party for some time. Unless something dramatic happens, the Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, look like copping a shellacking at the next election.



BBC general election poll tracker


Source: BBC. 2024. "General election 2024 poll tracker: How do the parties compare?", https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-68079726, accessed 25/3/2024.



The Conservatives are showing all the signs of a government that is tired, warn out and out of ideas after 14 years in power. While the problems have been there for years, by now almost one-in-five Conservative MPs have announced that they are retiring at the next election, at least one Conservative MP has defected to the right-wing Reform party, there is ongoing disunity among the Conservatives, a lack of any ‘bounce’ from the 2024 spring budget, projections that most of the ‘Red Wall’ former Labour seats in northern England won by Boris Johnson in 2019 will revert to Labour at the coming election, and the government consistently mishandling an increasing multitude of racist comments from a minority of MPs and donors alike. The mood in the Conservate Party is glum, with a conga line of Tory MPs anticipating annihilation at the election and deciding to quit before they’re pushed. Parliament these days is working to short hours, causing Labour to now call Westminster a ‘zombie parliament. And, almost unbelievably, there’s more speculation again among Conservative MPs of maybe needing a leadership change before the election. Even Boris Johnson, who has left Parliament, has been mentioned to lead the party again.


The Labour Party, by contrast, has sought to differentiate itself as the government in waiting. Opposition Leader, Sir Keir Starmer, and his team have done a relatively good job of looking like a government-in-waiting. Treading a moderate, middle path, announcing initiatives, avoiding thorny commitments and issues, and niggling the government have put them in a good starting position for the election campaign. There are those who have criticised Starmer and Labour for being boring and lacking vision, but after the last few years voters and investors alike might welcome their government to be 'boring'. The contrast between Labour’s campaign today with its disastrous election result in 2019 after a campaign under then leader Jeremy Corbyn is like night and day.


The other minor parties are in the race and at various stages of prominence. The centrist Liberal Democrats are hoping to double their number of seats from 15 to 30 targeting progressive Conservative voters in the south of England, Nigel Farage’s Reform Party (the former UKIP) is campaigning to ‘save Britain’, and the Greens are running, as are the local country-based parties like the Scottish National Party, Welsh and Northern Ireland parties.


After years of rising minor party voting levels, there’s a sense that, maybe, this election will be focussed more a fight between the two major parties, but who knows. As one commentator has noted here in Britain, British voters’ support for political parties is increasingly ‘soft’ these days, so big shifts in voting support can increasingly happen from election to election, making British politics more volatile.


 

What are the election issues?


Well, that’s just the thing. Sometimes, it’s almost like there’s two sets of issues in this campaign – the issues the government wants to talk about, and the issues that most people in the UK are talking about.


One of the big issues on the government’s agenda is what’s loosely called the ‘Rwanda plan, where the Conservatives are seeking to change the laws to allow Britain to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. This has been on the government’s political agenda for some years, as it tries to rally an anti-immigration ‘stop the boats’ campaign. Through this and moves to increase barriers to immigration, the government is trying to make border controls and immigration controls an election issue, as other conservative/right wing parties in other democracies are seeking to do. The Conservatives might be trying to swing the majority of voters to care more about these issues, or trying to lock-in right-wing supporters inside and outside the party who might be thinking of switching support to Reform - something perhaps incentivised by Britain's non-compulsory, first-past-the-post voting system.


While important, in the scheme of things asylum seekers don’t have much impact on immigration numbers. They only account for a very small proportion of people coming to the UK each year, versus the 1.2 million people each year coming as a result of universities needing foreign students to maintain revenue (due to funding cuts) and the National Health Service (NHS) needing to fill so many unfilled vacancies. Other issues the government has tried to address include announcing that Post Office contractors wrongly pursued and prosecuted for fraud in the ‘Post Office Scandal will have convictions their quashed and introducing an independent government regulator of football clubs (apparently a major policy issue for Britain).


The British economy looks like it is growing again after a recession late last year, and inflation is down to 3.4%. In the short-term, this macroeconomic improvement may just be enough to give Sunak something to talk about in coming months or, at least, allow him to parry the Labour Party’s attack on the government’s economic management. However, long-term economic problems include the biggest increase in poverty in 30 years, the business sector criticising the government for a lack of an industrial strategy, sluggish long-term growth and productivity, and Britain’s poor trade performance.



Source: BBC. 2024. "What is a recession and how could it affect me?", https://www.bbc.com/news/business-52986863, accessed 2/4/2024.


Labour, on the other hand, is trying to look methodical and government-like. It has developed enough policies and visions designed to shift the conversation and develop an economic agenda without so much detail that they can be pinned down. Again, while this might sound boring, it might be what the people want.


One of the big, big issues that everyone in Britain is talking about but the government doesn’t want to spend too much time on, is the NHS. Years of underfunding, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the effect of Brexit leading to an exodus of staff, growing health problems and ageing populations have all conspired to leave the NHS in a state that needs serious investment. For example, the NHS currently has 125,000 vacancies it can't fill.





One recent survey by the Kings Fund found that while the British want and support a publicly funded NHS, the public’s confidence in it fell to just 24% in 2023, down five points from the previous year and compared with 70% satisfaction in 2010. It’s the lowest confidence level since the survey started in 1983. The NHS is in serious need of upgrading. For example, the waiting time for hip and knee replacements can take years, ambulance ramping during winter where is at risk of becoming the norm, and more Brits are now using private health insurance than ever before in an effort to ‘jump the queue’ and get treated sooner. Labour argues that the NHS has run down by Conservative governments years to cut costs and rely more on to private health cover. Moreover, for years, the NHS has performed worse than many other countries in cancer diagnosis and survival. Following the Covid‑19 pandemic, many people either were not screened for cancer testing, or had such testing delayed so long, that the stories of people being diagnosed with later stage cancer than before the pandemic are numerous. Lots of people in the UK, including colleagues, have been either directly or indirectly affected by this.





Other issues emerging recently is the surge of raw sewerage being released into the UK’s waterways and oceans. A recent annual government report showed that in 2023 the number of instances that raw sewerage was released was the highest it has ever been. This has happened because of ageing infrastructure, failed privatisation of water utilities, and the highest rainfall levels over the 18 months since records began in 1836. In turn, the exceptionally high rainfall seen in the UK (who would have thought they could get more ….) has been due to climate change.


If there was an issue to prove that Britain really is in the poo, this is it.


Amazingly to my mind, the big issue that almost no one is talking about is Brexit. For an issue that eight years ago divided the nation, split families, was the campaign issue for the Conservatives at the last election in 2019 (‘Let’s Get Brexit Done’), led to so much community acrimony and launched a thousand navel gazing exercises for the British people, today no one is talking about it. Almost none of the political parties are campaigning seriously on it, such that the issue has died. The Conservatives don’t want to talk about it, Labour are looking at other ways for the UK to engage with Europe, the Reform Party doesn’t dwell on it. Even the Liberal Democrats have gone soft on Brexit. Even locals and friends at pubs and offices around the UK I speak to are not talking about it.





The reason no one is talking about Brexit is because since those heady days of 2016, the reality of what has happened is sinking in. All the economic modelling before the Brexit vote was projecting that it would hit the British economy, and it has. The latest analysis shows that Brexit has subtracted 4% from the UK’s annual GDP. In the short-term, at least, Brexit has had an adverse impact on the UK economy. Meanwhile, more and more Brits are waking up to the new regulatory barriers, complexities, and constraints that come from having left the European Union, be it problems with expired passports or increased costs to take their pets on holiday in Europe. Moreover, the promised additional £350 million a week a year for the NHS from Brexit never appeared because it was never really true to begin with.


The different political parties now know, but don’t want to say, that Brexit was bungled. Voters know it too. In one poll, two-thirds of voters, including many people who voted ‘Leave’, believe Brexit was unsuccessful. The Conservatives botched the implementation, a view of even those Tories who supported it, Labour was split on Brexit at the last election as well and doesn’t want to annoy the many Northerners who voted for it. The Reform Party no longer has policies on it, and the Liberal Democrats did poorly at the last election campaigning against Brexit. Business groups have accused political parties of not developing Britain’s trade agenda out of fear of talking about Brexit.


In the longer term, the only way that Brexit might have worked for Britain was if the country became a real free trading nation and open up its borders to people all over the world to move there to work. But, instead, the government is increasing immigration restrictions and getting ‘tough’ on immigration – the opposite of what Brexit needs to be successful.


And, to cap it off, the polls show that if a Brexit referendum were held again today, knowing what they know now, Britons would vote to remain in the EU. Moreover, many Britons now say that Brexit was a mistake, including a proportion of those who voted ‘Leave’ in 2016.


 

As the long, cold, wet winter of 2024 gives way to spring and some sunshine, it will be interesting to see when and how Britain’s voters feel when they go to polls.







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