One of the tragedies of the 2019 General Election campaign is that the fundamental decision about the type of country we will become has not been made clear to voters, says Mike Buckley.
One of the few things on which Labour and the Conservatives agree is that this General Election is the most important for a generation. In normal circumstances, the differences between the main parties would be measured by the gap between their policy offers on tax, public services and foreign policy. This is not true of this election.
One thing that is new about tomorrow’s vote is that the Conservatives have gone into it with an absence of policy. They have spent time in interviews dodging questions on their missing social care proposals, trying to convince reporters that they have a great plan but that it’s too complicated to bother the voters with. Even the policies that they have announced – for example on hospitals, nurses or the police – have been proven to be lies or half truths at best.
In contrast, Labour has a wealth of policy, almost too much – the consequence of which is that some genuinely transformative ideas on maternity leave, childcare, the climate crisis and the minimum wage – to name but a few – have been in danger of getting lost during the election campaign.
But this is General Election isn’t really about policy. It is about something much more fundamental than that. It is about our identity as a nation, our direction of travel, and about which global power bloc we align ourselves to. The Conservatives want to take Britain, not only out of the EU, but also out of its regulatory alignment. They have been utterly opaque about their post-Brexit plans during the campaign, but Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement is clear when it says that:
“The backstop acted as a bridge to a proposed future relationship with the EU in which the UK could be closely integrated with the EU customs arrangements and would align with EU law in many areas. That proposed future relationship is not the goal of the current UK Government. The Government intends that the future relationship should be based on a free trade agreement in which the UK takes control of its own regulatory affairs and trade policy.”
This is the dividing line in this General Election.
The Labour Party is not only committed to a second Brexit referendum – which would provide the option of the UK staying in the EU – but it is also committed to the EU’s regulatory system, whether Leave or Remain prevails. Labour’s new deal, which would be put up against Remain next summer, would keep the UK in the customs union, protecting manufacturing and industry, and would include either Single Market membership or close alignment. There is a question of democratic legitimacy – Leave voters who want a more distant relationship with the EU will understandably feel that there is little for them in either option – but Labour’s commitment, most fundamentally to jobs, wages, industry and manufacturing, is clear.
The Conservatives’ plans would lead us to a very different future, and one which they have intentionally failed to map out. Instead of being honest about their plans to diverge from EU standards and regulations, they have said that their trade deal with the EU would be easy because we start out completely aligned. They have failed to be honest about the fact that the whole point of their new trade deal is to create divergence – a first in the history of trade deals.
For the Tories, leaving the EU and diverging from its standards on workers’ rights, environmental protections, food and safety standards would just be the beginning. They know that the only version of hard Brexit that works is one in which the UK aligns closely to the US, the only alternative power bloc. Too small to survive economically on our own, we have to align somewhere. Of the three global power blocs China is too far away and too different.
The current Conservative Party is adamantly Eurosceptic and opposed to Europe’s adherence to human rights and protections. The Tory right believes, rightly, that aligning to the US will enable the party to slash rights, to lower tax, to deliver a smaller state and to decrease regulations. The result would be greatly increased inequality and poverty, a race to the bottom on standards and protections, and a complete realignment of our post-war social settlement. The template was set in 2012, when Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and Liz Truss authored a then unrealisable prospectus for a hard right Britain. Brexit has given them their chance, and they fully intend to take it.
This future will not deal with the already high levels of inequality in our country. It will deliver more disaster capitalism that will serve US and global corporate interests and the people of Britain will suffer. The current Conservative leadership want this future because it will make money for a small group of people at the top.
One of the tragedies of this election campaign is that this choice – this fundamental decision about the future of our country – has not been made clear to voters. The Conservatives have, for obvious reasons, wanted to focus on the readiness of their deal and their supposed ability to bring Brexit to a close. They have not been upfront about the fact that their deal would just be the beginning or, worse, their intended direction of travel.
Opposition parties fought in Parliament to win more than three days to scrutinise Johnson’s Brexit withdrawal agreement, but in the election campaign they too have ignored it – despite it being the Conservatives’ only real manifesto and an extreme document that would harm our economy much more than Theresa May’s deal and hardly less than ‘no deal’.
The only hope in this election is that enough of the Conservatives’ character and intentions have cut through. They have lied repeatedly. They have run from scrutiny. They have talked in bland terms about their Brexit deal but never in detail. As the campaign draws to a close, the polls are narrowing and a hung Parliament is now a real possibility.
We have a day left to make this choice clear and to hope that the people of Britain have seen enough to know that this General Election matters – not only for our EU membership and our public services, but also for the character, fairness and equality of our country.
Mike Buckley is the director of Labour for a Public Vote. He tweets at @mdbuckley