“McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for.
Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?”
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72
This is how Hunter S. Thompson sums up the 1972 presidential campaign in the USA between George McGovern and Richard Nixon. Looking back, the similarities to our present situation are stark. In 1972, after years of war in Vietnam, America was a bitterly divided nation facing an election. The incumbent, Nixon, was already mired in scandals and allegations of corruption, but these failed to have much impact on his electoral prospects, and he went on to win a landslide victory. As we face the coming UK election, after years of debating our place in Europe, a divisive referendum campaign, and three years of stasis preparing to leave the European Union, Britain is similarly bitterly divided. Likewise, the incumbent is tangled up in scandals and allegations of corruption but still seems to enjoy significant leads over the opposition. And while the opposition parties have made, and continue to make, tactical errors they are nothing in comparison to the things that the racist serial liar Johnson does, to quote Hunter S Thomson ‘every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for’.
Like any and every general election, the impending vote is about multiple issues – austerity, the NHS, climate change, and so forth – but central to how all of these are being put to the electorate is Brexit. Analysts have stated that Johnson’s proposed Brexit deal would shrink the economy by 3.5% by 2029, no deal (still a possibility at the end of transition under Johnson’s deal) would shrink the economy by 8% by the end of 2035. Under these circumstances, austerity would continue – the NHS would still be starved of funding, and the welfare system would still be in disarray. Ending freedom of movement would further impact the NHS – contributing to already critical staff shortages at all levels. Also, there have been many hints that after Johnson’s Brexit worker rights and environmental protection would be torn up.
The Tories have also made some farfetched election claims about the NHS, such as declaring that they will be able to deliver 6,000 more GPs by 2025-25. But then again their track record suggests a rather different pattern of behaviour, with 15,000 hospital beds closed since 2010; half all district nurses culled; 6,000 mental health nurses cut; 40,000 nurse and 10,000 doctor vacancies created; a war waged on junior doctors; and devastation of staff morale.
But there is also something strange happening with this election.
Johnson could have probably got his deal through parliament – maybe even without significant amendments. Yet he chose to withdraw his Brexit bill, despite it passing a second reading with a comfortable majority, and go for an election instead. Why would someone who claimed to want to ‘get Brexit done’ do this? Perhaps to remake the Tory party and purge all the moderate ‘one nation’ Tories? Such a move will certainly make a bonfire of workers rights and environment protections far easier in a post-election scenario if the Tories win.
Also, consider Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party (yes, sorry). As recently as 2016, Farage signed up to a plan that would see the UK taking two decades to leave the EU carefully, initial membership of the single market and a second referendum to approve a final deal similar to that Norway enjoys. Now Farage claims that Johnson’s deal, an incredibly hard version of Brexit, is unacceptable and he wants Johnson to “admit that his Brexit deal was a crock of shit and swear allegiance to the One True No Deal Brexit”. Initially, he claimed that the Brexit Party would field a candidate in every constituency, which would have made Johnson’s passage back to No 10 less likely. Now, just this week, Farage softened his stance and pulled back from the ‘drop the deal’ threat and said that the Brexit Party would not oppose sitting Tory MPs. Some have suggested that Farage has been offered a peerage or some other bauble in return for an informal pact. One thing is certain, for Farage being in the limelight is more important than ‘getting Brexit done’.
“The main problem in any democracy is that crowd-pleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out on a stage & whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy—then go back to the office & sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece.” Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72
SO what are the alternatives? The Labour position on Brexit – after much prevarication and hedging – is finally sensible. Find a deal with the EU that would not condemn the next generation to economic misery, then put that to a vote with the option to remain in the EU. Critics often complain that this is a complex position to ‘sell’ to voters, but seems relatively simple position that amounts to backing a 2nd referendum – all that most of the remain side have ever asked for. One thing is inescapable; there is no plausible route of stopping a very hard Brexit outside of a Labour government. The Liberal Democrats are not going to win a majority and are unlikely to even be one of the three largest parties after the election. Unless there is a Labour government, even in a minority position supported by the smaller parties, then Johnson will have free reign to implement his terrible deal and then take us towards the cliff edge of no-deal 14 months later. It would also mean the most extreme right government this country has ever seen would be able to remake the UK for decades to come.
This does not mean that everyone who wants to prevent the country moving in a disastrous direction towards a no-deal or very bad deal Brexit, or allowing the ripping up of workers rights and environmental protections should feel they have to vote Labour. There are places where people may feel that they cannot vote for a particular candidate (e.g. the names Kinnock and Flint spring to mind) or where they feel that an anti-Boris vote is more important. There are several tactical voting sites available, but some have been accused of bias, or their analysis may simply confuse voters. But perhaps the best and simplest anti-Boris strategy is suggested by Danny Dorling: 1) Go to the BBC 2017 election website and type in your postcode; 2) work out which party came second; 3) know that almost always that party is the only serious challenger; 4) Don’t be misled.
The UK is currently not in a very good place. We can all wish we were not in this position. But we are. At the end of the first week of the election campaign, all the parties seem to have made so many tactical mistakes that some have described this as the ‘Hold My Beer Election’. The creeping influence of populism is also worrying with parties claiming they represent ‘the people’ against different versions of the elite or establishment. Yet the only way to end this national nightmare is for the Tory party to no longer be anywhere near the levers of government – hopefully for a very long time. On Friday the 13 of December, we will find out if we can escape the nightmare.
Make sure everyone you know is registered to vote!