"I don’t have a clue who to vote for," "I feel really indifferent about it," and "I’m still undecided" were just some of the surprising responses interviewees gave when The Argus newspaper asked members of the public about their preferences for the upcoming general elections on Dec. 12, published in the newspaper's Dec. 5 print edition.
From the eight despondent citizens featured, that would imply that 37.5% of the electorate were still not certain of whom to vote for – one week ahead of a trip to the ballot box. Then there was the final leader’s debate televised a day thereafter on Dec. 6, after which a majority of analysts claimed that current incumbent, Boris Johnson, came out on top over Labour rival Jeremy Corbyn – if only just. However, if pollsters are correct, more generally Johnson’s Conservatives enjoy a healthy 11-point lead over Corbyn’s Labour. So is it all over? Can we shelve the issue and move on to other agenda items? Far from it!
More than the B-word at stake?
Granted, the question of whether Britain is about to depart from the European Union by Jan. 31, 2020, or whether the opposition manages to pull off a stunner and lead the nation to a second referendum still dominates debates both in political circles as well as on the ground. But then there are a number of other highly charged issues at stake: First, what will the future spell for the National Health Service? Second, when will street crime and the recent spike in fatal stabbings become a thing of the past? And third, has the discussion about anti-Semitism and the Labour Party perhaps shifted voter attention away from Brexit?
On the third subject, voters in Britain woke up Friday to see half of the otherwise right-mainstream Daily Telegraph broadsheet’s front page splashed in red. True, the article was about Jeremy Corbyn and red is indeed his party’s color, but one had the impression that amidst the pre-vote climax, each and every side has seemingly resorted to a car salesman’s tactics. The headline attached to Corbyn’s image read "Corbyn has made Labour a welcoming refuge for anti-Semites. The party is cast in his image." No small fry then, and ever more so as this is a quote was lifted from a statement by the Jewish Labour Movement of the United Kingdom.
The public discourse centers around party members being accused of not distancing themselves from hate speech, an allegation lodged at a rising number of high-ranking party members. Few can accuse the Tories of having started this debate in order to harm Corbyn’s chances at the polls. After all, party colleagues have on more than one occasion employed anti-Semitic rhetoric. Figuratively speaking, could this be the final nail in the coffin of Labour’s chances of winning?
On to the second topic: The number of fatal stabbings of innocent citizens is experiencing an all-time high. It came as a shocking and sad reminder of how bad the situation has gotten that only four days ago, a young student was knifed in front of London's most prestigious store, Harrods. Within the same short 24 hours, two similar attacks struck in the capital. Labour argues that the fault lies with the Tories for having cut funding for the police, while the Tories blame London Mayor Sadiq Khan for the situation emerging on his own political doorstep.
Leaving blame games – no matter how deserved – aside, for a moment, the all-important question is who would the electorate trust more to stop this crime wave? And, although London is at the center of the debate, crime is of course not only occurring there. Hence, could this topic perhaps push voters toward the opposition?
And now back to the first item: the National Health Service (NHS). Anyone who has ever resided in this fine country, experienced the NHS and seen how it is financed will most definitely argue no one should ever touch it and any privatization efforts are non-starters. Funnily enough, no one is attempting to privatize the NHS, at least not from what politicians of all colors say when questioned.
At the heart of the matter is a growing disgruntlement among patients about long waiting times. That is not just linked to hospital treatments but also when arranging appointments at your local doctor or specialist. Thus said, investments are required, but in which direction? Who is the politician who comes up with a magic solution to keep it under state ownership yet allow for much-needed innovations? And above all else, will the costs of drugs and treatment go up after Brexit in the case of a free trade deal with the United States, which would of course include pharmaceuticals?
Or is it Brexit after all?
If the electorate now makes a kind of mental intertwining exercise and aims at figuring out which political party and which political leader could solve all these issues and still deliver Brexit, chances are that Johnson’s Conservatives will win with a sizable overall majority. After Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party candidates withdrew in mass in order to better Johnson’s Tories’ ballot box chances, it appears as if it is Brexit indeed that matters most to the public he will win.
Yet if those who voted Remain, as well as many still-undecided voters, come to the conclusion that it was Brexit which put their street’s safety at risk – given that for the best part of three years, politicians have focused on nothing else – then a surprise on Dec. 12 can still not to be ruled out.
If for one reason or another, the Liberal Democrats and Labour come close to forming a majority in Parliament, all predictions would be rendered null and void. Is this likely? Not from today’s viewpoint, as, after all, Britain runs her elections via a first-past-the-post system which favors candidates from both Labour and the Tories to the disadvantage of smaller parties and independent candidates.
Even if we now take away accusations over the selling of the NHS, rows over alleged anti-Semitic rhetoric among Labour candidates and the issue of whether it is the previous Conservative-led government's fault for having done, or not done, enough to prevent rising violent crime from the sum total of issues, there is one underlying feeling observers on location encounter day in and day out. When I spoke to a British citizen who currently resides in Italy last week, I was told that regardless of whether he had voted Leave or Remain, his impression was that after three years of political wrangling, now was the time to get over it. In other words, the topic of Brexit must be sorted one way or the other but not via a renewed, prolonged second referendum campaign.
On the one hand, that would indeed imply that Johnson is set to win big time. On the other hand, the three out of eight undecided poll samples cited in the introductory paragraph might force us to assume otherwise.
There's never a dull day in British politics, and ever more so in the run-up to this week’s historical vote!
* Political analyst, journalist based in London