Dispiriting election presents voters with stark choices

The 2019 general election has been widely described as the most significant in a generation, a moment with huge implications for Brexit and the future of the UK.

Rarely have British voters been presented with such stark choices at the ballot box, ranging from Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left economic policies to Boris Johnson’s determination to drive through a hard Brexit.

As the country goes to the polls on Thursday, the outcome is still in doubt. After weeks in which the Conservatives have enjoyed a 10 point lead over Labour, Tuesday night’s poll by YouGov suggests that a hung parliament — in which neither the Conservatives or Labour enjoy a majority — remains a possibility.

However, the excitement and emotion that are likely to dominate on election night will stand in sharp contrast with the dispiriting nature of the campaign itself.

“It’s been the most shallow, mendacious and frustrating election I can remember and a bad advertisement for democracy,” said Peter Kellner, a veteran pollster and political analyst. “There has never been a moment when you felt someone was finally setting the campaign alight.”

Weeks of frenetic electioneering have been punctuated by only a few memorable events. One critical moment came when Nigel Farage, the leader of the hard-right Brexit party, withdrew half its parliamentary candidates, giving Mr Johnson’s Conservatives a better chance of securing a majority.

File photo dated 18/03/19 showing Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis who, in an article for The Times, The Chief Rabbi has warned that the soul of the nation is at stake if Labour gain power in the General Election. Chief Rabbi Mirvis criticised Jeremy Corbyn for the inadequacy of his response to anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday November 25, 2019. See PA story POLITICS Election. Photo credit should read: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi, attacked Jeremy Corbyn’s record on tackling anti-Semitism © Jonathan Brady/PA

Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi, launched a blistering attack on Mr Corbyn last month, saying his handling of anti-Semitism allegations made him “unfit for high office”.

As in 2017, the campaign was also scarred by terrorism, this time when Usman Khan killed two Cambridge graduates: Jack Merritt, 25, and Saskia Jones, 23, and injured three others in a knife attack at London Bridge.

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LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 02: Floral tributes are left for Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, who were killed in a terror attack, on December 2, 2019 in London, England. Usman Khan, a 28 year old former prisoner convicted of terrorism offences, killed two people in Fishmongers' Hall at the North end of London Bridge on Friday, November 29, before continuing his attack on the bridge. Mr Khan was restrained and disarmed by members of the public before being shot by armed police. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)
The election campaign was scarred by a terrorist attack on London Bridge © Peter Summers/Getty Images

In most other respects, however, the campaign has been a static affair. This is largely because the Conservatives went into the election in a defensive mode, determined to do nothing that could put their 10 point advantage over Labour at risk.

“The Tories have played the election like a football team that is 2-0 up with 20 minutes to go,” said Mr Kellner. “Their whole strategy has been to avoid conceding a goal rather than scoring one.”

Mr Johnson’s one serious blunder of the election came last Monday when he initially refused to look at a picture being shown to him by a reporter of a sick four-year-old boy forced to sleep on the floor of a Leeds hospital.

The controversy opened up fresh questions about the Conservatives’ record on the National Health Service, fertile territory for Labour, which argues that nine years of Tory austerity has cut resources.

Online usage fee £150. Print fee £300. Sarah Williment with son Jack Williment-Barr who was forced to sleep on the floor of Leeds General Infirmary because of a lack of beds.
This picture of a sick four-year-old boy forced to sleep on the floor of a Leeds hospital led to Boris Johnson’s most uncomfortable moment of the campaign © Sarah Williment/Mirrorpix

The controversy also raised doubts about Mr Johnson’s capacity for empathy and may yet dent the Conservatives’ performance at the ballot box.

But other than this, Mr Johnson has been unusually disciplined, sticking to the mantra that he is the one leader who will “get Brexit done”.

As one pollster said: “His repetition of that line has often looked tedious . . . and it’s a highly questionable claim in and of itself. But in focus groups it also happens to be the one slogan that voters can remember and recite.”

Labour, for its part, has never enjoyed a decisive win on the one issue that could swing undecided voters its way: the state of the NHS and other public services.

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At one point, Mr Corbyn produced a leaked Whitehall memorandum that made clear that the US wants its more expensive pharmaceuticals to be sold to the NHS as part of any US-UK trade deal. But despite the noise generated over claims that Russian hackers may have helped bring the document to public attention there was no evidence British negotiators have made concessions.

Labour tried to shore up its own credentials on public services by unveiling a manifesto that contained an avalanche of new pledges on spending and nationalisation. But there was little sign of this winning over new voters, although the debacle over Leeds General Hospital may stop some Labour voters moving to the Tories.

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Perhaps the biggest surprise of the campaign was that Britain’s centre party — the Liberal Democrats — failed to capitalise on the unpopularity of Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn. Instead their support has declined sharply.

Jo Swinson has had the most disappointing election of any party leader. The Lib Dems’ pledge to revoke Brexit if the party wins a majority of Westminster seats has alienated many voters who feel it is undemocratic to overturn the result of the 2016 referendum. However, Ms Swinson’s personal performance has also been a factor.

“People didn’t know anything about her at the start of the campaign but the more they saw of her the less they liked her,” said Deborah Mattinson, founding partner of Britain Thinks and a former pollster for Labour prime minister Gordon Brown. “In focus groups, people often describe her as strident, shouty, aggressive.”

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Across much of the UK, the 2019 election started out as a four-horse race between the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Brexit party. “It has now narrowed to two rather unappealing options,” said Ms Mattinson, “and most undecided voters feel they are having to choose the party they disagree with least.”

Ms Mattinson added: “This is my eighth election and I cannot recall another where voters are going to end up trudging to the polling stations with such heavy hearts.”



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