British Prime Minister Theresa May dropped a huge bomb a few weeks ago, calling for general elections. Therefore, the next UK election will be held on Thursday 8th June 2017, despite the fact that it wasn’t originally scheduled to take place until 2020. If you’re an ideological liberal like me, then you may find it hard to choose a party to back this time around, as there just doesn’t seem to be one party or candidate that is worth supporting.
Crowning new leaders
The UK election is a parliamentary one. People vote for Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent their constituency. The leader of the party which gains the most MPs is then, by convention, ‘invited’ by the Queen, the UK’s head of state, to form a government. Therefore, while this is a Parliamentary election, it is often framed as a contest to determine the UK’s next Prime Minister.
It is a sad fact that for many UK voters, and indeed, for many voters in a parliamentary democracy, the MP that they’re appointing to represent them does not matter. People often vote based on their opinions of the party and its leader, as it’s the party as a whole that, by holding a majority in Parliament, sets policy. In this article, therefore, I will be discussing why the parties and their leaders are poor choices for ideological liberals, as opposed to the MPs themselves.
Where do we start?
An obvious starting point is the current Prime Minister, Theresa May. Where do we even start – Theresa May is perhaps the worst pick out there, if you’re looking at things from a leftist perspective. Her record on immigration especially leaves a lot to be desired. During her time as Home Office Minister, Theresa May clamped down, looking to stop people from war–torn and impoverished countries from entering the UK through any means necessary. This alone is enough to disqualify her.
Let’s turn to Theresa May’s enthusiastic – perhaps sycophantic, embrace of Brexit. Yes, I understand that there are liberal Brexit backers out there. However, it’s fair to say that the majority of the left voted to Remain. While May did vote to Remain, she’s since become Brexit’s biggest fan, opting to pursue what is known as a ‘hard Brexit’ – an exit for the UK that would allow it to impose strict rules on EU immigration, but at the expense of freedom of movement of the UK’s own citizens and access to the EU’s lucrative single market – a move that would be economically disastrous. In this way, she’s becoming instrumental in spreading nationalism in the UK, making May anathema to any liberal Remainer.
One other thing that’s deeply concerning about Theresa May is her lack of a spine, when dealing with foreign leaders. Specifically, US President Donald Trump – who as a racist, sexist, nationalist, xenophobe, is every liberal’s worst nightmare. Some leaders heading parties that do have a right-leaning platform e.g. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, warned Trump against adopting discriminatory policies after he entered the Oval Office, showing that this isn’t just a leftist value. Theresa May was not one of them – she enthusiastically embraced the New York billionaire, and this should discourage any liberal Briton from voting for her.
There are a whole host of other reasons why Theresa May places at the bottom of the left’s list of choices for Prime Minister. Another example is that she’s ridiculously pro-business – to the point where while large companies win under her leadership, the common Briton loses big time. Then there’s the small issues to consider, as the devil really is in the details. We recently learned, for instance, that if re-elected, she plans to bring back fox-hunting – a vicious sport that no true liberal should support. How many more reasons do you need to get that Theresa May is out of the question?
Cutting every penny
Of course, sometimes the leader may be an unpalatable choice, but their party isn’t. This isn’t the case with May’s Conservative Party – at least as far as the left side of the political aisle is concerned. Theresa May is hardly an atypical Tory – the party is pro-business, anti-immigrant, supportive of practises such as fox-hunting, and more in favour of Brexit than their counterparts, so you get the point. And if you think that’s bad then wait, because we haven’t even had a chance to discuss austerity yet.
If you call yourself a small ‘l’ liberal, you tend to believe that government spending is a good thing, because it gives people and business’ the support they need to boost the national economy. The Conservatives were first elected (as part of a coalition government, with David Cameron in the position of Prime Minister) in 2010, and they chose to deal with the recession which had overtaken the UK’s economy at the time by imposing crippling austerity measures. The economic wisdom of this strategy by Conservative parties has now been almost thoroughly debunked. The effects have been devastating – the Tories have stripped billions from the NHS alone and now it’s on the brink of collapse, making it harder for Britons to receive adequate healthcare. No lefty wants five more years of austerity.
Music to our ears
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn. The man was elected as the face of Labour after the party’s stunning losses in the 2015 general election, mostly due to his extremely radical values. Corbyn is arguably the best choice on this list for liberals. The veteran left-winger has made it clear that if elected, he will overturn the current rigged system in the UK, handing power back to the common folk from the wealthy – certainly music to the left’s ears.
Some of Corbyn and Labour’s proposed means of this achieving this aim are certainly laudable. They include raising the corporation tax rate significantly to boost national coffers, abolishing ridiculously high student loans, introducing a £10 per hour minimum wage, re-nationalising the Royal Mail so it benefits the people not investors, and more. I’ll be honest – if Jeremy Corbyn beat Theresa May and became the Prime Minister I’d be happy – as many on the left would, but there are issues with him too.
Can Corbyn lead?
One issue that Labour supporters have to face in the UK election, is that while Corbyn’s policies are nearly always on point, his leadership isn’t. Yes – Corbyn has been forced to deal with MPs that are largely hostile to him and his agenda. But a good leader – the kind of person who makes the history books – can turn bad opinion and opposition into praise, and Corbyn has simply proved himself incapable of rallying the party to his side. The man has often actually been rather combative and stubborn when faced with party opposition – and while a good leader knows when to stand firm, they also know when to bend.
It’s also becoming clear that when faced with the hard choices, Corbyn chooses to bury his head in the sand. According to The Guardian, for example, last year Corbyn and Labour were accused by a cross-party committee of MPs of assisting the growth of anti-Semitism. This followed a string of anti-Semitic scandals – for example MP Naz Shah was discovered to have composed anti-Jewish posts on Facebook. While she was suspended from the party, Corbyn’s response to the scandal wasn’t as thorough as it needed to be to prove that Labour isn’t anti-Semitic. Corbyn may not be the leader the left needs.
Get it together
What about Labour, as the party themselves? To put it bluntly, they need to get their act together. As the largest opposition party in Parliament, and the traditional champions of leftist values, some liberals choose to vote Labour whoever their leader is. But the party is in a unique position right now. It’s clear that many of them still don’t back Corbyn and while he may have some flaws as a leader, to show division is weakness in politics. Is the Labour party on the same page that they need to be on, to get things done while holding the majority in Parliament? No, and that is a problem for liberals who want change.
Crossing the red line
We come now to the last of the major contenders – the Liberal Democrats and their head Tim Farron. This party’s leader has introduced a variety of policy ideas that appeal to the left – for example, he recently pledged to bring 50,000 more Syrian refugees into the UK if he becomes the next Prime Minister. But there’s one issue which for me personally, excludes him as a choice in the UK election.
We all have those ‘red lines’ in our political opinions – those issues where, if someone holds an opposite view, we can’t back them, even if we agree on everything else. If like me, your red line is gay rights, Farron is not your candidate. You know what I’m talking about. In a recent interview, Farron was asked whether gay sex is a sin (he’s an evangelical Christian), and he refused to answer the question one way or the other. After suffering a backlash, Farron has since insisted he does not believe it’s a sin, but the damage has been done.
Admittedly, the attacks that were launched on Farron because of this were anti-progressive. On this side of the aisle, we value freedom of speech, and no true liberal should lambaste someone as rigorously as Farron was lambasted, just for stating an opinion. That doesn’t mean we should condone his opinion or vote for him. As a liberal and a gay man, I just can’t bring myself to back Tim Farron for Prime Minister in the UK election, because in my heart I don’t think he supports people like me.
As for the Liberal Democrats, it’s hard to champion them. The party became the minor partner in the coalition government after the 2010 election, and for many liberals, their compliance with certain Tory policies still leaves an unpleasant taste in their mouths. The obvious example is the government’s decision to raise University tuition fees from £3,000 per year to £9,000 per year. The Liberal Democrats had previously pledged not to lift tuition fees, but they went along with it anyway. How can we leftists vote for a party in the UK election that cannot be trusted to uphold our values?
Looking at minor contenders
Now we come to the minor contenders – UKIP, the Green Party and the Scottish National Party (SNP). UKIP is easily the most anti-liberal party running in the UK election, due to their nationalistic, almost racist, beliefs and policies (as some would say) – they are the ‘make the UK white again’ crowd. No liberal in their right mind go for a party whose agenda is so similar to that of the Conservatives – anti-immigration, pro-business etc and take it a step further. So if we can’t back the Tories, then UKIP are out of the question.
The SNP and their leader, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon are an interesting option. The SNP may be somewhat nationalistic, but they are progressive too, and Nicola Sturgeon has been hailed as a champion of liberal values. But the SNP only runs contenders for the UK election in Scotland, meaning that they could never gain the majority needed in Parliament to govern the country. Plus, they want Scotland to break away from the UK, so they’d hardly be that interested in running the country anyway.
Some liberals may choose to back the Green Party and their co-leaders, MP Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, in the UK election. It’s obvious why – the Green Party is perhaps the most leftist group in the UK’s political mainstream, evidenced by the fact that they have one female and one male leader, which shows that they highly value gender equality – a key issue for any liberal. Lucas is the only Green Party MP, however, and many think that it is unlikely the party will bring more people to Westminster this time around. However, many Liberals I know still believe in the Greens and will be voting for them – even if many think it might not be the most pragmatic thing for Liberals to be doing.
UK election forecast
There may be, in my opinion, no clear choice in the UK election for liberals, but someone has to win. I hate saying this, but I believe it’ll be Theresa May and the Conservatives. We should first consider that it was May herself who chose to call the UK election. She’s nothing if not pragmatic, and quite frankly she wouldn’t have decided to place her job on the line if she didn’t think she could win. And with her championing of hard Brexit in a country where anti-EU sentiment is high, she’s probably right.
May’s campaign will undoubtedly be supported by the lack of unity on our side. While many liberals back Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, many others don’t, and if the left’s support base splits it’s vote among a few parties while the right stands united behind the Conservatives, greater numbers will ensure they win the day. Yes, in 2015 UKIP split the right-wing vote – gaining 13% of the total number of ballots cast. But with the Brexit process now well underway, a Prime Minister who has already promised a hard Brexit, and in the absence of UKIP’s charismatic leader Nigel Farage this time around, history is unlikely to repeat itself.
If we look at the most recent British opinion polls, then it’s clear that Jeremy Corbyn and Labour do have a chance of pulling off an upset and triumphing in the UK election. A recent Kantar Public survey indicated that 44% of Britons plan to vote Conservative, while 28% will support Labour – a massive 8% swing towards the latter party since the company’s last poll. This is exciting news for our camp, but it’s still a massive gap, and whether Labour can make up the shortfall in less than a month is debatable.
Rock and a hard place
It seems as though we ideological liberals are stuck between a rock and a hard place. There are candidates that we could back in the UK election and they would bring real progressive change to the nation. But each is flawed, making it difficult for many of us to support them unreservedly. We are going to have to make a tough choice – back an imperfect leader and party, or stick to our principles without giving an inch. There’s no right or wrong answer here – which is what makes it all so frustrating for us liberals, as it’s beginning to look like we’re damned if we do, we’re damned if we don’t.