Just like that, we’re hours away from the Dec. 12 U.K. general election that will decide the nation’s direction at a crucial time in its history and in the wider global context, what with the rise of the far-right in the West and the worsening climate crisis. Although U.K. political campaigns are happily much shorter than those in America, a lot has transpired over the course of the past month since a snap election was called by Boris Johnson.
Several debates have taken place, one entirely dedicated to climate change in which an absent Johnson was replaced with a melting block of ice; an attack on London Bridge left several dead, including the attacker, and raised questions about the underfunding of police forces under conservative rule; and world leaders convened in London for a NATO meeting that led to more than a few embarrassing moments for Johnson, Donald Trump and others.
At the true heart of the election, however, are two topics that are deceivingly interlinked: Brexit and the U.K.’s National Health Service. Johnson has desperately tried to make the election another referendum on Brexit, promising vaguely to fund the many social programs his own party has ruthlessly cut over the past decade. The current prime minister famously led the pro-Leave campaign in 2016 with an empty promise emblazoned on a red London bus that said he’d take the £350 million ($455 million) he claimed were sent to the European Union weekly and spending them on the U.K.’s beloved National Health Service. Even so, in 2019 he’s been wholly unprepared to fight an election with the NHS as the central topic.
It’s no doubt easier to wax on about a hard Brexit, whatever that even means to a tired electorate, than answer questions about hospital bed and nurse shortages, or the fact that Donald Trump, a man who has essentially endorsed Johnson, has openly expressed his interest in getting his (and American corporations’) grubby hands on Britons’ universal health care. While Johnson was ultimately sued for the made-up bus figure, he seems to think the British public will still trust a word he says (which, unfortunately, some do).
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, however, has smartly seized on the slogan “NHS not for sale!” from the outset of his campaign, and he recently revealed a leaked document that showed talks between Johnson’s government and Trump’s have already begun and include the health service, despite insistence from both leaders—two known liars—that this isn’t the case.
Johnson seems to have conveniently forgotten an op-ed he wrote in 1995 in which he advocated for keeping the NHS “free at the point of service” only “for those who are genuinely sick, and for the elderly.” He claimed then that health care services were being “abused” and “If people have to pay for them, they will value them more.” This of course ignores the fact that the British people do pay for the service—with their taxes. The Tory leader is far from the only member of his party to believe in the privatization of the NHS, and over nearly 10 years of conservative rule, this approach has become painfully apparent as “billions of pounds of contracts [have been] handed out to private providers.”
To top it off, Johnson is so unwilling to face what his party has done to the NHS, he refused to look at a photograph of a boy sleeping on a hospital floor when questioned about it by a reporter.
Tried to show @BorisJohnson the picture of Jack Williment-Barr. The 4-year-old with suspected pneumonia forced to lie on a pile of coats on the floor of a Leeds hospital.
— Joe Pike (@joepike) December 9, 2019
Labour, on the other hand, has promised to properly fund the NHS with a 4.3% increase in spending annually and reverse its privatization. While this is already an important promise from a party that has proven under Corbyn to prioritize working people over the elites, that’s not the only thing the left-wing party has in mind for the future of the U.K. Building on the wildly popular anti-austerity manifesto it ran on in 2017, Labour has outdone itself with its latest plan, which, if carried out, would radically transform not just the U.K., but the global political landscape.
Some of the most interesting ideas in the 2019 Labour manifesto could easily serve as a progessive blueprint for other nations (yes, I’m looking at you, America). The left-wing party promises to nationalize essential services—water and national rail services are two sectors on the agenda that have been neglected and overpriced under private management. It also promises to ensure free full-fibre broadband WiFi to every person in the country by 2030; to offer government funded childcare for all children ages 2-4; to extend maternity leave to 12 months; to abolish public university fees, which are reaching American college tuition levels; and to implement a Green New Deal that would tackle climate change while creating jobs.
These are just some of the many policies Labour proposed that clearly put the needs of the British people ahead of the wealthy ruling class who have found pliant allies in the Tories (not least because many Tory politicians are themselves among the richest in the U.K.)
Of course, as with any progressive plans, there’s a lot of “How are we going to pay for this?” going around. Let Grace Blakeley’s recent piece in the New Statesman put that question to rest, once and for all:
Responding to [concerns about paying for Labour’s proposals] – rooted in real experience – with abstract economic arguments will fall on deaf ears. Rather than focusing on the narrative of “borrowing to invest”, an opaque concept to most people, Labour has opted to frame its response in class terms: the rich will pay for it.
Labour has developed a programme of radical tax plans that would generate revenues from corporations and the wealthy. The income tax policy of 2017 – limiting tax increases to the top 5 per cent of earners, those who earn £80,000 or more – has been retained. But this has been combined with a transformative set of proposals on corporation tax.
Labour would not only reverse the Conservatives’ corporate tax cuts, increasing the headline rate from 19 per cent to 26 per cent, it would also reform the way tax is levied by moving towards a system of unitary taxation. Such a model would prevent multinational corporations from shifting their profits to low-tax jurisdictions in order to avoid corporation tax.
Unitary taxation has been endorsed by a swathe of tax experts and the free-market OECD is now co-ordinating countries across the world in an attempt to implement the policy. Should it succeed, the traditional warning that corporations will flee the UK in order to avoid tax will be moot.
If that’s not convincing, have a look at Corbyn’s tongue-in-cheek explanation about where he’ll find a “money tree”:
This was surprisingly fun. pic.twitter.com/Tjl60l70bl
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) December 9, 2019
In terms of a Labour government’s foreign policy outlook, Corbyn has proven himself to be an ally of the global left time and again. He’s openly criticized the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, spoken out against the persecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, opposed the right-wing coup against Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and has garnered the backing of Bernie Sanders and his supporters—a fact that points to a promising future progressive alliance should Sanders become the U.S. president. Corbyn has also notably criticized President Trump and his policies, as well as his possible designs for a U.K.-U.S. trade deal, when both Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May, proved too cowardly to oppose the American leader. Labour’s manifesto effectively reflects Corbyn’s views in its proposal to revise the country’s entire foreign policy based on a review of the harrowing legacy its empire has left around the world.
One of the most promising things about Corbyn is his belief in the importance of grassroots politics. Momentum, the activist wing of the Labour Party which was formed in 2015, has been hard at work during this election, and could prove to be the party’s “secret weapon,” as it was during the 2017 campaign, which saw the largest increase in Labour votes in decades. Having a self-proclaimed socialist leader who understands that his power comes from the people, not monied interests, could change the until-now-elitist course of U.K. history and set a crucial example for other countries grappling with the devastating effects of capitalism.
The leader’s acknowledgement of the urgent need to address the climate crisis will also have a global impact, even if all it does is force the U.K to cut emissions faster. But having a progressive leader at the helm of a historically and economically significant nation like the U.K. will no doubt color the way other wealthy nations approach this urgent ongoing disaster.
The polls about Thursday’s elections are all over the place, as we’ve come to expect, but there’s ample evidence that the pollsters are underestimating the people power behind Corbyn and the widespread appeal of progressive policies, just as they did in 2017. As Ell Smith, the founder of the podcast “Stats for Lefties,” points out in a recent piece, the numbers look much like they did just two years ago when Corbyn sent shockwaves through the world with his electoral gains. Back then, May was able to cobble together a ghastly coalition with the Irish Democratic Unionist Party, one that Johnson blew up just a few weeks ago in the name of a hard Brexit. This time, as I’ve already written, the Tories will be hard pressed to find allies in Parliament delusional enough to join them in a coalition government. Meanwhile, Corbyn has continued planting progressive seeds, and, political climate permitting, we might just be about to witness a left-wing revolution in full bloom.