This is the election no one expected – least of all if we took the Prime Minister at her word. It is also the election that, to recall Brenda from Bristol’s reaction to the news, no one wanted. Can’t they all get on with running the country?
Nonetheless, on Thursday we will have the opportunity to vote in a general election. The winner – according to most opinion polls, should we still choose to believe them – may not be in much doubt, although the election has been made all the more uncertain by two terrorist killings in Britain in just two weeks. The horrors have raised valid concerns about the record of the former Home Secretary, but perhaps this will be offset by an instinct against change at a time of insecurity.
Although Theresa May is likely to remain Prime Minister on Friday, albeit diminished by a poor campaign, the vote you cast will perhaps never have had so many consequences and shades of meaning when the results are picked over. So what does your vote mean for Brexit? For our future in or out of the single market? For the party leaders? For the suddenly unfashionable centre ground of politics?
A vote for the Conservatives would be a vote for a “come what May” approach to Brexit. This could be interpreted in two ways. You could be giving Ms May the authority to negotiate a hard Brexit, restricting immigration, refusing to be bound by the European Court of Justice and willing to pay tariffs instead. Or you could be giving her the space to make compromises, to accept a softer Brexit in the form of transitional deal.
In truth, the historians will get the final say on this in the years to come. But so far there has been a confrontational style and an assumed mandate for the hardest of Brexits, which seems to be Ms May’s interpretation of the referendum last year. To play character politics, it seems unlikely that a huge majority for the Conservatives would be accepted as a signal to Ms May to soften her stance.
A vote for Ms May would say that she has been an adequate Prime Minister since July, and that she is the least worst choice for the future. It would mean keeping taxes and spending broadly as they are and, specifically, taking winter fuel payments from better-off pensioners and asking homeowning pensioners to use the value of their property to help pay for home care visits if they need them. But it would also lay a foundation for a less inclusive kind of politics, for a Prime Minister who seems loath to be held accountable to her Cabinet (who have largely been kept at arm’s length in the campaign), Parliament or – judging by her rationed campaign appearances – the voters.
A vote for Labour is also ambiguous. Jeremy Corbyn has divided his own party: would such a vote be an endorsement of its leader or would it be a vote to maintain Labour as a viable opposition in the hope of providing a platform for a more centrist leader next time?
Mr Corbyn has run a good campaign, closing the gap, inspiring a lot of people (including many who usually feel that politics has nothing to offer them) with the idealism of a better society, and avoiding the worst of the gaffes and U-turns that have marked a supposedly strong and stable approach from Ms May.
But he was a poor leader of the opposition in Parliament and his shadow Cabinet is weak. Are these signs that he could be an effective prime minister? And it is possible that his relative success on the hustings merely goes to suggest that a better Labour leader could have won this election – or, more likely, put Ms May off calling it in the first place?
Curiously, a vote for Labour would also be ambiguous on the left-right spectrum. It would certainly show support for higher taxes, both on companies and on the best-off 5 per cent of the population. But a lot of the spending paid for by these taxes would go to the better-off also. Free tuition fees would benefit graduates, who tend to be in higher-paid jobs, while universal childcare and free school meals would spread public spending from the means-tested poor to the middle classes. It is a paradox that the Liberal Democrats offer a programme that would redistribute more from the rich to the poor.
There are two possible big reasons for voting Lib Dem, and they do not necessarily contradict each other. One is to signal opposition to Brexit – although it is unlikely that even the election of several more Lib Dem MPs would make any material difference to the outcome in 2019. The other is to demand higher spending on the NHS, social care and welfare, without going for the full nationalisation approach of Mr Corbyn and John McDonnell.
This raises in acute form the dilemma facing centrist voters. The Independent has been committed, since its foundation, to the causes of social justice, European unity, the environment and free markets. For whom should someone who cleaves to those values vote this time? In Germany there is Merkel; in France, Macron. Who in the UK is making this pitch with confidence?
Would a vote for the Lib Dems send a signal, as parties regroup and rebuild after defeats, that there is life yet in centre-ground, progressive politics? Could it shape the future of Labour? Inspire a new liberal alliance? Encourage the Conservatives to nudge back to the centre? Such outcomes, especially after the events of recent years, are not beyond the realm of possibilities.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
The Independent believes that the United Kingdom is stronger staying together, but what has changed since two years ago is that the Conservatives have emerged as the strongest unionist party in Scotland, and that devolution in Northern Ireland has stalled. The three main party leaders in Scotland, all women, are impressive, but Ruth Davidson perhaps most of all.
Of course, which MPs Scottish constituencies send to Westminster has no direct bearing on the independence question. But it is important for those who support the union that the SNP should be in retreat, even if their leader has impressed many with her forthright approach to the values in which she believes.
So where does that leave your vote?
The Independent will always be true to its title. We are, and we will always be, independent of political parties. It is important that you decide.
We hope the summary above – and, indeed, the news and views from all sides of the debates that we have offered you in recent weeks – have helped you draw a conclusion in this most complex of elections.
In this election especially, we urge you to think not just about where the parties stand, but where your candidates stand within their party. Was your Conservative candidate for Remain or Leave? Are they liberal or authoritarian? Is your Labour candidate a Corbyn supporter or sceptic? Are any of them truly committed to action against climate change?
As for the overall result, it is easier to say what we do not want. We do not want Ms May to have the kind of huge parliamentary majority that she would claim as a mandate for a hard Brexit. If you vote in a constituency where there is a chance of interrupting the predicted march towards a huge Tory majority of 80-100 seats, you may have a chance to send a message to Ms May that a softer, more consultative Brexit process is what the people want.
If Labour emerges with a narrow defeat, it seems likely that a leader who has shown noble qualities but has proven to be a weak leader of the opposition, and given little account of his ability to run a government effectively, will not stand down, leaving his party caught in limbo.
If you, like so many under the first-past-the-post system, live in a safe seat, your vote can still send a message. The percentages count, even if they do not return MPs directly. We hope there is enough encouragement after the election for the voices of the progressive, liberal centre ground to pick up the pieces, whichever colour rosette they wear on election night.
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