Here's why this general election matters more than any other in a generation

Boring? Yes. Heading for a poor turnout? Yes. But this vote is the most important we’ve seen in decades 

Sean O'Grady
Saturday 22 April 2017 10:49
This year make sure you cast your ballot
This year make sure you cast your ballot

It’s perfectly true. A 50 day campaign will be longest the country has endured in decades. The recent norm has been three or four weeks. Stretching that for almost two months, with no Easter break, and supposedly centred on one central question, Brexit, will grind the voters' interest beyond breaking point. And it is not as if we’ve not really had a national conversation about Europe over the last year or more. We probably hit peak Brexit some time ago. The Prime Minister will not be thanked for that.

And yet… the coming weeks will determine the future path of the country for generations to come. It is no exaggeration to say that jobs, wage levels, house prices, interest rates, public finances and public services, levels of immigration and much else of vital interest will be determined on 8 June. Will our Slovak neighbours go back? What will happen to the EU nationals in the NHS? Will the big car makers and City banks wind down their British operations? Will the farmers still get their subsidies? What about UK expats living in Spain and other EU states?

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn hit the election campaign trail

It may be utterly predictable that she will win – though perhaps not as much of a foregone conclusion as some suppose – but that doesn’t make it any less important. Here are the specific reasons why the 2017 general election is the most important in your lifetime – one where the choices made will be irreversible and far reaching.

If Theresa May wins then we will leave the EU

Even now many people may not realise the magnitude of this change. No one knows what will happen; but it is inevitable that trade with Europe – and the jobs and wages that flow form that – will be less easy than it is today. Our defence and security interests may also be affected. Already, we're debating the Irish peace process, Scotland staying in the UK, Gibraltar’s future and many more issues that would, in normal times, represent a crisis on their own.

Whether all that is made up by new economic relationships with fast-growing economies to the East remains to be seen, but will need to judged now. Giving May her own mandate may mean the Brexit is “soft” rather than “hard”, but Brexit there will be, with no second referendum to approve the result. To secure a second referendum you’d have to vote Liberal Democrat, for example, and of course they oppose Brexit at all costs. If you vote Labour, so far as one can tell, you’re voting for an attempt to have some sort of access to the single market and some sort of arrangement with the EU customs union, so a different form of “soft” Brexit to the one May may or may not deliver. If you definitely want to get out of the EU at any price and as quickly as possible then Ukip’s your party (leaving aside any tactical voting considerations).

It’s Labour’s last chance

Again, anything could happen in this long campaign. Labour could win, though obviously if apathy is so widespread its traditional support stays at home. Equally Labour could go backwards from its current very low poll rating. If the problems Labour are suffering turn into a rut then the party could come third in terms of the vote in 2017, behind the Liberal Democrats. That almost happened in 1983, as it happens, so there are near-precedents. Even so Labour would most likely win more seats in parliament than the Lib Dems (though a historian would tell you that the mainstream Labour Party slumped to 52 seats in 1931). This year Labour could sink so low as to cease to be a viable political operation in its present form, with a gene pool of MPs so depleted as to be unable to form an effective opposition. So if you support Labour, or, for that matter, want to see it “crushed” to use a fashionable word, then the 2017 election matters more than any in Labour's history.

It’s the Liberal Moment

It could be the biggest comeback since Lazarus. By this summer, if the dreams come true, the Lib Dems could see their position as the third party in the Commons restored, overtaking the SNP in seats, and, possibly, coming close to or overhauling Labour in votes nationally. Plus they would get Sir Vince Cable and other capable figures of national stature back into the Commons. They would then, formally or not, lead the Anti-Brexit opposition in parliament and the country. Theresa May could, when she also least expects it, encounter some fierce opposition to Brexit despite her supposed fresh mandate. Allied with the sizeable Lib Dem presence in the Lords, the party would be a power in the land again. Or maybe not – but the chance this year is there as it has not been for a long time. Another reason why the election, and taking part in it, matters.

It’s also about the UK

It’s complicated, but anyone who cares about the union between England and Scotland, in particular, should take the 2017 election seriously; for it falls at a critical moment for the state of the union. The UK has never come closer to break up since Ireland departed almost a century ago. Some, such as the Irish, Welsh and Scottish nationalists wish that ardently; others fear and loath the idea. In Ireland it is overlaid with fears for the peace process and the return of a “hard border”. Theresa May’s gambit may push back the tides of Scottish separatism and the cause of Irish unity, or it may accelerate the disintegration of the UK, but the 2017 election is the first in modern British history where such basic questions are at stake.

And benefits, public services, overseas aid…

Again, in any normal election these would be dominant issues. Do you want grammar schools? Should the old age pension still be protected by the “triple lock” so it rises with earnings, prices or by 2.5 per cent whichever is greater? Should the block on putting up National Insurance and income tax be scrapped? Should the rich (Labour say people on £70,000 to £80,000 a year or more) pay more tax? How can we fund long term care for your elderly or sick relatives? Should old folk be made to sell their homes to fund their care? How can we solve the housing crisis? Should we scrap tuition fees for students or put them up again? Should we cut overseas aid or defence spending? Should we abandon HS2 or the Heathrow expansion? Should we ease up on fracking and relax other environmental safeguards? Should we allow the authorities to read our emails and monitor web usage to prevent terror?

The list is long, then, and all these things matter. And that is why the general election matters.

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