Britain is braced for its darkest election in decades. An election has not been held so late in the year since 1923.
Winter elections tend to be avoided because they are bad for turnout – dark, cold nights do not encourage either the campaigners or the voters they are trying to convince.
That this election has been called now is another symbol of the political crisis in Britain. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s parliamentary majority has been wiped out. He has won very few of the votes he has put to parliament.
Most crucially, by failing to get his deal through parliament, he has failed in his “do or die” promise to leave the EU by October 31. He had little choice but to call an election to break the deadlock.
What is now at stake in this election is what sort of country Britain will become over the next generation. Not since the early 1980s has the gap between the two major political parties been so wide, the different visions on offer so distinctive.
On one side, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is now a long way right of the political centre. Although he is not Donald Trump, he will whip up Britain’s deep social divisions to help him win this election. Cracking down on migration and going hard on “law and order” will be top of his agenda, which will also be wrapped in a “parliament vs the people” narrative which attempts to demonise elected representatives for frustrating his attempt to leave the EU. Already, in the first day of campaigning, he has compared Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to Josef Stalin.
On the other, Corbyn’s Labour Party is committed to reversing years of free-market economics which has laid waste to British society. He will try to steer the conversation away from the divisions created by Brexit by promising massive investment in public services and the regional economy, a “green new deal”, and a commitment to tax and regulate big business, including by clamping down on tax havens and introducing a financial transactions tax.
This division is symbolised by the potential post-Brexit trade deal with Donald Trump’s America which has dominated the early campaign. For Johnson, this trade deal represents his vision for the future of Britain: a deregulated, low tax “Singapore-on-Thames’, closely aligned to the US economic model, as well as American foreign policy goals.
For Corbyn, it is just the reverse. A US trade deal is to be fought against, tooth and nail, because of the sweeping new powers it would give US capital to impose lower consumer standards, to degrade workplace right and to undermine public services. As a lifelong critic of American foreign policy, Corbyn promises to move Britain away from involvement in US bullying on the global stage towards a more cooperative view of international relations.
But this is not the whole story. Despite Johnson’s love of the free market and his harking back to the glory days of Britain’s trading empire, he recognises the serious damage austerity has done to his party’s electoral chances. In this election, he will propose the biggest programme of spending and investment from the Conservative Party in decades.
In that sense, this could be Britain’s first election not dominated by neoliberal thinking. Like Trump and the new wave of right-wing populists across the world, Johnson recognises that the deep crisis in capitalism cannot simply be solved by pretending we can “leave it to the market”. Capitalism requires the power of the nation-state.
What is increasingly problematic to our current economic model is not the nation-state but liberal democracy. In an age where climate change and inequality are so severe that more and more people are demanding radical action to tackle the wealth and power of the minority, democracy becomes a real threat to economic privilege.
So, while Johnson might promise public spending, he will also attempt to win votes by running down democratic institutions like parliament and even the judiciary, by exacerbating social divisions and by appealing to social conservatism. He might not be Trump, but he could push Britain much more clearly into Trump’s orbit, empowering those who have a deeply reactionary approach to the current global crisis.
In other words, in Britain as in the US, it is clear that neoliberalism is dying – the battle is over what will succeed it.
And what will succeed it here? We do not know because this election is utterly unpredictable. Corbyn is well behind in the polls, but he is a natural campaigner and shines in elections when he can reach the public directly. Huge numbers of people are still undecided about how to vote, and the polls will swing wide over the next few weeks. Britain is now a deeply divided country, especially along generational lines with an overwhelmingly left-leaning, outward-looking younger generation and a right-wing, insular older generation.
Another factor in this unpredictability is the fracture of the political party system. Britain’s electoral system is not proportional – it was created because only one of two big parties has ever won an election here, and to allow the biggest party to take power.
But in this election, significant votes could go to smaller parties. On the left, many of those opposed to Brexit in any form will vote Green or even for the centrist Liberal Democrats. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party which supports independence for Scotland seems certain to top the poll. On the right, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party could drain support from Johnson’s Tory candidates in several seats. These splits in the vote could make all the difference for who is able to form a majority.
The vote is likely to be close. The result could indeed be another “hung parliament” where no party commands a majority. The price that smaller parties might demand for their support of the bigger parties in this instance could mean the beginning of the end for the United Kingdom with significant calls for independence in Scotland, and the unification of Ireland. Another election next year is not unlikely.
So, dark and cold as the weather might be, this election will be heated because the stakes are so high. Looking from the outside, Britain is a country which, over its history, has caused much damage and suffering around the world, all the while retaining a very stable political system at home.
It is not surprising that there is a certain degree of schadenfreude towards our current crisis. But the competing visions on offer in this election will be felt well beyond these shores.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.