Election 2017: The Key Issues

First of all, it’s worth making clear what this election isn’t about, namely public services that are wholly or party devolved and the responsibility of the (Labour & Lib Dem-controlled) Welsh Government in Cardiff: the NHS, schools, universities & student finance, housing, social care, the environment, local council budgets, economic development etc. We voted on this last year.

As in 2015, I’m only going to cover non-devolved issues so, for example, I won’t be telling you what the parties have in their manifestos for health, education etc. and will concentrate on policies we’ll actually be voting for or against in Wales.

Brexit, Brexit, Brexit

The election won’t be a second referendum on Brexit itself – it’s happening regardless – but it could be considered a proxy referendum on how the UK leaves the EU, including at the very least:

What type of Brexit? – We’re currently on course for a “Hard Brexit”, meaning no membership of, or full access to, the single market, and a bespoke EU-UK trade deal which is unlikely to be negotiated before the UK leaves the EU in 2019. If the Conservatives are re-elected, this will be the path the UK commits to. If another government is elected, there’s a slim chance we could change course to a Norwegian-style deal where the UK remains in the single market for trade, keeps some of the fundamental rights of the EU but exists outside the EU for many other matters.

The negotiation terms – The EU has already laid out its negotiation stance, but nothing similar has come from the UK Government. Precisely what that stance will be depends on what colour government we elect.

The role of the devolved nations in Brexit negotiations – At the moment the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish governments have no formal role. They’ll certainly have “input”, but are unlikely to have a seat at the table even though some areas of EU policy (agriculture, environmental protection) are fully devolved. If the Conservatives win this is likely to continue, but if they don’t then the situation might change; how the devolved nations are included in the negotiations will be crucial in attempts to keep the UK together.

Status of EU citizens in the UK (and vice versa) – If the UK leaves the EU without a deal in place, then UK citizens living in the EU are likely to lose any residency rights and similar things could happen to EU citizens living in the UK. It’s going to be one of the key areas of negotiation over the next two years, with hints that all the mainstream parties favour keeping things as they are for EU citizens who are already here, but changing the terms by which new EU migrants can move to the UK (with something similar likely to happen for UK citizens moving to EU member states).

Public Spending Philosophy


The current programme of public spending cuts, or lower government spending in general (aka. austerity), was instituted by the previous UK government as a response to the Great Recession; the simplistic argument being that governments shouldn’t spend money they don’t have and the books should be as balanced as possible.

While unemployment has fallen, it’s safe to say austerity hasn’t worked in making the books look any better – if you were cheeky you could even suggest the UK is struggling to afford independence. Cuts to welfare and the push to get people into any work has also led to the normalisation of zero hours contracts, food banks, the bedroom tax and excess deaths amongst the disabled.

With the cost of borrowing at its lowest recorded levels, those on the left in particular are arguing that the new UK Government should borrow while it’s cheap in order to invest in infrastructure.

Then there’s sorting out the tax system. In the last Parliament, Conservatives and Lib Dems increased the personal tax allowance to “make work pay”, but this has – inevitably – resulted in a lower tax take. Meanwhile, the tax system for businesses and wealthy individuals is fundamentally broken with loads of loopholes.

Conservatives don’t like the idea of public borrowing in their quest to spend as little money as possible and balance the books, hinting at possible tax increases for middle-income earners and the self-employed. Those on the left, like Labour, would prefer the wealthy and businesses to pay more, but it’s questionable whether that would bring in enough money to cover their pledges.

This is before adding the possible costs of Brexit – likely to be around £50-60billion.

Immigration

This is partly, but not entirely, linked to Brexit and will be an issue in its own right, with questions including:

How many immigrants should be allowed into the UK? Will there be more leeway for skilled immigrants? What about emigration – will it increase post-Brexit and lead to a “brain drain”? Should immigrants have a job lined up before coming here? How should the refugee and asylum system be reformed? How will Brexit impact border agreements with the French?

Supporting an Ageing Population


Some of this – particularly social care – is devolved, but the forthcoming term will see the retirement of an even greater number of “Baby Boomers” (those born between ~1945-1960).

The retirement age is set to rise again; the change was supposed to be revealed earlier this month but has been delayed. People now aged in their late 20s or early 30s could well be working until our/their 70s until claiming a state pension.

There are also a number of specific health challenges, particularly an increase in dementia-related diseases and more people requiring part-time or full-time social care (at cost to themselves and the public purse). Any changes to social care spending in England will result in a proportional increase or decrease to the Welsh budget.

Some may argue that older age groups have done too well out of successive governments (because they actually vote) and it’s time for a proportionate share of cuts to fall on them – the one most talked about being scrapping the “triple lock” on pensions which guarantees state pensions rise by either: 2.5% a year, the inflation rate or average earnings increases (depending on which number is largest).

The JAMs (“Just About Managing”)

Also known as “hardworking ordinary people” or “the squeezed middle”, they’re people who are in work (usually private sector), are able to raise families but who just about do enough to cover their incomings and outgoings – often with the help of some form of in-work benefit (like tax credits).

As an ever expanding group they’ve been targeted by a number of policies over the years, some of which have been maintained to win votes, others likely to be victims of cuts. These include: working and child tax credits, the roll out of universal credit, changes to housing benefit, changes in the personal income tax allowance,  the “living wage”, tax changes for the self-employed, inflation rises and general higher costs of living (i.e. high housing costs and high energy bills).

Scottish Independence/IndyRef 2


The UK may be leaving the EU, but the other question is whether the UK will even exist a few years from now?

Scotland voted to remain in the EU by an overwhelming majority, and that “material change in circumstances” has prompted the Scottish Government to press for another independence referendum – which could be held before the UK formally leaves the EU in 2019.

They’re not guaranteed to get it. If the Tories win a sizable number of seats in Scotland that might be enough to convince Theresa May to block it until after Brexit, or even indefinitely, in the hope the SNP lose power in Edinburgh come 2021.

There’s no sign of a huge upsurge in support for Scottish independence, but the Yes campaign are starting from a higher base than 2014. A referendum is winnable for them, as one of the major arguments for voting No in 2014 – that independence would result in Scotland chucking away EU membership – has been blown away and is now the other way around; the only way to guarantee future Scottish EU membership is independence.

Northern Ireland’s Future

Nobody’s talking about this when they should be, because the consequences are potentially very serious.

As many of you probably know, there’s stalemate in the Northern Irish Assembly after an inconclusive election earlier this year, triggered by the DUP failing to take ownership of, and properly investigate, an energy subsidy scandal (which involved the First Minister in a previous government role). With no agreement on power sharing yet reached, the spectre of Direct Rule lies on the horizon, or even the possibility of yet another election.

The issue is further complicated by Northern Ireland voting Remain in the EU referendum. As it’s the only part of the UK that shares a land border with an EU member state – and the EU played a critical and under-stated role in the peace process – Brexit will have to be treated delicately; nationalists in particular will be pressing for opt-outs or special agreements to maintain the status quo as much as possible – a position a Conservative UK Government might not be willing to accommodate.

I don’t know enough about the situation in the Six Counties to say whether we could see a rise in violence again, but the pins are set up unless a political solution can be found in the next couple of months; the election of a number of Orange Lodge members to Scottish local councils could possibly see a rise in sectarianism in Scotland too.

Leadership


I doubt that an election in the UK ever been so focused on the personal qualities of the party leaders. Let’s start with the only two realistic future Prime Ministers.

On the one hand you have Theresa May – a sheltered, uncharismatic, authoritarian throwback to the 1950s, who runs away from serious debate, knows how to use a dog whistle and isn’t averse to dropping bombshells or just parroting catchphrases when it suits her or her party. Her behaviour with regard Brexit negotiations has come across as more than a little unhinged, not “strong and stable.”

On the other hand you have Jeremy Corbyn – a stubborn, uncharismatic, reactionary-left throwback to the 1970s, who has a cult following amongst those who shouldn’t be in charge of anything (i.e. student lefties), has put together a Shadow Cabinet that resembles Fraggle Rock (and is about as confidence-inspiring), and has even been put in the position of calling for protests against himself. You could easily picture Labour losing 100 seats and Jeremy declaring on the morning of June 9th, without any sense of self-awareness, “Comrades, the real fight starts now!”

What a choice, eh?

Then there are the party leaders whose parties can’t lead the UK no matter how hard they’ll try, including: Leanne Wood, who’s going to get crowded out even more so than usual; Nicola Sturgeon, who really does deserve to be a Prime Minister but won’t because voting for independence in 2014 would’ve seen Scotland dragged out of the EU against their wishes….obviously; the guy who’s in charge of the Lib Dems – Whatshisname – and Eddie Hitler for UKIP….What do you mean there’s a “Green Party”?

“Mother of Parliaments.”