December 2, 2019
BREXIT UPDATE 54: GENERAL ELECTION: THE THIRD WEEK
What has happened in this crucial half-way week – the third of the five-week election campaign?
On Sunday, November 24 (the day after I posted the last Brexit Update), the Conservatives published their manifesto. This was a low-key, lack-lustre affair, especially when compared with Labour’s radically transformative agenda. With many polls predicting a Tory majority and mindful of the fact that the Maybot’s campaign had come unstuck in 2017 over the Conservative manifesto, the aim seemed to be to play safe and try to present the Labour manifesto as spendthrift and irresponsible.  In contrast to Johnson’s munificent promises when he first became Prime Minister, the Tories’ annual current spending would rise by £3 billion pounds by 2024 – whereas Labour’s would rise by £80 billion. In an analysis that – despite efforts by the mainstream media to argue it was equally critical of both manifestos – was clearly more opposed to the Conservatives’ agenda than to that of Labour, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said that the Tory manifesto presented “nothing new”, while Labour’s is radical:
“Labour, by contrast, want to change everything. Their vision is of a state with a far greater role than anything we have seen for more than 40 years. They would tax and spend more than ever before, putting in place a new universal welfare state with free childcare, free university, free personal care, free prescriptions and more besides; they would impose a swathe of new labour market regulations.”
Though the IFS suggested that the Labour manifesto was over-ambitious, 163 highly respected economists wrote a letter to the Financial Times in which they asserted that after “ten years of near zero productivity growth” and “public services under intolerable strain”, which “a hard Brexit would only make worse”, the UK needs the “serious injection of public investment” promised in the Labour Party manifesto.
After the publication of the manifestos, the polls began to show an improvement in the polls for Labour – which appears to be the main reason for a revival of the antisemitism issue in the form of an extraordinary and unprecedented attack on Corbyn in the Times on Monday (November 25) by the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis. This was clearly a political intervention on behalf of the Conservatives that has been widely condemned by many Jews.  Corbyn was attacked in the Jewish and Tory press after undergoing a gruelling interview by Andrew Neil, in which Corbyn refused to apologise to the Jewish community, pointing out that his party has speeded up the disciplinary process and that the issue only involves “a very, very small number of people”.  But, in view of all the genuine issues facing the country, rooting out the last tiny vestiges of antisemitism from the Labour Party still appears to be extremely low among the public’s priorities; this blatantly politicised attempt to put almost non-existent Labour antisemitism (only 0.1 per cent of Labour members have faced accusations of antisemitism) into the foreground does not appear to be working.
There appeared, however, to be a major blow for Labour when the results were published by the Times on Wednesday (November 27) of a much-vaunted Yougov poll called an MRP poll. MRP stands for “Multi-Level Regression and Post-Stratification”. This is a recently-developed scientific polling technique that is regarded with some awe, not just because of its impressively unintelligible name, but because it correctly predicted a hung parliament in 2017, at a time when many polls were forecasting a Tory majority.  On Wednesday, this new 2019 MRP poll predicted a big Conservative majority of 68 seats: the Tories on 359 seats and Labour falling back to only 211 (at present the Tories have 317 seats and Labour has 262; to win a parliamentary majority, the Tories need 326).
But it has been pointed out that the fieldwork for the poll was conducted the previous week, before the manifestos. Also the MRP poll didn’t take into account the question of “tactical voting”: the process whereby people vote not according to their political preferences but according to which candidate is most likely to oust the Conservative candidate. The higher the likelihood seems that Johnson will return with a big majority, the more likely those opposed to him will be to practise tactical voting.
One of the most interesting critics of the MRP poll is Johnson’s Chief Adviser and eminence grise, Dominic Cummings. Though of course his aim is to galvanise support for the Tories, Cummings has provided encouragement to Labour supporters in his most recent blog post – a letter to Leave voters that he calls “a bat signal” to indicate that Brexit is in danger. He writes:
“You will see many polls in the coming days. Some will say Boris will win. Trust me, as someone who has worked on lots of campaigns, things are MUCH tighter than they seem and there is a very real possibility of a hung parliament.”
And Cummings also argues that a vote for the Brexit Party in most Labour Leave constituencies is likely to benefit Labour.
Some of the most recent polls have showed the gap between the Tories and Labour narrowing; one poll shows a 7 per cent gap, another an 8 per cent gap, and one of the most recent, for the Independent, shows a 6 per cent gap. Predictions at the start of the campaign that this would be a four-horse race, with strong gains in particular for the Lib Dems, appear to have been wrong; at this crucial central point in the campaign, with less than two weeks to go, this is becoming a two-horse contest between the two main parties. The withdrawal of the Brexit Party from Conservative-held seats led to the big Tory surge in the polls, as Leave voters flocked to the Conservatives – but there are now indications that this rise could have peaked. And support for the Lib Dems has dropped, while there are signs that Remainers could be coalescing around Labour, as their best hope of defeating Johnson. 
In Labour’s favour also is a big surge in voter registration. According to the Electoral Reform Society, there have been 3.2 million applications to register since the day the election was called, an average of 114,000 per day. Two-thirds of these are from people aged under 34.
To return to Cummings’s blog post, which gives a fascinating insight into his thinking: he argues that Corbyn’s plan of a “soft” Brexit deal with the EU is not Brexit at all but a form of Remain; according to him, Brexit means being completely outside the EU Customs Union and Single Market. He writes that, despite all the efforts that he and Johnson made to bring about Brexit:
“the forces against us were very powerful…..a powerful network did all they could to stop Brexit and make a pro-Brexit government impossible. Billionaires hired lawyers….a bunch of MPs, some of them working with foreign governments, wrote primary legislation – ‘the Surrender Act’ – also known as the Benn Act….Corbyn, Sturgeon [Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader] and co had a majority that forced the government to ask for another delay and accept any conditions Brussels demanded. Such is their loyalty to the EU they were happy to make Britain a laughing stock. So it’s clear that many of these powerful insiders who promised to respect the referendum will do absolutely anything to keep their grip on power and money.” (Italics in original).
But it’s difficult to depict as powerful, rich Establishment insiders an opposition headed by a Socialist that is putting forward a transformative social agenda.
Meanwhile, Corbyn has kept up the pressure on non-Brexit issues, especially the NHS, publishing on Wednesday (November 27) the documentary evidence of secret talks between the UK government and the US that he had produced during his debate with Johnson. As the Guardian points out, the document reveals that
“US trade officials explained clearly their approach to trade talks, described as ‘negative listing’, which involves starting the talks with nothing off the table, the assumption being that total market access is the starting point for any discussions.”
On Friday (November 29), an appalling terror attack took place on London Bridge, during which two young Cambridge graduates who had been working to rehabilitate ex-prisoners – Jack Merritt, aged 25 and Saskia Jones, aged 23 — were murdered by Usman Khan, a convicted terrorist who had been released early from prison in December 2018. Corbyn agreed with Johnson a suspension of campaigning for a day out of respect for the victims and their families; but Johnson immediately tried to make political capital out of the atrocity by calling for criminals to serve out their full sentences and trying to portray the Conservatives as the party of law and order – somewhat unconvincingly since he himself was found to have acted illegally in proroguing Parliament. But in a speech in York yesterday (Sunday, December 1), Corbyn pointed out that the public was failed by cuts in the probation service:
“When those public services are cut back as they had been during the past decade, they leave behind gaps. This can lead to missed chances to intervene in the lives of people who go on to commit inexcusable acts…..Take the probation service, part-privatised in 2014, resulting in disaster….A failure to recruit has left huge staffing shortfalls and with staff supervising more cases than ever expected, posing a serious risk to our security. Real security doesn’t only come from strong laws and intelligence, it comes also from effective public services that have the funding they need. You can’t keep people safe on the cheap.”
The Independent has revealed that a former top prosecutor has claimed that he personally warned Johnson about the problem of released terrorists who were “ostensibly rehabilitated but still radicalised”, but had been told by Johnson that there was “no money” to address the issue. And today the Independent reports that Jack Merritt’s father has shared a tweet by the left-wing journalist Ash Sarkar:
“It’s beyond disgusting that Boris Johnson, Priti Patel [the Home Secretary] and newspapers like the Mail are using Jack Merritt’s death and image to promote an agenda he fought against all his life. He was a passionate believer in rehabilitation and transformative justice, not draconian sentencing.”