In the privacy of the voting booth on Thursday the British electorate will, collectively, define a monumental turning point in the history of these islands and, possibly, of Europe itself.
The result will determine whether we push on with the Brexit project, regardless of profound negative consequences for both our economic circumstances and our place in the world, or whether we wish to create the space for further reflection and a new decision.
We can give ourselves a pathway for second thoughts – either to confirm the result of the 2016 referendum or to stop Brexit in its tracks – or, irritated and impatient, we can demand an immediate formal end to our involvement in the noblest act of international collaboration in history, in favour of a still totally undefined vision of an alternative future.
If only it were that easy. We all know that a general election is not the best way to decide on a single issue. This is not a referendum. Party manifestos run to scores of pages, commended for vaulting ambition or condemned for the lack of it, attacked for dubious costings or for their absence. It is not only parties but a multitude of pressing issues and personalities that compete for our attention and our verdict.
In our hierarchy of needs and desires where should we place the matter of Europe? If someone in my family is ill, should it be above or below plans to shore up our NHS or to build more hospitals? If my grown children are struggling to find an affordable home, should it be above or below the building of more houses? If my childrens’ school is struggling, should Europe command more attention than employing more teachers?
The truth is that the issue of Europe does not sit above or below any of these issues. Rather, it sits alongside them all. In whatever direction we look Brexit would make solutions – put forward by whatever party – harder to find and achieve. That is why in this election, on this singular occasion, the issue of Europe must have a prior claim.
The price of Brexit in lost economic growth is not denied by any side in this debate, whether politician or economist. The debate has been only about the size of the loss and how many years or decades it might take us to recover.
That has massive consequences for public finances and, by extension, for our ability to grow and staff the NHS, to build affordable homes, to employ teachers and policemen. It has consequences, too, for the finances of every family, for those hard-pressed in work and those even harder pressed without.
You do not need campaigning politicians to tell you the truth of the matter. You have only to queue in A&E, or to bump along on unrepaired roads, or to witness the demand at food banks across the country, or walk down the wounded high streets of our towns.
Brexit will undermine already shaky Conservative claims that austerity is coming to an end. It will undermine Labour’s plans for transforming the public realm and reducing regional inequalities. It will present Plaid Cymru with an even steeper hill for Wales to climb. And as for climate change, policies will be a paler green than they most certainly need to be.
And all this will have the gravest consequences for Wales, we having been a greater beneficiary of European investment than any other part of the United Kingdom.
How then should we decide where to place our cross?
There is no other way of saying this: voters in Wales need to do everything in their power to prevent Boris Johnson from enjoying another term in Downing Street.
This is not an easy ask. Our unreformed voting system does not help. Government in this country lurches from one side to another like a ship with loose ballast, regardless of the wishes of the passengers. It is not designed for the expression of fine judgments.
To vote tactically is tough. It may require the suspension of a traditional loyalty and past voting habits. For many it will require a holding of the nose against the whiff of unfamiliar ideology, or the suspension of disbelief in a particular personality. But unless we can weld disparate progressive forces into a unified and savvy phalanx of opposition to the present government, we will pay a heavy price for a very long time.
Wales has shown the way with the effective cross-party collaboration between Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, but the major task will not only be the safeguarding of Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrat seats, but also to shore up any vulnerable Labour seats and to reduce the Conservative tally.
Choices in some constituencies are not straightforward, but a good guide to prospects is available on the Wales for Europe website: https://walesforeurope.org/election-2019/key-welsh-marginals/
For many erstwhile Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrat voters, let alone pro-Europe Conservatives, putting a cross beside the Labour candidate will go sharply against the grain. They will harbor deep reservations about some Labour policies as well as about the personality of the party’s leader. Jeremy Corbyn may have voted Remain in 2016 but, to put it mildly, he has never been a champion of the cause.
So what can one say to those who are nervous of voting Labour in constituencies where such a vote would make a difference?
First, this is not 1945 nor 1997. Neither is it 1983. Neither Labour nor Conservative parties are going to win a landslide victory. The danger we need to avoid is a Conservative Government, with a majority almost certain to be smaller in number than the membership of the ERG, the Brexit ultras who would like nothing better than the hardest possible Brexit. In those circumstances, Boris Johnson will be their willing captive.
Second, there is no need to be scared of the Labour manifesto. If the polls are to be believed the best that Labour can hope for is to be a minority government which would have to negotiate its policy priorities with the other parties – the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. In those circumstances, proposals such as for the wholesale nationalisation of some industries are hardly likely to make the cut.
Lastly, one must take the long view: Corbyn is not forever, Brexit might be.
This has not been the most inspiring general election. The two main parties have presented the country with a choice between a Labour leader who has equivocated on the greatest issue of our time, despite the wishes of the majority of his party, and a Conservative leader who is not afraid to be dishonest when it suits, yet is afraid to face the Andrew Neil lie detector test.
In the long-term interest of this country we must hope that, in selected constituencies, people will vote for the party of the former, and against both the party and the leader of the latter.
I and the thousands of activists for Europe across Wales urge everyone to vote against cynicism, impatience, fatigue and outdated jingoism, and for the opportunity to go back to people in a referendum armed with a now far better informed case for an outward-looking, progressive and more prosperous European future.
This article first appeared in the Western Mail on 10 December 2019.
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.
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