Since taking office in July, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pressed parliament to call a general election, primarily in the hopes of gaining a working majority for his Conservative Party. In the 2017 general election, the Conservatives failed to win a majority and were forced into a coalition with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in order to secure a one-seat majority in the House of Commons. This alliance has been increasingly strained by Johnson’s proposed Brexit withdrawal agreement, while a string of Tory defections has seen the prime minister lose his majority. A minimum of 326 seats are required for a majority in the Commons.
The House of Commons rejected three separate bills to hold a snap election, primarily due to concerns that a "No Deal Brexit" had not been taken off the table. Members of parliament eventually approved the general election motion at the fourth attempt in a vote held on October 29, after the European Union delayed the UK’s deadline to finalize Brexit by a further three months following the implementation of the Benn Act, removing the immediate threat of the UK leaving the EU without a deal in place.
Heading into the election, political parties and the state broadcaster, the BBC, have been accused of spreading false information and failing to report objectively. According to First Draft, a non-profit, politically independent coalition that tackles the spread of disinformation, 88 percent of Conservative Party adverts published on Facebook from December 1-4 contained misleading information. In contrast, the organization stated that they had not found any misleading claims in Labour adverts on Facebook.
Additionally, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg was forced to apologize on Twitter after reporting claims that an adviser to Tory politician Matt Hancock was punched in the face by a Labour activist. A video from the incident that surfaced on social media after the allegations proved this incident to be false.
"Happy to apologiSe for earlier confusion about the punch that wasn’t a punch outside Leeds General - 2 sources suggested it had happened but clear from video that was wrong," Kuenssberg tweeted on Tuesday.
In this climate, UK voters are being asked to decide on the best step forward for their country. Brexit, the National Health Service (NHS), climate and domestic concerns such as crime, homelessness and unemployment are dominating public discourse.
Late Labour Surge Heading Into Election Day
The majority of the polling data suggests that Johnson’s Conservative Party will gain the most votes at Thursday’s general election. YouGov’s final MRP model, based on 105,612 interviews conducted from December 4-11 and published on Wednesday, predicts that the Conservatives will win 43 percent of the vote share. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party look set to win 34 percent of the vote share, while the Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party are on course to receive 12 percent and 3 percent respectively.
The MRP model differs from traditional polls by projecting how particular constituencies vote, whereas traditional voting intention polls often measure the share of the entire UK vote. The MRP model is considered to be one of the best predictors of election results, as it accurately called 93 percent of the seats in the 2017 general election, YouGov stated on their website.
In Wednesday’s most recent projection, the Conservative Party look set to win a slim majority in the House of Commons. According to the MRP poll, the Tories will win a working majority of 28 seats at Thursday’s election, which if proven to be accurate, would give Boris Johnson a firm mandate to secure the UK’s exit from the European Union.
However, when compared with previous polls, voters appear to be making a sharp turn toward Corbyn’s Labour Party. A YouGov MRP poll published on November 28 predicted that the Tories would win a majority of 68, 40 more than Wednesday’s projection.
Additionally, the margin of error for the most recent MRP poll could see the Conservatives win just 311 seats, meaning that the pollster "absolutely cannot rule out the 2019 election producing a hung Parliament," a statement on YouGov’s website said.
Despite the potential late Labour surge before Thursday’s election, Wednesday’s YouGov poll still predicts that the Conservative Party will win 29 seats previously held by Labour, as the Tories are on course for their best election result since 1987. The bulk of these gains will come in the West Midlands and Northern England, in Labour constituencies that voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum, the pollster stated.
According to another YouGov poll, published on November 22, Labour remains the party of choice for most voters under the age of 29, but a significant portion of their voter base are predicted to turn to the Liberal Democrats or the Green Party. The Conservative Party holds a dominant lead in polling among older age groups.
Brexit Tops Voters Concerns
The UK population believes that Brexit is the most crucial issue facing the country ahead of the general election, an Ipsos MORI poll revealed on Tuesday. According to the pollster, 57 percent of a representative survey comprising 1,010 adults said that the UK’s exit from the EU is one of the most important concerns heading into Thursday’s vote.
"It's been a Brexit election no matter which way you cut it. Regardless of old political allegiances and how people voted in 2016, people do want to see that matter resolved and importantly they want to see the democracy of the decision honoured," Doug Nichols, general secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions, said.
During an appearance on the LBC radio station on November 29, Boris Johnson stated that the UK will leave the European Union by January 31, should the Conservative Party win a majority. The prime minister outlined that with a majority in the Commons, he will be able to get his withdrawal bill passed before the deadline, which will potentially eliminate the possibility of leaving without a deal in place with the EU.
Labour's position, should it be able to form a government, will involve a re-negotiation of Prime Minister Johnson's existing Brexit deal, albeit it one that will enshrine environmental, worker and consumer obligations into law. That deal will then be voted on in a subsequent referendum, with one option being to remain in the European Union, a point detractors have claimed is a betrayal of the wishes of the pro-Leave majority in 2016. The Labour Party has been accused of inconsistency and zigzagging in regards to its Brexit policy.
"What is clear is that the position the Labour party have taken on Brexit has done a lot of damage in the face of its absolutely fantastic social and economic program, which is just what the country needs. Set aside the fact that a big part of that program is impossible inside the EU, the way the rest of it has been worked out in terms of delivery is probably the best manifesto the country has ever received," Nichols stated.
On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats and Green Party have proposed to stop Brexit, either through revoking Article 50 or a second referendum. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, two constituent parts of the United Kingdom that voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum, many political parties are also seeking to stop the withdrawal process.
In their election manifesto, the Scottish National Party (SNP) stated that the country "voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU." The SNP has also promised voters a second independence referendum.
Northern Ireland is the constituent part of the United Kingdom that will be most affected by Brexit. A seamless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a crucial part of the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, which was a major step in ending a thirty-year period of violence, termed The Troubles.
Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement will see Northern Ireland leave the EU customs union, along with the rest of the United Kingdom. Instead, the proposal includes the creation of an all-island regulatory zone covering all goods, which may prevent the establishment of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Sinn Fein, a party that participates in the general election but does not attend or participate in parliamentary proceedings, has vehemently opposed any hard border between the two countries. The party has announced that it will stand aside in three Northern Irish constituencies in Thursday’s election, in order to help pro-remain parties gain seats.
The prime minister’s withdrawal agreement has also drawn the wrath of the DUP, who were the Tories’ coalition partner after the 2017 general election. The DUP argues that Johnson’s proposals create a hard border in the Irish Sea, which will give Northern Ireland different trade rules to the rest of the United Kingdom. The DUP has voted down Johnson’s withdrawal bill in the Commons.
"The DUP is committed to a deal that works for the whole of the United Kingdom and which does not leave Northern Ireland behind, with no border in the Irish Sea," the DUP manifesto reads.
The Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, proposes to get the UK out of the EU as soon as possible. The party claimed 30.5 percent of the vote at May’s European Parliament elections, but recent polls suggest that their voter base has shifted to support the Conservative Party.
The possibility of a hung parliament will only further complicate the UK’s exit from the European Union, which was initially meant to take place in March, after Theresa May’s government invoked Article 50 in 2017.
Saving the NHS?
Outside of Brexit, Britain's allegedly ailing health service remains a focal point for concern following a series of exposes and accusations that may have further undermined Boris Johnson's minority government.
According to Tuesday’s Ipsos MORI poll that asked participants to name the most important issue facing the country, 54 percent of respondents stated that the NHS was a vital concern heading into Thursday’s election. Potentially in line with the polled swing in support to the Labour Party, Ipsos MORI stated that the percentage of the UK population listing the NHS as a major concern has increased by 18 percent since October.
The prime minister was left visibly flustered on Monday when confronted by an ITV journalist bearing an image on his phone of a four-year-old boy asleep on the floor in Leeds General Infirmary. The child, named Jack Williment-Barr, had been brought into the hospital by his mother after falling ill over what was initially feared to be a case of pneumonia.
Apparent over-capacity in the hospital resulted in the boy being denied a bed space for some hours, ultimately causing the boy's mother to tell the Daily Mirror newspaper she would now be voting Labour in preference to her long-term loyalty to the Conservative party. The prime minister however initially refused to look at the image of the young Mr. Williment-Barr asleep on the floor, at one point appearing to take the reporter's mobile phone and place it in his own pocket.
In a forthcoming study viewed by The Guardian on Tuesday, two leading NHS doctors stated that 5,449 people died as a result of being forced to wait anywhere between six and 11 hours for treatment in accident and emergency units in UK hospitals between 2016 and 2019.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has played up fears that the NHS will be privatized under another Conservative government. On November 27, Corbyn stated that Labour has obtained "leaked" papers allegedly proving the health service would be "on the table" in a post-Brexit deal with the US.
Speaking to Sputnik on Tuesday, Dr John Puntis, co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public (KONP), claimed this was now the reality, regardless of what was being claimed by contending politicians.
"I don't think there's any doubt about it at all. The point is American companies are already in there. We have all this tendering already, something like 18 percent of NHS England's budget already finds its way into private companies, quite a lot of them American," he said.
Dr Puntis went on to claim that whilst many people may be unaffected by the state of the health service, particularly those who are in good health or without relatives in care, the issue had now become so severe it would likely prove to be as important as Brexit in the minds of many potential voters.
"It's clear that the NHS has become a very important issue, perhaps even the most important one. I think the campaigning message that Corbyn has been putting out is about protecting the NHS. So I think many people will see that what Labour is offering is much more likely to benefit the NHS than what the Tories are offering. So I'll think it will make a difference," he said.
Corbyn has consistently used the slogan "save our NHS" in Labour’s promotional material heading into the election, but as the polling data reveals, Brexit still tops the list of voters concerns.
Tackling Climate Change
Given that the UK general election is taking place at the same time as the 25th UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid, how political parties will tackle climate change has come into focus.
This has been magnified given the multiple protests staged by climate activist group Extinction Rebellion. Protesters have glued themselves to political party buses throughout the election campaign.
According to a leading climate advocacy group, Friends of the Earth, Labour has committed to the strongest policies to protect the environment and combat climate change, even ahead of the Green Party.
"Many of the policies that Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Green Party have put forward are commensurate with, or striving to meet, the challenges we face," Friends of the Earth spokesman Dave Timms stated in a report on the organization’s website.
The Conservative Party has the weakest manifesto with regards to tackling climate change, Friends of the Earth stated.
"It is disappointing we have not seen the same urgency, ambition or consistency from the Conservative Party," Timms said.
On Monday, Prime Minister Johnson was slammed by climate advocacy groups for using a private jet to travel from Doncaster to Darlington, a journey of 80 miles that could be completed in an hour by train, The Independent newspaper reported.
Crime, Housing and Homelessness Crises
Other major issues heading into the general election include crime, particularly following the recent terrorist attack on London Bridge, and the housing and homelessness crises impacting many areas of the United Kingdom.
On November 29, Usman Khan stabbed Jack Merritt, 25, and Saskia Jones, 23, on London Bridge. Both victims later died from their injuries, while the attacker was shot dead by police.
Johnson used this event to call for tougher sentences for terror offences after it was revealed that the attacker, Usman Khan, was previously convicted on terror charges and was released from prison early. The prime minister’s alleged politicization of the incident drew criticism from both Corbyn and the father of Jack Merritt.
"He would be seething at his death, and his life, being used to perpetuate an agenda of hate that he gave his everything fighting against. We should never forget that," Dave Merritt wrote in a column published by The Guardian newspaper.
The UK is also facing a homelessness crisis. Overall numbers of homeless people in the United Kingdom have soared since 2010, and a report published on December 3 by a leading charity revealed that 135,000 children in the country will be homeless on Christmas Day.
"The fact 183 children become homeless every day is a scandalous figure and a sharp reminder that political promises about tackling homelessness must be turned into real action," Shelter chief executive Polly Neate said in the report.
In August, Nick Roberts, project manager at the Windsor Homeless Project, told Sputnik that far-reaching policy failures and a fixation on Brexit was preventing the government from alleviating what many are calling a "housing crisis."
The UK government has previously vowed to end homelessness, specifically within the next decade, having allocated around 100 million pounds to such efforts last year. However, doubt remains as to whether such a goal is achievable.
Ahead of Thursday’s election, Johnson’s Conservative Party promises to build a total of one million homes by 2025. The Labour Party has pledged to build 150,000 new social homes a year, should it gain a majority, and a process of linking housing rent costs to local incomes.
UK Voters Head to the Polls
UK politics has seemingly moved further and further away from centrist policies. Voters will head to the polls on Thursday faced with a choice of "getting Brexit done," as Johnson proposes, or further delays and uncertainty regarding Brexit.
For other voters, Corbyn’s message calling to "save our NHS," especially following Johnson’s unconvincing reaction to being shown a photo of a child sleeping on the floor of a UK hospital awaiting treatment, may speak the loudest.
Polling booths in the United Kingdom will be open between 07:00 and 22:00 GMT. An exit poll is expected to be published as soon as the polls close, and then results will be revealed throughout the night.