As the United Kingdom votes in the most closely contested election in memory, SUDEEP PAUL lists the biggest issues for the parties, the voters, and the rest of us.
Q: What factors give the 2015 general election added significance?
Several. Such as the long-term existence of the Union itself. Scotland recently held a referendum on independence from the UK, and looks set to vote solely on Scottish concerns. British membership of the European Union casts a long shadow, with the Tories pledging a referendum on it by 2017, while the UKIP has built its campaign on a “Brexit” plank. There is also the question of the economy, and some see the future of London as a global finance capital hanging in the balance.
Q: How has the economy fared under the Conservative-LibDem coalition?
It is undoubtedly at a much stronger place now than where the last Labour government left it. The coalition has overseen the economy coming out of recession and growing again, with an increase in consumption and high employment. Its deficit reduction programme set pragmatic targets and opted for a flexible rate. And yet, the budget deficit is comparatively high at 5% of GDP and the current account deficit is 5.5%. The coalition has not been able to stimulate wages. Real income, after correcting for inflation, has declined for six straight years. Living standards haven’t fared well, while spending cuts have adversely affected the poorest percentiles. So, despite the government doing a fairly good — though not great — job in difficult times, even Conservative voters are disappointed.
Q: What’s on top of the agenda of the four frontline parties and SNP?
Conservatives: Eliminate deficit and run a surplus by the end of the term; an additional £ 8 billion for NHS by 2020; restrict net annual immigration within “manageable limits”; replace Trident submarines with four submarines to preserve continuous-at-sea-nuclear-deterrent. Want referendum on Britain’s EU membership, but want to first renegotiate the UK’s terms of existence within the EU.
Labour: Cut deficit yearly, balancing the accounts, while refraining from additional borrowing; raise minimum wage to above £ 8 per hour by 2019; pledge an extra £ 2.5 bn for NHS. Wants to cap profit private firms can make from NHS at 5%. On immigration, proposes 1,000 new border guards and exit checks, in addition to capping the number of workers immigrating from outside the EU. No further transfer of power from London to Brussels, but no referendum either.
LibDems: Balance budget by combining cuts and taxes, deal with deficit by 2017-18. Want investment of £ 8 bn in NHS. On immigration, seek exit and entry checks restored, but an end to indefinite detention of immigrants. Strongly support British continuance in the EU to capitalise on new markets. Want an end to the continuous-at-sea-nuclear-deterrent.
UKIP: Primary agenda is quick referendum on EU membership, speedy exit if the vote is “out”. Has made immigration its election centrepiece, compelling, by its hard line, others to toughen their stands too. Proposes “points system” for immigrants as per their skills, cap on skilled immigration at 50,000 per year, 5-year ban on unskilled immigrants.
SNP: Annual spending hike of 0.5%, easier access to finance for Scottish firms. Favours immigration policy that would meet “Scotland’s economic needs”. Supports increase of £ 24 bn in NHS spending in the UK. Since Scottish MPs can vote on English laws, SNP will vote against further privatisation of NHS in England. All Scottish pro-independence parties want the Trident nuclear weapons system out of Scotland. But while opposing a new generation of Trident, SNP wants current conventional military bases in Scotland retained.
Cameron’s return to old-style Tory “Europhobia” plays to both the party’s base and Britain’s growing disenchantment with Brussels. Several EU rules, as on trade and finance, are perceived as restrictive and interfering, inimical to British interests. The UK did not join the Eurozone or the Schengen passport-free bloc. The present hostility to the EU owes a lot to an influx of legal East European migrants for work. UKIP has pounced on this. Brexit supporters argue that leaving would enable Britain to trade freely globally; opponents say Brexit would curtail trade with the continent and raise doubts about the UK’s suitability for foreign investment.
Miliband, once derided as “Red Ed”, moved the party far to the left of Tony Blair’s New Labour. The fears centre around his seemingly obsolete faith in the role of the public sector and discomfort with the idea of profit-making private enterprise. Even moderate Labour voters fear Miliband would be reckless, spending much more than the UK can afford to. Last week’s BBC Question Time saw the traditionally Labour-dominated audience heckling Miliband by refusing to believe his words on fiscal responsibility and the economy. Critics warn of a Labour government in coalition with or backed by the SNP, which has called for an anti-Tory alliance. Even if the SNP offers vote-by-vote support, it would extract a price each time. A Miliband government, it is feared, would be unlikely to resist the temptation of interfering in the free market, scaring away investment. But pushed too far by the SNP, Miliband may become wary of passing bills, thus producing a stillborn government.