2023 was a tough year for the people of the UK. The combined effects of Austerity, Brexit and a severe mis-handling of the COVID crisis have left the country in an unprecedented position with a weakened economy, real wages falling more sharply they have in 100 years, a severe and growing cost-of-living crisis and rising poverty and destitution. Our public services are on their knees: our schools are crumbling and even our cherished NHS is struggling to perform. On the environment, our government is doing less than nothing: our rivers and coastal waters are awash with sewage, and the government is backing away from its net zero commitments ‘so as not to deter investors’.
Against this background, our political parties have been positioning themselves to maximise their chances of winning the next election. The polls show how they are doing.
In our first-past-the-post system, only two parties have a chance of winning. Let’s start by looking at the year from the Conservatives’ perspective.
Sunak’s tenure had begun in late 2022 with an effective message: “Liz Truss is no longer in charge” which caused an immediate narrowing of the gap with Labour. In January, Sunak set out his five pledges to the British people. These were intended to be things that he could guarantee to deliver – or that were guaranteed to happen regardless – though it has since turned out that he is unlikely to meet more than one.
In February, Sunak had a genuine success: his Northern Ireland deal was a step towards stability in NI, and was widely welcomed. The polls responded positively.
But the March Budget showed what a Sunak premiership had to offer the British people – nothing to address any of the issues raised at the top of this article. The press picked up on the fact that Sunak (like other very wealthy people) pays a lower rate of tax than the typical British worker, though they massively understated the extent of the problem. And the polls began to slide again from April.
Distraction from the real problems facing the UK became a key strategy, and Suella Braverman took the lead with increasingly disturbing anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric. This made more voters believe that immigration was an important challenge for the UK, but did not shake their belief that the two biggest issues were 1) the economy and the cost of living crisis and 2) the NHS. So the polls continued to slide.
July saw the 75th anniversary of the NHS – an opportunity for a rational government to gain ground by reversing the underfunding of the past 13 years and restoring the NHS to its former position as the world’s most respected healthcare system. Instead, the far right, led by former Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, took the occasion to call for the replacement of the NHS with a fully private system.
The Autumn brought the conference season – an important time for Sunak to establish his authority. The opposite happened. Extraordinarily, Liz Truss was able to stage a successful (with the audience at the conference) fringe session and other extreme right-wingers also set out their stalls for leadership of the party. Even Nigel Farage was present and commented that he could “easily” be the Conservative leader in 3 years.
November saw another Budget which did nothing for the people of the UK, or the economy, or the environment. Braverman’s apparent attempt to position herself as the next leader using ever more toxic and dangerous rhetoric finally led to her being sacked again, but did not stop her from making a “resignation” speech attacking Sunak.
Given the refusal of the polls to respond positively, the Conservatives took further steps to distort the electoral process by allowing foreign voters to be vouched for by a British resident voter (this is not allowed for those who are here, who must show official voter-id) and then to be allowed to donate. They have simultaneously increased the spending limits by 80%.
As the year drew to a close, Conservative peer Baroness Warsi summarised the feelings of many traditional Conservatives when, in reply to a question about why she – who seems quite sane – was a member of the Conservative Party replied,
“Most Tories used to believe in democracy, the rule of law, and decency. We used to think this country was an amazing place where all of us who make it up could live together. We weren’t toxic mad fascists like some of my colleagues are now.”
The story of the year from the Labour perspective is much simpler. Having noted the state of the UK media and their propensity to destroy the electoral prospects of Labour leaders – Kinnock, Brown, Miliband and Corbyn, for example – Labour settled on a “small target” strategy: do not say or do anything that the Mail or the Telegraph could use as electoral ammunition. The downsides of this strategy are that it means they can say virtually nothing, and are unable to put forward a constructive vision of what they might do in office – so the voting population has very little idea of what they might do. The upside is simple: it has meant that their poll lead is essentially unchanged since 1 January, 2023. The chances that the Conservatives will lose the next election are now very high.
But the stakes remain very high: as our April Fool article set out, in what was intended as satire but now looks like an accurate description of reality, there are still many ways that toxic mad fascists could cling to power. Making sure that as many people as possible are aware of the risks remains vital.
And even if this does not happen, there is a lot to do to make sure that an alternative government will do enough not to be merely a disappointing interlude in the slide towards fascism. We face a national emergency; we need a government that takes that challenge on.
2023 has offered UK citizens glimmers of hope – most notably hope for a change of government – but it has also shown us that there are no grounds for complacency.
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