(CN) – With the United Kingdom set to vote for a new Parliament in a month, the race is being defined by tactical voting and electoral pacts over Brexit, the question mark looming over the election.
Last week, three parties opposed to the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union agreed to not run candidates against each other in a slew of districts in England and Wales for the Dec. 12 election. The Liberal Democrats, Greens and the Welsh party Plaid Cymru said they were putting politics aside to avoid splitting votes and help pro-European Union candidates win.
Then on Monday, Nigel Farage, the head of the anti-EU Brexit Party, announced his party would not challenge seats held by Conservatives but instead concentrate on winning seats where Labour Party members who favor staying in the EU are up for grabs. Only days before Farage had threatened to run candidates against the Tories unless the Conservatives agreed to an electoral pact with his party. His U-turn was seen as helping the Tories.
These electoral strategies may be important, but it’s doubtful that they will determine the election’s outcome. Instead, the election is being fought between the old giants of British politics on familiar grounds. It’s a pro-business, tax-cutting Tory party against a tax-and-spend Labour Party championing the rights of workers and advocating an expansion of social services.
Brexit is a core dispute of course. The Tories see forcing the U.K. out of the EU as fundamental to their political survival and a new guiding principle, upending decades of Europe-centered British foreign policy. Labour favors keeping close ties to Europe and has backed holding a second referendum on Brexit.
Besides Brexit, the issue of Britain’s government-run health care system, the National Health Service, has become a key battleground between the two parties. The Tories have pledged to increase spending on the NHS and this week Labour unveiled even more ambitious spending plans for NHS. At the same time, Labour is warning that the Tories will turn more of NHS over to private companies. Privatization of some NHS services began under the Labour government of Tony Blair and was expanded under subsequent Tory governments.
It’s also a fight between two personalities who inspire both admiration and loathing, and whose mutual dislike colors everything they say about each other.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson revels in calling Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a dangerous Marxist. He even kicked off the election campaign by comparing Corbyn and his Labour Party to Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator.
“They pretend that their hatred is directed only at certain billionaires – and they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks,” Johnson wrote about Labour in the Daily Telegraph, a conservative newspaper for which he wrote a weekly column before becoming prime minister.
Corbyn, meanwhile, lashes out at Johnson and likens him to U.S. President Donald Trump, calling him a dangerous populist who will sell out Britain’s interests in a free-trade deal with the United States.
The two leaders are due to clash next Tuesday for their first televised debate. A final debate is scheduled for Dec. 6, six days before the crucial election. This is the first wintertime election in nearly a century in Britain and was called to break months of deadlock in the House of Commons over Brexit.
Polls show the Conservatives with a substantial lead, but Labour appears to be narrowing the gap.
“Polling averages suggest that both parties are gaining support, and that Labour is gaining faster since Parliament voted for an early election at the end of last month,” said John Rentoul, a political commentator for the Independent newspaper. “The average Tory lead has fallen from 13 points then to about 9 points now.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)