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Genera Election 2017

Britain must choose consensus over change

Daily BusinessOn Monday BBC Radio Four interviewed a number of women in Glasgow to ask how they might vote and what issues concerned them. Health and education topped their lists. As Brian Taylor, the Scottish political editor said afterwards, both of these may be important to Scottish voters, but both are devolved matters handled by the Scottish parliament, not Westminster.

This was symptomatic of one of the most muddled election campaigns, not least by the constant drawing on devolved issues of little or no relevance to a UK general election. Televised Scottish leaders’ debates over Holyrood’s record on hospital waiting lists and police numbers only adds to the confusion for voters. Britain is voting for MPs not MSPs, though it has been difficult even for the parties and the political pundits to make that distinction.

It has also become muddled because of the flip-flopping of policy statements by leading players and a lack of conviction on key issues. From Theresa May’s “nothing has changed” u-turn on social care to Jeremy Corbyn’s “let’s talk, no let’s not do a deal” approach to the SNP the politicians have given us little certainty or confidence in their positions on the big decisions. Mr Corbyn and Diane Abbott have stumbled over key numbers, while Michael Fallon was taken to task by fellow Tories after wrongly claiming his party would not raise taxes.

No wonder the opinion polls have been so unclear. The voters are probably doing some flip-flopping of their own. The polling organisations were already in trouble after a series of wrong calls and they continue to throw up conflicting predictions, some forecasting a clear majority for Mrs May, others saying the Tories will fall short. Of course, Mr Corbyn, the “nowhere man” six weeks ago, might even win.

Mrs May has not had a good campaign. She confidently called the election with her party in a seemingly unassailable position and has managed only to see that margin eroded. Her policy mistakes, unconvincing Brexit statements, questions over her handling of police numbers and the row over MPs’ election expenses have not done her any favours. Mr Corbyn, by contrast, has produced a clearer agenda. While he scares investors and the business community in general, he does at least present a plan or, as he says himself “a clear alternative”.

He remains, however, an unknown quantity and his past associations with the IRA, together with a lack of trust in his front bench’s approach to tax and the economy will leave voters suspicious of what sort of Britain he would create. That said, should he lose on Thursday it would do no harm for him to stay in post as he and the country would benefit from another term learning more about him and how he wants to shape his party, let alone post-Brexit Britain. Frankly, Labour offers no alternative leadership and Mr Corbyn is once again playing to packed houses around the country.

Nicola Sturgeon could emerge as the ‘winner’ in the event of a hung parliament. It would strengthen her bargaining powers for independence and other SNP policy demands. Even so, securing a second independence referendum is only a staging post. She still has to convince enough Scots to vote for separation and the polls suggest she still has work to do. Her “keep the Tories out” rhetoric has become jarring and delivered as if she speaks of an evil organisation. She may do no wrong in the eyes of her acolytes but to everyone else she needs to adopt a more conciliatory tone if she is to achieve her ambitions.

Who should govern? The Tories offer less of a risk, and in risky times it would be better to lower the stakes than gamble with Britain’s future. With no party offering us a failsafe future, a hung parliament might even be the best outcome to force Westminster into a more consensus-style of politics to handle important constitutional and security matters and ensure the economy is not fractured in the process.

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