This is turning out to be an election like no other. There is a mood abroad in the UK in which personal feelings about politicians and perceptions about the state of the country are stretching traditional loyalties to breaking point. No one can miss the raw hostility from those in one party toward those in the others. The perceived stakes appear so high that they justify extreme measures. A decade of austerity opened up a debate about the divisions in British society; since 2016 the emotional pitch of arguments has been raised to an intensity not seen before.
Brexit is a case in point. How we depart from the European Union will change this country for ever. Political identities have become shaped by the way people voted in 2016, hardened by a cultural divide. To capitalise on this Boris Johnson peddles a hard Brexit while disgracefully defending his right to compare burqa-wearing women to “letterboxes” and to refer to gay men as “bum boys”. For Lord Heseltine this is all too much. He sees the repudiation of the party’s socially liberal, pro-business, pro-Europe policies as an existential question for the country. That is why a former Conservative deputy prime minister is urging voters to back the Liberal Democrats where they cannot vote for ex-Tory heavyweights expelled for daring to question the hard-Brexit theology of Mr Johnson’s inner circle.
And while, on the right, the Brexit revolution is consuming its own children, the left continues to be mired in allegations of racism. Perhaps it is appropriate that a religious leader might cast the stakes in this election as being more spiritual than temporal. The chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, broke with tradition of political impartiality to condemn Jeremy Corbyn over Labour’s handling of the issue of antisemitism. He called for every person to vote with their conscience, saying the nation’s soul was at stake and that “a new poison – sanctioned from the very top – has taken root” in the Labour party. Mr Corbyn has made mistakes with dealing with serious allegations of antisemitism within Labour’s ranks. He was in charge of an underwhelming response to a growing crisis. Labour’s handling of such complaints is being investigated by the equalities watchdog.
Antisemitism is an evil that has festered in plain sight. The pain and hurt within the Jewish community must be acknowledged with due humility. It has cast a shadow over our body politic. Antisemitism’s prominence is in part because, too often, challenging Israel over its treatment of the Palestinian people descends into outright Jew-hatred. This failure is compounded in an era of social media trolls who shriek of “new world order” conspiracies. Mr Corbyn has gone some way to make up for his mistakes. He stated that “antisemitism in any form is vile and wrong”. He has invited Rabbi Mirvis to meet him to discuss the issue and put anti-racist policies at the heart of a Labour government. This is the right thing to do and shows Mr Corbyn’s party has capacity to make the right moral decisions. He must continue to do so, so voters of good conscience can cast their ballot for Labour and Mr Corbyn can make good on his promise to unify the UK.
This is a divided country; it has grown more so by design under the last three Tory prime ministers. Divisions between big cities and the regions have deepened. Education has become a political faultline. There is a housing crisis, with young people set to be poorer than their parents. The wealthiest have disproportionately benefited from paltry growth. We can’t have democracy without partisanship. But too much of it will overwhelm democracy. Mr Johnson might think he could win by, in the words of William Whitelaw in 1970, “going round the country, stirring up political apathy” to prevent voters from coming out to defeat him in December. Yet the prime minister could be upended by millions who have now registered to vote – predominantly young people who tend to back Labour. There are signs that they have been inspired by the idea that they could, in the words of the most successful crowdfunding campaign ever, “make [Boris] Johnson the shortest-serving PM ever”. That would be a fitting riposte to a decade of division.
• This footnote was added on 29 November 2019 to make clear that the “shortest-serving PM” campaign itself appended a qualifier to its catchy wording on short-serving prime ministers: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/by-donkeys