The UK government’s decision to hold its third general election since 2015 is a baffling one to many – including the weary voters who have to take part.
Tensions have been high as the country attempts to resolve the identity crisis first sparked by the Brexit vote in 2016. It’s a complicated moment for the nation and, at times like these, it can help to observe the big issues through the lens of language. The slogans and terms that get thrown around again and again during a campaign can often tell us a lot about the bigger picture. Here are five such slogans that can help explain what’s happening in the UK right now.
‘Get Brexit done’
Anyone who has so much as dipped into British politics over the past three years knows that Brexit remains high on the agenda. The enduring divisions are captured in the campaign slogans for the 2019 election. The Conservatives want to “get Brexit done” while the Liberal Democrats simply want to “stop Brexit”.
Despite the opposing messages, the two are actually similar. Both directly address the voter and appeal to a sense of frustration about Brexit dominating the national agenda for so long. Both suggest that voting for a particular party will to put an end to it all, albeit via different routes.
It’s certain that the British people are desperate to “get Brexit done”, but unfortunately the Conservative slogan is a misnomer. The consequences of Brexit will trigger a process that will last for years, long after the UK has left the EU. The Liberal Democrats’ slogan asks for that process to be stopped altogether – definitive in one sense but also likely to open up all kinds of other debates about the original referendum decision. Both sides are speaking to the same frustrations and neither seems likely to be in a position to put an end to them.
‘The NHS is not for sale’
Founded in 1948, Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) provides free healthcare at the point of need. While many British people are very proud of it, they also worry that it is struggling to meet increased demand and that it may be privatised and become unaffordable.
The Labour party has tapped into those fears by suggesting that the NHS may be “up for sale” or “on the table” when the British government negotiates a trade deal with the US after leaving the EU. On a recent visit to London the US president, Donald Trump, sought to reassure voters that the US wouldn’t want the NHS even if it was presented to them “on a silver platter” – having said on a previous visit that “everything will be on the table”.
All these phrases turn one of the world’s largest and most complex organisations into an object that can be bought and sold. The reality would be much more complicated of course, involving many parallel negotiations about different parts of the service. Still, Labour’s message uses the emotional resonance that the NHS has for many of its voters, even if its language greatly simplifies reality.
This tension between public and private is part of a much broader debate in this election. While the Conservatives stand accused of bowing to the interests of big business in their Brexit planning, Labour’s far-left leadership is proposing the biggest renationalising of services in decades.
‘It’s time for real change’
“Time for real change” has been the main campaign slogan of the Labour Party in 2019. On the face of it, it’s fairly bland, but it actually says a lot about the high stakes involved in this election.
Labour has been pushing for far-reaching changes that many believe would utterly transform the British economy and society. It wants to reverse spending cuts and then embark on a large-scale programme of nationalisation. Its manifesto proposes an ambitious green agenda and a resetting of the relationship between government, businesses and the people they employ.
Many voters appear to have felt daunted by the choice between these radical propositions and the relatively hard Brexit on offer from the Conservatives. Others argue that almost ten years of austerity under Conservative and coalition governments have damaged public services and led to high levels of poverty and inequality, making this proposed “real change” necessary.
‘Oven-ready Brexit deal’
Brexit has spawned a vast number of metaphors, but this one from the Conservatives has stuck. The idea is that Johnson negotiated a Brexit deal with the EU that is quick and convenient to implement – provided that the election leads to a parliament that plays along. This reminds us of why Johnson called the election in the first place – because he wants a majority in parliament to get his deal through. He claims that parliament is blocking his path – although even that is under debate.
While the Conservatives claim that parliament is showing how out of touch with voters it really is by frustrating Johnson’s Brexit plans, Labour appeals to popular sentiment by casting Johnson as a member of the elite – a “posh boy” who doesn’t care about normal people. Johnson’s own language often does little to counter this point. He regularly drops arcane words and insults and deploys upper-class phrases – such as his accusation that parliament has done nothing but “dither and delay” on Brexit.
Both Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, have engendered bad feeling by hesitating to apologise for antisemitism and Islamophobia in their parties. For significant numbers of voters, neither leader is particularly appealing and many are reconsidering lifelong party allegiances. As a result, a big theme of this election has been talk of voting tactically – supporting a party other than your own in order to boost the chances of another party winning in your area. It almost seems as if, for many voters, the election is more about who they don’t want than who they do.