Guest Column

Decoding the British mandate for the Conservatives

By Dr Chandra Mohan Kanneganti

The recent parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom (UK) have generated considerable interest in India and around the world. The Conservative Party led by Boris Johnson registered a stupendous electoral victory. In a parliament with 650 seats, the Conservative Party won 365, the Labour Party won 203, the Scottish National Party won 48, and Liberal Democrats along with others shared the remaining seats.

Some commentators in India framed the election outcome as a victory of the ‘right-wing’ over the ‘left-wing’ politics. One needs to move beyond these frameworks to understand the recent political developments in the UK. My personal experience attests the limitations of deploying binary categories to understand the UK’s political process. 

I moved to the UK to work as a General Practitioner (Doctor) in 2002. While I was attracted to the agenda of the Conservative Party, it was only in December 2018 that I made a formal entry into the political process. I stood for City Council elections in Stoke-on-Trent city and registered my first political victory.

Subsequently, in the recent General Elections, I contested as a Conservative Party candidate from Warley parliamentary constituency – a Labour Party stronghold. While I lost the election, I was able to dent the majority of the Labour candidate.

I was pleasantly surprised by the political recruitment in the UK. My selection as a parliamentary candidate happened through a rigorous and transparent process. To be a candidate for the Member of Parliament, I had to apply to the Parliamentary Assessment Board of the Conservative Party. I went through an assessment process which involved public speaking, group exercises, essay-writing and an interview by two current MPs of the Conservative Party. Subsequently, the members of the Conservative Party in various constituencies voted to choose the parliamentary candidates shortlisted by the Parliamentary Assessment Board.

It is this transparent process of recruitment into a political party which has ensured that even a recent immigrant like me got an opportunity to contest in the parliamentary elections from one of the big parties. The election expenditure limits were strictly enforced and it ensured a level playing field. The wealth of the candidate or an ability to deploy financial resources did not become a determining factor. Given that I do not command muscle or money power, I wonder if I would ever be able to contest on behalf of leading political parties in India. My recent experience suggests that it is important for Indians, in addition to deploying right-wing/left-wing frameworks, to also take a critical look at the ease-of-political recruitment in the electoral process. 

Dr Chandra Mohan Kanneganti with Boris Johnson

The Conservatives registered victories in many of the Labour strongholds. It is interesting that even in parts of Midlands, Northern areas with significant working-class population, the Conservative Party registered significant gains. Some of these constituencies included seats which the Conservatives never won in the past 100 years. Interestingly, the working classes voted for the Conservatives, and the highly-educated professionals have voted for the Labour. These elections heralded a tectonic shift in the UK’s political landscape and framing the elections as left-wing versus right-wing is very simplistic.  

There is no denying that the Brexit (UK’s withdrawal from the European Union) played an important role in the Conservative Party victory. Many Labour voters voted for the Conservatives for the first time because they strongly supported the Brexit. Some voters told me that their parents must be turning in their graves because of their current political choice. The Conservative Party’s clear message –  Getting the Brexit Done – played an important role in shifting the Labour voters’ loyalties. The other parties in the fray failed to communicate clearly as to where they stand on Britain’s relationship with the European Union. While the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) promised to revoke the Brexit referendum, the Labour dithered and stated that they would organise a second referendum. This reluctance to abide by the democratic aspirations of the first referendum proved costly for the Labour.

Further, the constant criticism by the elite that the supporters of Brexit may be of unsound mind angered many voters. Many constituents told me quite categorically – “we know what we want, and we are not stupid.” This election result is, therefore, a response of the ordinary masses to the condescension of the elite sitting in their ivory towers. 

The extravagant promises of Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, did not go down well with the voters. For instance, he promised billions of pounds of additional funding to National Health Service (NHS), promised free higher education, free child care and even free broadband. Corbyn’s total promises amounted to a staggering £ 1.2 trillion. People saw through the reckless populism devoid of any grand strategy. Corbyn’spromise to tax people earning more than £ 80,000 seemed more like a disincentive for wealth creators. Further, the statements that his government would impose fines and tax more on companies such as Google and other internet/social media companies for their alleged tax-avoidance tactics were perceived as unfriendly business policies. Personal charisma and sustained good work played a dominant role in the victory of some Labour MPs rather than their party’s agenda or their leader’s tactics. 

On the other hand, the Conservative Party, in addition to Brexit agenda, articulated a clear and compelling economic strategy. The Conservatives promised a triple lock – no increase in income tax, no increase in Value-Added Tax (VAT), no increase in payments to National insurance scheme. The Conservative agenda was more practical than the Labour’s reckless populism. The Conservative promises included Raising National insurance threshold, £3 bn for new national skills fund, £1bn fund for child care, £2bn for national pothole programs and £39bn investment in NHS. 

The Conservative Party members and its leaders are conscious that they have to put in considerable hard work and will have to deploy innovative policies to retain the loyalty of the new Labour voters who shifted their allegiance. At the same time, the Conservative voters should not be neglected either. In the first few days after coming to power, the Conservative government already had Brexit vote passed for second reading, and legislated the promised funding to NHS.

Because of the Brexit, the movement of people from Europe is bound to go down. A merit-based immigration system is being contemplated, which will ensure that more doctors and nurses are allowed to work in the country. All this implies that the technical and skilled workforce from India may find greener pastures in the UK in the coming years. 

Lastly, there is no denying that a fairly large number of voters of Indian origin voted for the Conservatives. The reckless comments of the Labour Party leaders on Kashmir acted as a catalyst in consolidating Indian community vote behind the Conservatives. However, it should also be noted that the Indian community was also agitated about issues such as Brexit, social welfare and taxation policies, which prompted them to vote for the Conservatives. 

India, in the recent past, has taken big political decisions. The reverberations of such decisions are being felt in different world capitals. The Indian government needs to look beyond the Indian Diaspora and expand its outreach to a wider cross-section of the society in the UK and fine-tune its communication strategies to explain its policies on various issues. After all, the United Kingdom is a permanent member in the UN Security Council, the financial nerve centre of the global economy and an important player in the world economy. 

Dr. Chandra Mohan Kanneganti is a General Practitioner and Member of the Conservative Party in the UK. The views expressed here are personal. 

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