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UK election debate: what academic experts make of Johnson and Corbyn’s claims

Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, and Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, have answered questions from the public in a head-to-head debate as they prepare for the country’s general election on December 12.

A court ruling earlier in the day upheld ITV’s decision not to offer podiums to either the SNP or the Liberal Democrats. On stage, though, Johnson and Corbyn appeared strangely dwarfed in front of a set that appeared borrowed from Blade Runner.

The two candidates levelled numerous accusations at each other during their hour on stage – but which are to be believed? Conversation articles by academic experts provide informed perspectives, grounded in research. Here’s what they’ve had to say on the issues that arose.

Weary voters

Johnson is appealing to weary voters in this election by assuring them that he is out to “get Brexit done”. Johnson said his deal is “oven ready” while Labour offers only “dither and delay”. During the debate, the prime minister insisted that he can get the Brexit divorce deal and trade deal completed by December 2020. Corbyn dismissed this timeframe as “nonsense”.

Helen Parr, a professor of history at Keele University’s school of social, global and political studies, has pointed out just how ambitious it is to think that Brexit could possibly be finished by the end of 2020.

Once out of the EU, Britain has less bargaining power. Britain’s future relationship is still to be negotiated – and that arrangement will last for the foreseeable future. Questions about Britain’s trade and economy, Britons’ freedom of movement, controls on immigration, but also about a united Ireland and an independent Scotland, are bound to reassert themselves. It’s a long way from being over.

Parr highlighted how long it has taken just to get a departure deal together, so to hear Johnson suggest a future trade partnership could be agreed in less time was a surprise. Brexit will, in fact, only become more complicated after Johnson’s deal passes (if it does). The UK could even still be facing a no-deal exit if it can’t agree on a trade deal within the fleeting timeframe Johnson is proposing.

Corbyn’s Brexit position

Johnson repeatedly referenced a curious inconsistency in Corbyn’s Brexit position during the debate. It’s possible that if Labour ends up in government, the party will end up campaigning against its own Brexit deal in a second referendum.

This has arisen from Labour’s broad approach to Brexit over the past few years. Faced with an electoral conundrum, the party has avoided committing to an either pro or anti-Brexit stance, fearful that coming down on either side would cost precious votes in key constituencies.

No room for the SNP on stage? EPA

However, despite wavering for what seems like forever, Labour does now actually have a Brexit policy. Christopher Stafford, a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, specialising in how Brexit is playing out in British politics, has set it out, explaining that the idea would be to strike a new deal with Brussels before putting that deal back to the people in a fresh referendum. They would also have the choice to vote to end Brexit by remaining in the EU – less “get Brexit done” and more “done with Brexit”.

But Johnson does appear to be right that it’s difficult to pin Corbyn down on where he, personally, would stand on the deal in such a referendum campaign. Stafford warns this could be a significant problem – even just in terms of getting a deal with the EU agreed in the first place.

The National Health Service

Drug prices are proving a potent point of contention in this election. Early in the TV debate, Corbyn waved a heavily redacted document in the air, which he claimed detailed secret talks between US and UK trade officials on opening up the NHS to private drug companies. He argued this will lead to price hikes and privatisation.

Johnson accused Corbyn of peddling an “absolute invention” but there is good reason to believe that the US would seek to include drug prices in a post-Brexit trade deal, even if the UK is against it. It has done precisely that in deals with Canada, Mexico and South Korea. Such agreements generally focus on allowing a trade partner (in this case, the UK) to sell drugs on the US market for less in exchange for allowing US companies to sell their drugs in the partner market for higher prices.

Karl Claxton, professor of economics at the University of York, warns the UK could pay a heavy price for such a deal:

Some have estimated that a deal that matched the US stated objectives could mean spending an extra £400m on drugs each week – a truly catastrophic outcome for NHS patients.

Even if both leaders insist they oppose NHS privatisation, the question may ultimately come down to which side has the upper hand in a trade negotiation – the US or a recently Brexited UK.

Magic money trees

In 2017, Theresa May, who kept her wallet firmly closed on the campaign trail, accused Corbyn of shaking a “magic money tree” to pay for his extravagant spending promises.

Now, both the Conservatives and Labour are pledging to spend, spend, spend on schools, hospitals and more. During the debate, Corbyn insisted his proposals were fully costed and Johnson said his party is “operating within strict fiscal discipline”.

From tiny manifestos do mighty spending promises grow.

Craig Berry, a political economist at Manchester Metropolitan University, fears that the two leaders can’t see the wood for the magic money trees. They seem so intent on outspending each other, that they’ve neglected to map out their wider vision for the nation if they win this election.

It’s hard to trust either main party, or party leader, to chart a new course. The UK lacks any meaningful sense of what its economy might look like in the future, whether it’s a top-down perspective on issues such as the balance between industries, how to respond to technological change, and the extent of openness to the world economy, or a bottom-up perspective on how the economy is experienced in workplaces, communities and households on a day-to-day basis.

As a result, we see a Conservative government vowing to splash out on public services, despite being populated by a cabinet of ministers who believe in a small state. Berry assesses Labour’s economic policy as more coherent but warns that a decision must be made on whether the UK’s future lies in or out of the EU before it can truly blossom.

A real living wage is coming, whoever wins

While the spending sprees of both leaders appears to be leaving the public confused and wary, experts have reacted positively to the commitment on both sides to significantly raise the living wage from its current rate of £8.21 for workers over 25. Keen to outdo each other on generosity here, we’ve seen the Tories announce a target of £10.50 an hour, paid to all over-21s, by 2024. Labour is pledging £10 for all over-16s next year.

Both sides are actually late to the party on this, as Donald Hirsch, professor of social Policy at Loughborough University, reveals:

Labour and the unions had feared a national minimum wage would undermine the collective bargaining system whereby pay deals were negotiated in individual occupations and sectors. Free-market Conservatives criticised public interference in the labour market and opposed the minimum wage at its inception. Yet 20 years later, their rhetoric promises nothing less than to “end low pay altogether”.

It seems the political journey of the living wage is long and complex, spanning many governments and ideologies. Understanding how politicians on the left and right shifted from total opposition to whopping increases can help voters unpick which of the parties is more believable on the subject.

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