Almost six months ago a petition was created on the UK government website by David Nash. He wrote, “The Prime Minister should call an immediate general election to allow the British public to have their say on how we are governed, we should not be made to wait until January 2025. Consistent opinion polling has shown the British public have lost confidence in the current government. The NHS is in crisis, the asylum system is broken, there are delays at the ports, and institutions are failing. The British people should be given a say on what to do next.”
Petitions are debated in parliament when they reach 100,000 signatures. This petition has been signed by 287,895 people as of now. It was debated in Westminster Hall on 29 January, and the Cabinet Office response includes: “The Government is putting national interest over self-interest, and is doing what is right, not what is easy. The process for calling the next general election is clearly set out under the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022. It would not be right for the country to call an early disruptive general election now.”
Only a handful of other MPs besides myself attended and spoke in the debate: Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North, SNP), John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead, Labour), and Ellie Reeves (Lewisham West and Penge, Labour). Alex Burghart, the parliamentary secretary of the Cabinet Office, responded for the UK government, reaffirming its refusal to call a general election at present. The following were my remarks upon moving the motion on behalf of the signatories to the e-petition.
Next general election
I pay tribute to David Nash, who started the petition. More than 286,000 people have signed it, 383 of them my constituents in Gower, and the number is climbing as we speak. That demonstrates the strength of feeling of dissatisfaction and dismay at the government and the turmoil that we find ourselves in in this country. That dismay is not new. Members will be aware that this is not the first petition or debate of its kind.
In October 2022, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) opened a discussion in this hall on a similar petition, which received almost one million signatures. The fact that this is the second debate on an immediate general election in less than 18 months is about as strong an indicator as one can get of how much the governing party have lost the respect of the British people.
Let us remind ourselves of the situation surrounding the previous debate. Inflation had reached a 41% high; families were confronting a cost of living crisis and unaffordable energy bills; and there were record backlogs in our NHS. After becoming the fourth Conservative prime minister in six years, solely on votes from Conservative party members whose backing represented just 0.17% of all voters, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) delivered a mini Budget that caused complete market turmoil and led to further havoc with U-turns, reversals, and the sacking of the then-Chancellor.
Fast forward to now and the only thing that has changed is the government’s figurehead. Despite there being a new prime minister and promises of a new direction, chaos persists and continues to govern as matters get even worse for the country. That fact is glaringly obvious to just about everyone other than the prime minister, who is so out of touch that he continues to tell the public how good they have got it as they feel the country burning around them everywhere they turn.
British people continue to pay the price of the Conservatives’ catastrophic mini-budget, delivered with absolutely no mandate from the British people. It triggered an economic meltdown and saw the pound plummet to its lowest level against the dollar in 37 years.
At the time, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research said that the uncertainty caused by the fiscal event was directly pushing up longer-term borrowing costs, and it was right. Interest rates soared and families were forced to cope with higher mortgages, with the average mortgage up £240 a month. That is on top of the cost of living crisis, which continues to exert enormous pressure on families as they face higher food and energy bills.
The mini-budget shows the catastrophic consequences of behaving recklessly with the economy, but the extent of the Conservative government’s economic damage goes beyond that one disastrous event. The government has presided over a period of national decline. We have had 11 growth plans from seven chancellors, yet economic growth is stagnant. Under the Conservative government, GDP growth has averaged 1.5% per year. This year we are forecast to be the slowest-growing economy in the whole of the G7. National debt is at the highest level since the 1960s and has more than doubled since 2010.
Lowered living standards
Experts predict this will be the biggest tax-raising parliament on record. There have been 25 Tory tax rises since the last election. Even after this month’s tax changes, the average household is still set to be up to £1,200 worse off. Fourteen years of economic failure is having a devastating impact on the people of this country. With taxes eating into wages, mortgages rising, interest rates and inflation high, and prices in shops still going up, too many families are struggling to make ends meet.
This parliament is on track to be the first in modern history in which living standards in this country have contracted. Household income growth is down by 3.1%. A report published just last week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 14.4mn people were in poverty in 2021–22. That is 22% of people in the UK. Let that number sink in. That included 8.1mn working-age adults, 4.2mn children and 2.1mn pensioners.
That is completely unacceptable. The economic damage caused by this government is leaving British people worse off, and it is most acutely felt by the most vulnerable in our society. Increasing numbers of children and pensioners reside in poverty, as this government presides with no public mandate or democratic accountability for the policies they seek to pursue.
Crumbling public services
Although we have the biggest tax burden since the second world war, public services are crumbling. Never before has a British government asked their people to pay so much for so little. Schools with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) are literally falling down, and a headteachers’ union warned just last week that parents are taking their children out of those schools as a result. The RAAC failure is just one issue affecting schools in England. According to a National Audit Office report last year, 700,000 children are being taught in unsafe or ageing buildings.
The NHS is in crisis after more than a decade of government mismanagement. With waiting lists totalling over 7.6mn, one in seven people in England are on NHS waiting lists; more than ever before. These people have put their lives on hold while they wait in pain and discomfort for months or even years. The Conservative government cut 2,000 GPs, and now patients find it impossible to get an appointment.
Patients are waiting dangerously long for ambulances, and it is common for ambulances to queue outside hospitals for hours on end to hand over patients. The latest analysis of NHS England figures revealed that 420,000 patients had to wait 12 hours or more in A&E last year, a 20% increase on 2022. I know that sounds like a dystopian nightmare but, alarmingly, it is the reality of the current situation.
Healthcare should be available for all who require it, but 14 years of Conservative failure means that people can no longer trust that the NHS will be there for them in their hour of need.
Having no say
I could go on about how this government has broken the asylum system, failed to clear the asylum backlog, or end asylum hotel use, and spent £400mn of public money on a discredited, unworkable, and immoral Rwanda plan without sending a single asylum seeker there.
I could expand on how, despite their promises about being tough on crime, the government is failing on law and order, with over 90% of crimes going unsolved, only 3.9% of sexual offences – of which 2.4% are rapes – resulting in a charge or summons, and record high fatal stabbings, as knife crime has soared 77% since 2015. I will leave those things just to a mention as I am conscious of the time I have already spent outlining the government’s failures.
All the Conservative government has to show for itself is complete and utter chaos. It has overseen the degradation of standards in public life. Six by-elections were held last year, with a further two expected next month. After five prime ministers and seven chancellors, the public are worse off.
Granted, we live in a parliamentary democracy and it is not the first time that a prime minister has changed in the middle of a parliament, but we are now on our third prime minister since the general election in 2019. Two of those were elected by Conservative MPs and members, rather than the electorate. That is discouraging for the British people, who have had no say in the direction of their governance or who their prime minister is.
A lack of mandate
In the debate on a similar petition back in October 2022, concerns were rightly raised about the lack of a mandate of the then-prime minister, who was elected solely by Conservative party members. That member then went on to claim the title of the shortest-serving prime minister this country has ever seen, after triggering an enormous economic crisis, so I think we can say that those concerns were definitely well founded.
But our current prime minister has even less of a mandate to govern. He failed his own party’s leadership contest and is now failing to serve the interests of the public. Indeed, a recent YouGov poll puts the government’s disapproval rating at 66%. Perhaps he might be more successful at engaging the public elsewhere: if he does choose to call an immediate general election, he will have plenty of time to prepare for a starring role in I’m a Celebrity.
It is no wonder that the prime minister cannot command the confidence of his country, given his inability to secure the assurances of his own party. I am a teacher myself, and he is like a supply teacher in charge of an unruly class. “Stand up and fight”: that phrase was repeated by the leader of the House 19 times in a speech to the Tory conference, with 12 of those in quick succession. She did not mean for her party’s MPs to fight each other.
The petition’s signatories are expressing their anger at a governing party at war with itself, and more focused on its in-fighting and psychodrama than meaningfully tackling the multiple crises that they lurch this country to and from.
Livelihoods at stake
The recent developments regarding steel are a prime example. The future of Port Talbot steelworks is integral to communities across South Wales, and so to many of my constituents. The Conservative government spent half a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money, only to make thousands redundant and leave us unable to make our own primary steel. They continue to refuse to engage with the First Minister of Wales to discuss the matter, demonstrating nothing but callous indifference to the thousands of workers – my constituents included – whose livelihoods are at stake thanks to this government’s incompetence.
Let us not forget the bigger picture: the lives and livelihoods of those who work in a supply chain and the local economy. Even those who work on the tugboats bringing the ships into port are affected.
For too many people, it can be hard to remember a time when government politicians could be trusted to act in the public’s interests and to a standard expected in public life. Indeed, in these unprecedented times, the only thing that seems certain is the persistence of chaos from our governing party. The country is fed up and deserves better than this mayhem with no mandate.
I remember why I got into politics as a single mother and a schoolteacher at the time of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in 2010. It hit me then, but it is no wonder that after being ignored for 14 years our public servants feel how they feel today. The petitioners’ ask is clear: to be given the opportunity to have their say on how they want this country to be governed.
A duty to the public
The legislation is clear that the current parliament must be dissolved no later than five years after it first met, which places the deadline for dissolution on 17 December 2024. Any decision to dissolve sooner and call an early election is at the discretion of the prime minister. Failing that, government members can join opposition members to put things right.
The prime minister has already indicated a willingness to hold an early general election by ruling out an election in January 2025. Having outlined the current state of this country, it can be hard to imagine how things could possibly get any worse. Sound familiar? We have been here before, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the longer the government delays giving people their say, the more damage its incompetence will inflict on this country.
Deltapoll polling for The Mirror at the beginning of January found that half of the public, and even 38% of Conservative voters, say they want an election by the end of the spring. Only 12% like the sound of the prime minister’s working assumption of an election in the second half of the year.
Members of parliament have a duty to the public to govern in the national interest. In that vein, will the minister say when the public will have a chance to decide who should lead us going forward? Will the government act in line with the interests of the British people, and its own voters, and call for an immediate general election? Whichever government is elected, it will at least have the support of the public and the mandate to govern.
Time for a general election
The prime minister is attempting to inspire the Tory party faithful by pitching himself as a change candidate. His party has been in power for 14 years, and it is true that in that time it has faced some very difficult external factors, including the pandemic and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. However, this government has only mishandled its responses to those factors, and has consistently made political choices, with the lack of a clear mandate, that have made things so much worse.
They have no right to claim that they have the solutions to the problems they created themselves. The petition calls on the government to put an end to the chaos and uncertainty by giving the people their say. It is time for the government to put the national interests first.