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UK Voting Underway for Brexit Leader   12/12 06:26

   LONDON (AP) -- U.K. voters were deciding Thursday who they want to resolve 
the stalemate over Brexit in a parliamentary election seen as one of the most 
important since the end of World War II.

   Voting was underway across the country in a contest that pits Prime Minister 
Boris Johnson, who says he will take Britain out of the European Union by Jan. 
31, against opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who promises another referendum on 
Brexit.

   Johnson voted at Methodist Central Hall in London, accompanied by his dog, 
Dilyn. Corbyn was greeted by supporters as arrived to cast his vote in his 
north London constituency.

   With so much at stake, political parties have pushed the boundaries of 
truth, transparency and reality during five weeks of campaigning.

    Johnson's Conservative Party was criticized for using misleading tactics on 
social media, while Corbyn's Labour Party sought to win votes by promising to 
tax the rich, boost government spending and nationalize industries such as 
railroads and water companies. One of the focal points of the ugly campaign was 
the National Health Service, a deeply respected institution that has struggled 
to meet rising demand after nine years of austerity under Conservative-led 
governments.

   Jill Rutter,  a senior research fellow at UK in a Changing Europe, said one 
of the things that stood out during the campaign was the shamelessness of the 
politicians. She cited Johnson's claim that the Conservatives would build 40 
hospitals. In fact that number includes many existing facilities that will be 
renovated.

   "Normally, if you point out to people that something doesn't stand up, it's 
actually sort of fiction, you slightly expect them to start ... replacing that 
with a different new fact,'' Rutter said. "But here, actually, you've seen this 
from No. 10 under Johnson that they're prepared to run a deeply manipulative 
operation.''

   All 650 seats  in the House of Commons are up for grabs in the election, 
which is being held more than two years ahead of schedule.

   The prime minister called early elections in hopes of breaking a logjam in 
Parliament that stalled approval of his Brexit agreement in October. Johnson 
didn't have a majority in the last Parliament and was stymied once he lost the 
support of the Democratic Unionist Party because of concerns about how Northern 
Ireland would be treated under his deal with the EU.

   Opinion polls have consistently showed Johnson's Conservative Party in the 
lead, but recent surveys suggest the margin may have narrowed in the final days 
of campaigning. While Corbyn's Labour is unlikely to win an outright majority, 
smaller opposition parties hope to win enough seats so they can team with 
Labour to block Johnson's Brexit plans.

   All of the parties are nervous about the verdict of voters who are more 
willing to abandon long-held party loyalties after three years of wrangling 
over Brexit. Photos of lines outside of polling stations suggested a brisk 
early morning turnout.

   In Glasgow, Simon MacFarlane, a 49-year-old trade union worker, said the 
election was about more than just Brexit.

   "The issues facing the poorest people in Glasgow are no different from the 
poorest people in Liverpool, Manchester, or elsewhere around the whole of the 
country and Belfast,'' he said. "So, we need to tackle those issues. We have 
had enough of constitutional politics at this point in time.''

   The Conservatives have focused much of their energy on trying to win in a 
"red wall" of working-class towns in central and northern England that have 
elected Labour lawmakers for decades, but also voted strongly in 2016 to leave 
the EU. Polls suggest that plan may be working, and the Conservatives have also 
been helped by the Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage, which decided at the last 
minute not to contest 317 Conservative-held seats to avoid splitting the 
pro-Brexit vote.

   Labour, which is largely but ambiguously pro-EU, faces competition for 
anti-Brexit voters from the centrist Liberal Democrats, Scottish and Welsh 
nationalist parties, and the Greens.

   One of the campaign's defining images was a photo of a sick 4-year-old boy 
sleeping on a hospital floor because no beds were available. Johnson's initial 
failure to even look at the photo in an on-camera interview put the prime 
minister on the defensive because he was seen as being insensitive to the 
child's plight. 

   The photo, initially published by the Yorkshire Evening Post, swept across 
social media like a firestorm, injecting an explosive jolt into the political 
war of information in the final days of the election.

   Social media platforms were a critical battleground during the campaign, 
with political mudslingers waging cyberwar with few legal constraints after the 
government failed to act on calls for a new law to protect democracy in the 
internet age. Just two years after Britain found itself at the epicenter of a 
global scandal over the misuse of Facebook data by political campaigns, the 
parties bombarded voters with social media messages --- many of which were 
misleading.

   The Conservative Party circulated a doctored video that made it look as if 
an opposition leader had been stumped when asked about his position on Brexit. 
Then during a television debate the party re-branded its press office Twitter 
account as a fact-checking service. The Labour Party also sought to co-opt the 
roll of independent fact-checker, rolling out a website called The Insider, 
which called on voters to "trust the facts."

   The Conservative Party, with a dynamic online campaign, found itself in the 
crosshairs of many media critics. Some, such as Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director 
of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of 
Oxford, wondered why Johnson, who has been in the lead, would feel compelled to 
be at the forefront of pushing the edge of accepted norms.

   "This is a governing party. It's a mainstream party. It's a career 
politician. This is not an outlier. You don't get more establishment than the 
British Conservative Party," Nielsen said. "If that is what they see as fit and 
proper, we must confront the fact that this is the new normal.''

   Matthew Goodwin, a visiting senior fellow at the Chatham House think tank, 
said the Conservative Party's tactics were partly motivated by alarm over the 
potential for a Corbyn-led government. 

   "We have to remember this is probably the most consequential election we've 
had in the post-war period,'' he said, citing Brexit and other implications of 
the vote. 

   "For the Conservatives, the reason they have become so direct and so 
personal is, I think, they view this as paving the way for a Marxist project, a 
radical left-wing project that is more of a threat to this country, to the 
union, to Britain's economy, to its place on the international stage --- a 
greater threat than anything the country has faced before," Goodwin said.


(KR)

 
 
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