Saturday, 31 December 2016

My predictions for 2017

So, that was 2016 - a year that many of us won't be too upset to see the back of.

For the last few years I've generally made predictions on New Year's Eve for the coming year - some serious and some not quite so serious. However, I decided to sit it out last year - in part because I'm not spending the same time on the blog I once did, but also because I genuinely believed the UK would vote to leave the EU and also suspected Donald Trump's chances of winning the US Presidency were higher than many thought. And I didn't want to think too much about what they would mean, privately hoping the bookies knew something I didn't...

In a sense the predictions I didn't want to share last year were more accurate than those in any year previously. So I've decided that I should trust my crystal ball after all, and have looked into 2017 to let you all know what you can expect. Will it be better than 2016? Hard to say...


The Liberal Democrats

* Tim Farron will become increasingly bold in his pronouncements. It will be obvious to anyone and everyone that he is unashamedly identifying himself as the voice of "the 48%". Increasing numbers of "the 48%" will look to him, in the absence of any real leadership on Brexit from Labour.

* The party's message of tolerance and inclusion sees steady gains, including another Westminster by-election in which we win a seat from the Tories. The Lib Dems will do very well in local elections in England and also make some progress in Scotland. There will be consistent improvement in the opinion polls.

* In spite of this progress, and the success of the leader in forging a positive identity for his party, it will also become clear that the Lib Dems still have no idea what federalism means in practice.

The Conservative Party

* There will be no general election. There really would be nothing for the government to gain. This comes as no surprise to anyone.

* The Conservatives will gain the Cumbrian seat of Copeland in a spring by-election. This is significant, because it will represent the first by-election win by a party of government over their official opposition since 1982, and the first time Copeland has had a non-Labour MP since 1935. More importantly, the victory will prove to be a huge blow for the government, which with some justification claims the result confirms public support for its Brexit strategy.

* As the Conservative Party becomes ever more populist, wrapping up its policy positions in jingoism and seeking to appeal to the most unsubtle aspects of British nationalism, it does increase the government's standing in opinion polls. The Prime Minister feels emboldened by the approval ratings and announces a hardening of her position on immigration, the European Court of Human Rights and Scotland.

* Theresa May will invoke Article 50 on the date of her arbitrary deadline, in spite of having to put the issue to a parliamentary vote in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling. It is, after all, "what the people want". As negotiations proceed, it becomes very difficult to see what the government's end goal is, other than to do "what the people want". By the end of the year it is obvious that the government underestimated its EU counterparts, and that (now the real war has started) it is not prepared to commit economic suicide. This supposed "compromise too far" leads to hostile reactions in the right-wing media (and from Nigel Farage) and puts May, Johnson, Davis and Fox under real pressure. It also becomes apparent in the confusion, claim and counterclaim that British voters have as much idea of what they want from negotiations as the government does.

* Rumours of a new banking crisis will also threaten to destabilise the government towards the end of the year. Anxieties are increased when Boris Johnson, caught off guard by Channel 5 News while opening a new trampoline at a nursery, reveals that the government has contingency plans for such an outcome and that we should simply trust Philip Hammond.

* Towards the end of the year, May's patience with Johnson finally becomes exhausted when he makes some comments about Strictly Come Dancing. There is relief all round until it is announced that his successor as foreign secretary is Peter Bone.

The Labour Party

* For all the talk, Jeremy Corbyn will remain as Labour leader. Indeed, he will not even face the serious challenge from his parliamentary party many in the media seem to want. This is partly because the party membership see no reason to displace him, and MPs know this - but also because there is no real credible alternative on the Labour benches. There simply isn't a Labour MP who is forward-looking, pro-EU, who understands how to win in Scotland and is popular with voters. Consequently, for better or worse, Corbyn is here to stay.

* Labour will lose the Copeland by-election. The surprising thing about it is that it doesn't really come as a surprise. Corbyn supporters accuse the losing candidate of not being sufficiently left-wing; his critics meanwhile insist Labour's predicament is all of the leader's making. None of which actually helps Labour recognise either the real nature of its existentialist crisis or how to address it.

* Labour will, finally, communicate a firm position on Brexit. Essentially it amounts to "the people have spoken; their democratic will is sovereign" and commits Labour to not opposing the government on the issue of withdrawal and pushing for Brexit to happen as soon as possible. However, Labour will be less sure of where it stands on the terms of Brexit - Jeremy Corbyn will be vocally critical in general terms of the government's "Red, White and Blue Brexit", instead promoting a "People's Brexit" which is predictably lampooned in sections of the media as "Red Brexit". But the real problem is no-one understands what the "People's Brexit" is, especially "the people" themselves, and not least when Andy Burnham makes further interventions about the need to "listen" and curb immigration.

* Burnham will win the Manchester Mayoral election, with around 25% of the vote and with the Lib Dems in second place. He will smugly make all sorts of claims about the significance of his win, neither of which will be remotely honest.

* Labour will continue to do poorly in elections, especially the local elections. The Scottish local elections will prove to be a disaster beyond imagination for Kezia Dugdale, who in spite of her best efforts cannot distance herself from the internal squabbling at Westminster or articulate an alternative, convincing vision to the SNP's. Kezia deserves better, but is inevitably blamed for the catastrophe by many who don't see the wider picture. After initially signalling an intention to stick it out, she leaves within weeks to be replaced by...well, the next person who has an inexplicable desire to take on the most thankless task in UK politics.

* While Jeremy Corbyn's position is secure, there will be talk in the media of Labour rebels forming a new party. Unusually, such talk has a basis in truth - the obvious suspects, and a few others, will be conspiring to create what would essentially be an SDP Mark II - but lack either the popular support the Gang of Four had in 1982 or the organisational/communications skills to make a success of the idea. Tim Farron wisely distances himself from the project before it even starts, insisting the nation's future cannot depend on "egotisical yesterday's men and washed-up Blairites", while a proposed launch descends into chaos when it transpires some of the MPs announced as defectors have had second thoughts. One Labour MP, disgusted by the whole saga, decides to defect to UKIP instead.

The Scottish National Party

* The SNP will have a very good year for the most part. The local elections in May will be dominated by even further SNP successes, aided by Labour's meltdown.

* Nicola Sturgeon will continue to command high approval ratings. However, it is obvious that this does not translate into support for a second independence referendum and her Brexit strategy changes accordingly (indeed, it already is). Sturgeon proves herself to be adept at adjusting quickly to rapidly changing political realities, creating significant difficulties for Prime Minister Theresa May in the process.

* Theresa May might think she's laid down the rules, but Sturgeon makes it very clear she has no intention of obeying them.


* Paul Nuttall's talk of leading a party the will challenge Labour in the North of England loses credibility when UKIP is soundly beaten in Copeland, coming a distant third (only slightly ahead of the Lib Dems).

* UKIP will struggle to get across its message, especially when much of the rhetoric usually associated with them is being espoused by the Prime Minister. Somewhat unfairly Nuttall is not taken as seriously as Nigel Farage by the mainstream media, which proves problematic for him - especially when Nigel Farage leaves UKIP to "enjoy retirement", only to found a rival party three days later. Recriminations and a split among MEPs inevitably follow.

* UKIP will do moderately well in the local elections, but will make no significant gains and will see a slight drop in their vote.

* Just as significant support for the government's Brexit strategy poses problems for UKIP early in the year, once negotiations being in earnest and the government's ineptitude becomes apparent, Paul Nuttall will see - and exploit - opportunities for his party.


* The destruction of Syria will finally come to an end. Opposition forces will finally throw in the towel, and the international community (for want of a more apt phrase) will facilitate talks to move the country forward. Such talks are, inevitably, dominated by Russia  - which insists that Assad and his allies cannot be part of Syria's future. Cue political uncertainty and tests of wills. Putin will seek opportunities (here and elsewhere) to reinforce his influence.

* France will elect a new president in May. It will most definitely not be Marine le Pen. Francois Fillon will have a small lead after the first ballot, and will cruise to victory in the second. Le Pen will blame association with foreign right-wingers for her defeat, including Nigel Farage.

* How will it end for President Trump? When you think logically, how can it possibly end well? But politics now is no longer about logic, especially in the US. Expect a bumpy first year but one in which, like the election, adversity and accusations only serve to reinforce his position. Impeachment is something many are talking about, and it's a possibility, but I wouldn't bank on it.

* In the Dutch elections, Geert Wilder's Freedom Party (PVV) will do well, but make less progress than most tipped them to. However, the PVV will become the second largest party, behind the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). The real losers will be the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA).

* Turkey will not only not be admitted to the EU any time soon, they will also leave NATO. Which, presumably, was always Putin's plan anyway.

* Angela Merkel's CDU/CSU Alliance will secure another term in the federal elections and just hold on to their overall majority. This will be in spite of recent results (e.g. Berlin). The result is testament to the Social Democratic SPD's inability to take advantage of the government's unpopularity and surrendering the initiative on the immigration issue to Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) - who will do moderately well mainly at the SPD's expense. The inability of the German left to put together a workable electoral alliance will also contribute to Merkel's victory.


* Leicester City won't be champions this year (yes, I'm sure you knew that). They will, however, reach the Champions League quarter-finals and easily avoid relegation. Chelsea will secure the Premiership title with several games to spare. Manchester United will part company with the not-so-special one after a disappointing 6th place finish. The relegated teams will be Hull City, Sunderland and Swansea City. Newcastle, Brighton and Huddersfield Town will be promoted from the Championship. Tranmere Rovers will return to the football league - as will Barrow after a 45 year absence.

* Manchester United will lose 2-1 in the FA Cup final against Liverpool, after which Mourinho will blame the referee, the crowd, the weather and the BBC for the "shameful" result.

* Manchester City will win the Women's Super League in England, after a close fight with Chelsea. Glasgow City will be champions (again) in Scotland.

* Celtic will win the Scottish Premiership (again, I'm sure you knew that) with Kilmarnock going down. Dundee United will be promoted, as will Greenock Morton - yes, they will! - after beating firstly Hibernian and then Hamilton Accies in the play-offs.

In lighter vein...

* There will be new political scandals in Westminster. Some Conservative MPs will provoke outrage by voting against Brexit, while another one will make headlines for historic use of recreational drugs.  A Labour MP will be accused of racism and misogyny after suggesting Diane Abbott should "man up". Meanwhile, a Lib Dem parliamentarian will be threatened with withdrawal of the whip when they reveal to the BBC that they "really don't like Doctor Who".

* The Scottish Episcopal Church will make further steps towards sanctioning same-sex marriages. No-one seems to mind, other than the Free Church of Scotland, which The Scotsman seems to believe merits a voice on such matters.

* There will be some localised bad weather in Southern England that will dominate the BBC’s news coverage for most of January.

* Kim Kardashian will continue to appear on our TV screens far too often. Fortunately, however, we'll be seeing less of Simon Cowell after he announces the 2017 X-Factor will be the last.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Another by-election...but should we stand?

We have another by-election on the horizon - this time in Copeland, Cumbria, following the decision of incumbent MP Jamie Reed to literally take the nuclear option and call time on his political career.

Copeland is an interesting seat. On the face of it, it seems like it's Labour's to lose. After all, they've held it since 1935, and no party of government has gained a seat in a by-election from the main opposition since 1982. But those statistics don't tell the full story - this has often been a marginal Lab-Con seat. Frank Anderson won it for Labour 81 years ago with a majority of 352, and in more recent years since Labour have retained it with majorities of less than 2,000 (1,837 and 1,894 in 1983 and 1987 respectively). Reed's majority in 2015 was 2,564.

The media are playing this up as a three-horse race between Labour, the Tories and UKIP. Personally, I don't see UKIP as a significant player in this by-election. It is true that in 2015 they increased their vote share from 2.3% to 15.5%, but they still finished 10,000 voted behind Reed. They also have no local party to speak of, and failed to stand any candidates in the 2011 local elections for Copeland Borough Council. That changed in 2015 when they stood a single candidate, who finished fourth - which suggests the absence of a strong local organisation. They may well poll similarly to the General Election, but for all the media talk I can't see this as anything other than a straight Lab-Con fight. Paul Nuttall's already ruled himself out of standing, a sure sign he doesn't believe he can win.

What about the Tories? Well, they have good presence on the local council, but more tellingly they have strong and well-organised local parties not so far away - in Penrith and the Border and Westmorland and Lonsdale. Conservatives in Cumbria are relishing the opportunity to turn this patch of the county blue - not only because of what it means on a national level but also on account of the huge boost it will give them locally. They cut significantly into Tim Farron's majority at the General Election and haven't given up on taking back that seat.

As for Labour - well, their own problems are sufficiently well-documented I don't feel the need to add to what has already been said. Labour could well hang on in Copeland - especially if they select a good local candidate with both a knowledge of the area and a reputation for campaigning on the right issues (including the local NHS, which will be an issue of huge significance in the weeks to come). But while failure would increase the pressure on Corbyn's leadership, scraping home in a seat they've held for eight decades won't do a huge amount to relieve it.

What's in it for us? Well, not a lot. Fourth place seems a foregone conclusion. No doubt we would increase our vote and keep our deposit, which would be a victory of sorts. But, more importantly, we should be aware of what this by-election would mean for our wider strategy and message, especially in relation to Brexit.

Although the Tories held Witney and Sleaford and North Hykeham, our strong performances in both of those - in addition to the amazing win at Richmond - have helped pile the pressure on the government. Our sense of purpose, multi-faceted but focused on providing a voice for "the 48%", is something many have found themselves able to identify with and has had the Tories rattled. In Richmond, there were also appeals for a "progressive alliance" which, however vague and ultimately unheeded by Labour, seemed to have some level of popular support and resulted in the Greens standing aside.

Our messages on Brexit seem to be getting home. Tim Farron's uncompromising and clear position has resulted in significant progress being made in a short time, resulting in an increase of members and improved polling. The momentum is with us. The Prime Minister and her government have come under relentless pressure, their apparent indecision and lack of preparedness widely criticised. What a Conservative victory in Copeland would do is to undermine all that.

If the Tories win, the result would be spun (with some justification) as evidence of public support for Theresa May's Brexit strategy. It would be a major setback to the Lib Dem approach and would undoubtedly be a huge blow for the government. Irrespective of how we feel about Labour presently, we have to ask the question of what best serves our own party's interests at the moment. Would it be better for a divided Labour Party to scrape home, or would we prefer a triumphalist Conservative government to use the excuse of breaking an 81-year Labour stranglehold on a constituency to justify its populist position?

Essentially, if the Tories win we lose - irrespective of how much our vote share increases. Make no mistake - it would be a disaster, a setback of monumental proportions. It would arguably be even worse for us than it would for Labour.

Don't get me wrong, I don't believe we owe the Labour Party anything - especially after Richmond Park. But that's not really the issue. We have to do what is in our own best interests, and the worst thing that could happen in this two-horse race is for the Conservatives to win. Logically, we should therefore do what we can to avoid that outcome. This doesn't mean we should always take this approach, but we're talking within the context of a particular time and place. We could talk all we like about our terrific increase of the vote share, a positive campaign and a well-deserved 4th place...but will anyone notice if everyone's talking about the Tories' success and its implications?

That doesn't mean we should simply stand aside for Labour. But we should at least consider the option. The Greens stood aside for us in Richmond, because they saw the value in doing what was ultimately in their best interests. So did UKIP and the Conservatives, to encourage their supporters to vote for Zac Goldsmith. We shouldn't be afraid of doing the same, but it will require Labour to step up, open some positive dialogue and select a candidate who isn't ashamed to oppose the government's Brexit stance. That's unlikely of course, but it's an option and a potential opportunity. Just as Labour gained nothing from standing in Richmond Park, Copeland offers little for us. We could gain far more by standing aside for the right candidate than we do in standing what will ultimately be a paper candidate.

Certainly the only people welcoming this by-election will be Conservative activists. Ultimately much will depend on the Labour candidate, and clearly this is a decision for the local party to take. But I can't help feeling that the smart money will be on a Conservative win, and that is something we should do our utmost to prevent.

Update (24.2.17): The result, now declared, confirms the Conservatives as winners. Their candidate, Trudy Harrison, secured 13748 votes - with Labour's Gillian Troughton on 11,601. Rebecca Hanson for the Lib Dems came third with 2,252 votes, with UKIP disappearing into fourth (as I fully expected).

The Tories are predictably triumphalist. Already the victory is being spun as "historic" and proof of public approval of Theresa May's government. While our party may have finished in a creditable third place (and yes, that is an achievement) the losers here are anyone who cares for progressive politics.

Labour's predicament is one of their own making. That does not mean it is necessarily in our interests, or those of the country, to see them losing by-elections to the party of government - especially when that government is bent on pursuing socially destructive policies.

The question I asked remains valid. Our candidate polled sufficiently well as to be the difference between the two main parties in this race - if everyone who supported Rebecca Hanson had voted for Gillian Troughton, questions would be asked of the Tories' strategy and direction, while also providing a minor headache to a Labour Party who only just managed to hang on in their homelands. But most importantly, we'd have one fewer Tory MP.

I argued above that our main target shuld be the prevention of a Conservative victory - not for tribal reasons but because, in the context of the current political climate, that would provide a huge setback to our objectives. I don't know whether not standing a candidate would have made the difference, but I hope in the coming months we can have a serious conversation about how to effectively form some kind of loose alliance with a broadly progressive agenda. More United clearly isn't the answer, but when the alternative is the triumph of a particularly divisive expression of Conservatism a collaborative approach surely needs to be seriously considered.