I usually start the New Year with recommitting myself to writing this blog and standing up for left-wing values, so this year I decided to do something different and end the year with recommitting myself.
It has been a rollercoaster of a year in every sense. 12 months ago if you told me that by December 2015 Jeremy Corbyn would be leader of the Labour Party, Charles Kennedy would be no longer with us, David Cameron would have taken us into another Middle Eastern war of dubious legality and that the biggest political hash tag of the year would be in French, then I’d have claimed you had one too many eggnogs over Christmas.
However that’s the political landscape we find ourselves in at the end of 2015. It has been an unfortunate year for Paris, bookended with twin tragedies of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Paris massacre in November. Terrorism and security have been major themes of this year; partly because the Tories want to make it the subject of the next general election, in the same the way that economic competency was the subject of this year’s election – more on that later.
The refugee crisis reached a critical point this year as over a million people entered Europe from the Middle East, South West Asia and North Africa. How Europe responds to this crisis will be the defining debate of our generation. Britain’s offering to this debate was frosty indifference until the Independent put the picture of a drowned child on their front page and before long we had a commitment from Cameron to take in “thousands” more Syrian refugees. I was more surprised than anyone by this. It goes to show that maybe people do care about what happens outside our borders and that we not a selfish island of little Englander UKIP voters, whatever that demographic of squeaky wheels claims.
Insulting UKIP bring me neatly to the biggest British political event of this year, the general election. For people who follow politics like it is a sport it was both fascinating and dull. The polls were too close to all (up until the BBC’s exit poll) and it looked like another hung parliament, with coalition negotiations going on in the public view. However there were no moments of controversy, no gaffs and no defining moments of brilliance. The TV debates were interesting but ultimately changed nothing.
Small left-wing(ish) parties did well out of the TV debates. I was very impressed by Leanne Wood from Plaid Cymru and Nicola Sturgeon from the SNP. Sadly Natalie Bennett from the Greens failed to make much of an impression. She did manage produce the worst gaff of the election with a terrible interview for LBC.
I thought that we could face a “Green Moment” when the Greens steal large number of voters from Labour’s metropolitan liberal left and become a serious player in parliament. It did not happen. I have a soft spot for the Greens but while they are seen as the party of the self-satisfied, middle class, Guardian reading set - the people with their own compost heap in the garden but take three holidays aboard a year – they will fail to capture the broad based support they need in order to return more than a handful of MPs.
Lack of effective leadership for the Greens remains a major problem for them. Caroline Lucas is a good politician to have at the front. Natalie Bennett is not and I do not see her leading the party to electoral success. It must be said that the first past the post electoral system is a huge hindrance to parties like the Greens – and UKIP. A fairer electoral system would have given the Greens more seats for the one million votes they got in the general election. However it would have also returned a Tory UKIP coalition government. I think this is right, it is what we voted for and it was what we should get.
It is interesting that, in May, I thought that the general election was the death of major parties and first past the post system, that electoral reform was imminent, and that coalitions would be the future. With the poor performance of small parties this year, a Tory majority government and huge numbers of new members of the Labour Party, it looks like big parties are as strong as ever and that binary left/right politics is here to stay.
The general election also saw the annihilation of the Lib Dems, justly deserved for breaking so many manifesto commitments and alienating a new generation of voters who they courted in 2010. Many of the 2010 Lib Dem voters went over to the Tories, which cost Labour the election. This should finally put to bed the idea of the Lib Dems as a credible left-wing party. They are and always have been centrist party.
The only small party to do well out of the first past the post system was the SNP, who swept through Scotland like wildfire. This should concern Cameron more than it does. The Tories are great at ignoring places that do not return Tory MPs and Cameron is bad for this even by Tory standards. The huge popular support for the SNP means another referendum on Scottish independence is likely and it is possible that this Tory government will be the last of a united kingdom.
No one expected it, but the Tories eeked over the line to form a majority government. The public rejected coalitions, majority rule is back. It was the first Tory budget in nearly 20 years but it is a majority smaller than John Major’s in 1992, and look how well that went. Sluggish but present economic growth saved the Tories bacon at the polling booth. Growth was strong enough that the government could claim that they were doing well, but not so strong that the electorate could trust Labour to turn on the spending taps. Everyone hated the Lib Dem so the Tories were in – narrowly.
I hate the Tories, but I do have to acknowledge their clever electoral maneuvering. Back in 2010 I thought that austerity could keep the Tories out of office for 20 years, that when people felt the impact of the cuts it would mean a Labour landslide. It did not happen. Homelessness is up, child poverty is up, inequality and personal debt are at an all time high, yet the Tories remain popular. They have convinced enough people to win an election and hats off to them.
Having popular support from many newspapers helped, but I lay the blame squarely at the feet of Labour. By supporting austerity, by making it their top manifesto commitment, they handed victory over to the Tories. The Tories lost three elections to New Labour by promising to match Labour spending and deliver tax cuts. Similarly, Labour cannot win by offering spending cuts and better public services. The argument needs to change.
The possibility of a UKIP surge - long predicted but never appearing - was something that worried me during the election. UKIP came second in a lot of safe Labour seats and this should worry Labour, but these seats remain safe Labour seats as the Oldham by-election demonstrates. UKIP have claimed they are parking their tanks of Labour’s lawn, that their popular anti-EU, anti-immigrant, straight talking politics will bring them massive electoral victory. It has not and I see now that it will not.
This is partly because if a voter agrees with UKIP, there are plenty of Tories who share their views. It is also partly because of our British dislike of anyone seen as extreme. However it is mainly because UKIP are, at most, a dual issue party. Those who hate the EU and are frightened of immigrants care about the economy, healthcare, educating and housing and they want a party that has comprehensive policies on all of these fronts. UKIP does not and the Tories remain the main party of the right.
If the election was a surprise then what happened afterwards was a shock. Read my summary of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader here.