By the end of the 2016 I was quivering with fear about what would come next. More populist, far-right revolutions? A heating up of the cold civil war that has been steadily building in Western democracies? At the end of 2018 I am surprised by how little has changed since the epoch defining 2016.
My summary of politics in 2017 focused on how normality had returned last year after the upheavals of 2016. 2018 certainly lacked the explosiveness of 2016, but we have a new, quieter peril. There appears to be no way to break several key deadlocks in politics. Deadlocks that have emerged as attempted to grapple with the implications of the events of 2016. In 2018 some things got better and some things got worse, but there were no significant steps forward. Overall it was a year of stagnation.
One grand spectacle of marginal gains and marginal losses this year was the US midterm elections. Here, Democrats won the popular vote and retook the House of Representatives. However, Republicans tightened their hold on the Senate and were able to ram through the confirmation of Brett Kavanagh against widespread disapproval.
The fact that these positive results for the left were offset by defeats is because of how heavily jerry-rigged the House of Representatives is, and how this was the worst electoral map for Senate Democrats in decades. The fact that they won the popular vote and now have the House’s power of investigation is a good sign for the Democrats.
The reason why these gains were only marginal for what passes for the left in America, is that they offer no clear path toward the 2020 Presidential election. A clear challenger to Donald Trump didn't emerge nor did a template to follow to success in the next general election. Should the Democrats be populists or technocrats? Should they move left, or try to take the centre ground from the increasingly swivel-eyed Republicans? Do they knuckle under on healthcare and jobs, or try to out Trump Trump?
None of the above offers a clear root to victory. None are without serious risk. I often feel that I don’t have a dog in American politics, as by European standards the Democrats are a centre-right party and the Republicans are the sort of mouth frothing far-right party that in the UK would be lucky to win a few council seats. That said, the world would be a safer place with Trump and Republicans (who under their current leader have become the party of the madder corners of Reddit) out of office. New talent elected in November this year, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, offers me some hope, but on a macro level the Democrats appear to be treading water until they decide who they want to be.
On the international stage the West’s defeat of ISIS looks even more likely and Trump signed an agreement with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, very much the authoritarian dictator’s authoritarian dictator. Neither of these are a substantial steps forwards to a world without military conflict. Neither are they likely to address the long-term instabilities in either the Levant or the North Pacific. They are, at most, marginal gains.
At the same time Trump is busy tearing up the nuclear agreement with Iran and the West still has no response to the rise in authoritarian strongmen from Hungary to the Philippines. The chances of a large-scale military conflict breaking out still seem high to me. At the beginning of 2018 the threat of nuclear war seemed higher than at any point in my lifetime. At the end of 2018, I only feel a little safer.
The global economy continues to stagnate. The long-term structural problems exposed ten years ago by the financial crash have not been addressed. This has left us with a lost decade of low growth, rising inequality and falling living standards. In the UK, in the second quarter of 2018 (which is the most recent quarter I could find figures for) economic growth was 1.2%. This sluggish growth is mainly captured by the wealthy and is not being felt by people in work, whose wages aren’t growing but costs of living are going up. This is especially acute for lower paid workers. In work poverty is at an all time high and there are record numbers of people sleeping rough in London.
For ten years the global economy has been stagnating, but there is little consensus about what should be done about it. Our entire economic system, based on multinational financial instructions and heavily polluting manufacturing and technology industries, looks increasingly moribund. Something radical needs to be done to escape from the pattern of stagnation, falling living standards, rising homelessness, rising child poverty and rising hopelessness as work doesn’t pay.
This year we received the starkest warning yet that we are on the verge of enormous environmental disaster. The right are determined to deny this, ignore it or propose inadequate solutions. The left needs to seize this issue to save billions of lives. However, we are seeing insufficient leadership from the leaders of left-wing parties and governments around the world. Our response to climate change is marginal and in the very near future that will spell disaster. This is another area where the left needs to break the deadlock of inaction that has gripped politics in 2018.
2017 was a good year for Labour as they managed to outperform all expectations in the general election. Sadly, I feel that Labour and Jeremy Corbyn have made few gains in 2018. The party had a good conference this year; with policy offers made towards working class Leave voters, the main group Labour need to win over to form a government in the next election. However, I feel that Labour have failed to capitalise on the success of last year. The polls consistently show both major partys’ support in the high 30s. This means another election will produce the same result of no clear winner. This is stagnation, and I had hoped that the polls would have moved further in Labour’s favour with the disastrous performance of the Tory government.
Issues such as child poverty, homelessness, the decline in the public realm, the housing crisis and the NHS mean that Labour may well be able to gain electoral support in another election, but this is by no means certain, which is why Labour’s gains this are only marginal. The party has been unable to force a general election, which was a difficult task, but that has led to there being no clear way forwards for the Corbyn project.
The greatest area of political deadlock remains Brexit. This year saw Tory unity collapsing and the “natural party of government” reduced to a joke. The public is completely divided on Brexit, as are our politicians. There is no clear way forwards, as Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement cannot pass through parliament, and there is no clear alternative to current plan. In just over three months Britain will leave the EU and we still have no clear idea of what Brexit will look like. We have had a lot of magical thinking (from all sides) but no clear answers to the questions raised by the 2016 referendum. If nothing can break the deadlock, then No Deal wins by default.
I am very worried about what will happen with Brexit in 2019. A year ago I said “a deal that makes no one happy, but avoids a disaster, will most likely be struck,” now that looks like too much optimism. At this point No Deal looks most likely as it requires no agreement to happen. Politicians must prevent the disaster of a No Deal exit (economic collapse, food and medicine shortages) at any cost. However, as there is complete stagnation of our political process, this looks unlikely.
A year ago I said “there is no serious energy behind overturning or ignoring the result of the referendum,” this has been a significant change over the last year. There is now a substantial movement for stopping Brexit entirely, led by the People’s Vote campaign. The appeal of this option increases as the No Deal cliff edge gets closer, but there are serious risks of holding another referendum. Not the least, that Brexit might win again and that this could embolden the far right much more than they are right now (this alone should terrify anyone who has been paying attention).
There are risks from holding another referendum, risks from going ahead with Brexit, risks of May’s deal and risks from No Deal. There is no consensus, no way forwards and no solutions. A year of stagnation on the issue of Brexit has brought the country close to a No Deal disaster that will be a catastrophe for the country and all politicians.
Stagnation occurred across politics in 2018 and it means we are running out of time to deal with the big problems, from the environment to Brexit, from the rise of far-right hate mongers like Tommy Robinson in the UK or electoral success of authoritarian nationalists like Viktor Orban in the Hungarian elections this year, from Trump to economic stagnation. The world is getting worse and the gains won by the left are only marginal.
We need radical change to politics or else we will sleep walk into disaster. Something has to give to break the deadlocks and the left is running out of options as the clock runs down. This may have been the year of stagnation, but next year could be a year of explosive change.