First published in Maitland Political Insight
In 2016 the real world and the political world will feel more distant from each other than ever. At the furthest point from the next general election both major parties will attend to party matters, ahead of the country’s big challenges.
For my own party, its new leadership will look to shrug off more of its election-winning ways and disassociate itself with any of the “toxic” days in power. The Christmas campaign of the leader’s office has been to pre-brief a ‘revenge reshuffle’ rather than focus on the constant mistake-making of the government. This is a sign of things to come. Expect important issues of national defence and the renewal of Trident to be put to party members in plebiscites and the summer to be focused around divisive constitutional rule changes at the party conference. Labour will get to voters’ concerns on the deficit, immigration and welfare only once we have purified ourselves of the views closest to those who did not vote for us in May 2015. This is all regrettable. Worse still, the Conservative party will peak in its pursuit of putting party before country and take the much-discussed European referendum to the voters. This time it is not just the leadership that is hell-bent on party pursuit – the whole Tory party will be jockeying for position, knowing that, whatever the result, the referendum will mark the end of David Cameron’s prime-ministership. He may choose to ignore this fact, but the battle to be the next occupant of No 10 will be well under way and Cameron will find himself unable to pull many of the levers normally at the disposal of the leader. Everyone knows the Boris Johnson v George Osborne v Theresa May line-up. But expect an outsider to enter the race – the real focus will be on who it might be. Education secretary Nicky Morgan and business secretary Sajid Javid are likely challengers.
Regrettably, but unavoidably, the parliament as a whole will join in this navel-gazing. The government, not content with the Lobbying Act of the last parliament and the (anti) trade union bill of last year as attempts to silence its critics, has cut the state funding to opposition parties and will reorganise the parliamentary boundaries to cause maximum chaos for their political opponents. This is an active strategy of this government and will go a long way in distracting journalists and backbenchers from the pitfalls in its policy proposals. Thankfully, some of Labour’s best people are now on select committees studiously holding the government to account and finding the needles in the haystacks. Over the next 12 months look out for Rachel Reeves and Wes Streeting on Treasury select and Iain Wright and Peter Kyle on business; former leadership candidates all occupy select committee places and will attempt to champion individual causes and come up with a critique of the Tories’ more compelling than ‘austerity bad’. However, the two Labour people to watch are not new to anyone. Andrew Adonis as head of the infrastructure commission and Alan Johnson leading the ‘Labour In’ campaign will make important weather for the country, with or without the support of their leadership.
Big elections in Scotland, Wales, London and English metropolitan areas will be a high point for the political class, but will be greeted by the voters with low turnout and predictable results – a Scottish National party hold in Scotland, Labour in Wales, with a Labour win in London and the Tories gaining local government seats.
The event of the century will be the substantive of the European referendum. But please do not expect it to be exciting or exhilarating. The ‘Remain’ camp will need to keep it dull, pragmatic and emotionless – learning from the more shrill Better Together example north of the border – while the ‘Leave’ camp, unable to control Nigel Farage’s lot, will overclaim and be found wanting. The result, however, no one should take for granted.
I for one will throw everything at winning this epic battle, not just for our place in Europe, but more fundamentally for what kind of country we want to be. With the political parties looking inwards, 2016 will be the year the voters decide if Britain continues to look outwards.
Richard Angell is director of Progress