Saturday, December 31, 2005

Another year older

As Father Time scythes through the last few strings holding us to 2005 and we move on to 2006, time to have a look at the how things are and how they might be.

For the Tories, it has been a mixed year. They had some gains in the parliamentary elections in May, rising to 198 seats, but these came after a very right-wing campaign, which focussed on immigration, immigration, immigration. Michael Howard duly resigned and returned to the coffin whence he came and the stage was set for David Davis and Kenneth Clarke to slug it out to replace him. Everyone expected one or other to win the leadership - with the smart money going on Davis - and the conference in Blackpool was the chance for the contenders to launch their campaigns properly and try to acquire votes from influential members. Coming out of nowhere, David Cameron gave a barnstorming speech and trampled over the other contenders (Liam Fox and Malcolm Rifkind had also thrown their hats into the ring). With his arrival on the scene, a new dawn seems to be spreading across the Tory party and there is a genuine belief that Cameron might actually be the real thing - a leader sufficiently untouched by the Thatcherite past to grab the new generation of voters and bring them into the Tory fold.

I'm not convinced. The Tories do have something rather special with Dishy Dave, but he's all spin and no substance at the moment. The key for them will be whether he can translate his golden aura into votes at the ballot box and the first trial will come within a matter of months at the local elections. I think we can expect to see Birmingham as something of a key battleground in this as well. The Tories made gains in last year's local elections, but they were in the shire counties only, the metropolitans had a fallow year and return in May 2006. The shire counties are traditionally Tory and the coincidence of the parliamentary vote with its higher turnout may well have helped the gains.

For almost a decade, the Tory vote has plummetted in Birmingham - with the exception of Sutton Coldfield - and once-safe Tory seats have disappeared. Even Solihull, the epitome of middle-England Conservatism, fell to a Liberal Democrat challenger - although that may be more to do with her hard and consistent work and a relatively incompetent local Tory campaign than any gravitational shift. Selly Oak and Edgbaston were once solid Tory, but no more. Even Yardley used to have a reputation as a three-way marginal, but is now Lib-Dem/Labour. The first task for any Tory leader is to replenish the grass-roots representation of the party and we can expect Birmingham to be a key target for them in council terms as they hope to recover a couple of parliamentary seats in four or five years' time.

For the Liberal Democrats, it has been an odd year. With the Tory opposition incredibly weak and a Labour government offering opportunities for attack - not least over the Iraq adventure. Surely, this was a prime opportunity for them to exploit weakness on both sides and collect votes. Indeed, they did pick up 12 Labour seats, but lost a number to the Tories, ending up ten seats ahead of their 2001 result with 62 MPs, but was it really enough? Their decapitation strategy - aimed squarely at removing members of the shadow cabinet - only removed one Tory shadow (Tim Collins, shadow education secretary) and failed to really dent Howard or Davis, when they should have concetrated their fire on Labour.

One of the problems for them was that, with a small parliamentary team, they have focussed on their leader as the sole face of the party in the popular imagination. When that leader then has a poor campaign - highlighted by that dreadful press conference when the exhausted Charlie K (fresh from a few nights without sleep with a new baby) completely lost track of the showcase policy that was the local income tax (on a scrapheap near you soon):
'You are talking in the region of twen... twent... twen... twen... yuh I mean if you [pause] take [pause] a double-income couple uh, 20,000 each that's what you are talking about 40,000. [Somebody shouts "£40,000"] Yeah £40,000 ... sorry. Yes, £40,000'
At least that's a better excuse than the persistent rumours about Charlie being rather too fond of a drink - rumours that returned towards the end of the year as it was suggested that the latest round of leadership speculation was caused by the leader being unable to fulfil an engagement in Newcastle. It was also reported during 2004 that Chuckles had been told to ease off by a delegation of very senior Lib-Dems.

Outside the leadership wrangles, the Liberal Democrats end the year on the back foot politically - with David Cameron explicitly targetting them, perhaps in revenge for the Liberal Democrat targetting of his colleagues in May. For a while after the election, I did wonder if the Lib Dems might have their eyes on the prize of opposition after the next general election, but 62 isn't enough of a springboard to give them the 130-160 that would make them a huge force in national politics. With a resurgent Tory party, that's looking more distant than ever.

So, to Labour and a record-breaking third election victory - something to celebrate as we enter the New Year. We've never done this before and should be intensely proud - Britain is the better for it. Apart from that, there have been problems - the voter turnout wasn't good and we lost more seats than was really healthy. What should have been a triumphant year has been marred by a number of nasty domestic political fights and the continued row over the succession - the volume of which is bound to increase. David Blunkett returned to the government and then went again and the UK's turn at the rotating EU presidency ended up in a round of political horse-trading in an effort to get a budget put together.

Of course, government is more difficult than opposition - you actually have your hands on the levers of power and then you realise just how much you are controlled by events, rather than the other way around. In July, Tony was striding the world stage and delivering a G8 deal on poverty that should have been front-page news, until he was forced back to the domestic agenda by the tragedy of July 7 in London - events intervening again. That in itself has had a significant political impact, with the defeat over the terrorism bill and concerted opposition to the incitement to religious hatred bill as well. There's renewed concern over pensions and the economy is stuttering a little - so the golden glow of Labour is well and truly dulled at the moment.

On the other hand, the Tories claim to have twigged that their future doesn't lie in a rightward march, but in an attempt to retake the centre ground that currently supports the Labour rose. I know we've heard it before, but this time, it seems that they might actually mean it.

And so to the New Year and I'm going to risk a forecast or two (bear in mind that I forecast a Labour majority of 70 - not too far behind the reality). You can get good odds on Charlie K being out as leader by March 2006 and I'd put a few quid on that. Even if he survives past the May local elections, I'd be genuinely amazed if he's still there by the end of the year. He's circled the wagons (if only he'd just get on one), but there are too many questions being asked of his leadership and too few answers available. As to who will replace him, we can rely upon Simon Hughes having a go, but I doubt he has a chance. I suspect that Mark Oaten will be in place by this time next year, but I also suspect that this is the high-water mark for the Lib Dems and that Charlie Kennedy will be able to claim that success for his leadership.

The Tories could have a good year - the positive vibes will carry them some of the way and will energise those council candidates. Their first test will be in May and I'd predict some gains. Probably nothing hugely exciting, but there will be wins. Cameron has enough to carry that, but he needs to start winning parliamentary by-elections as well and that will take more than looking good. People will need to see policies that illustrate this new brand of Conservatism, not just celebrity pics with Sir Bob Geldof.

As for Labour, there are choppy waters ahead. There will be continued problems with Iraq - although I expect the British presence on the ground there to be significantly reduced by the end of the year. On the domestic front, there's still the ID cards bill, continued pressure on the anti-terrorist legislation and education. Blair's not going to have an easy time of it, with a hugely reduced majority and a number of MPs ready to give him grief and stand up for their principles - even John Prescott has publicly voiced concerns about the education bill and Gordon Brown wasn't happy about the EU deal. I've predicted Tony's demise for a while, but I think that there's a reasonable chance (60/40?) that he'll be gone by the end of the year. My suspicion is that he'll hang on into 2007, but he may well find the pressure too much this year. As I noted, he's got more internal opposition to face as his personal power dwindles and he may find himself in the unenviable position of having to rely on Tory votes to get some reforms through. Can he survive that embarrassment and then face a party conference?

Frankly, we're looking a little tired these days - hardly surprising after eight years in government - and we need to rediscover some of that energy that brought us to power all that time ago in '97. (How far away does that May dawn feel now, eh?). We can do it. We can come back and win again at the next general election, but we do have to pay heed to the grassroots of the party. Just as I expect Cameron to feed and nurture the council candidates who have the short-term job of finding the Tory vote in places like Birmingham, Labour needs to do the same. The prize is government, but if our eyes are solely on that and don't look at the building blocks necessary to get us there, we won't win next time. And Britain doesn't deserve that.

I think that there are good odds on all three major parties ending 2006 with different leaders from those that started 2005.

As for the local scene in 2006? Tough one to call. For all their shouting about their success in improving the service provided by the housing and social services departments in Birmingham (valid, but don't forget the work put in under Labour that was already bearing fruit when the Tories and LibDems took over in June 2004), the coalition hasn't had a bright year. Indecision and vacillation has been the hallmark of the coalition so far. Controversial decisions have been put off for as long as possible - ideally until somebody else makes the decision for the council or until events have moved on and taken the momentum elsewhere. The library, the casino and the metro all bear the stamp of the incompetence of the current occupants of the Council House who lack the vision that characterised the political leadership prior to 2004.

Much as I would like it to change this year, the electoral maths make it difficult for Labour to regain power as the single largest party. Too many of our current councillors will be fighting to hang on to their seats and there are too few likely gains out there to make an outright win likely. And yet... There are rumblings of discontent in various parts of the city and the dirty deal done by the Honourable (sic) Member for Yardley to ensure that he got the Deputy Leadership portfolio ahead of the parliamentary elections may be more problematic than he and his acolytes thought. As ever in Birmingham, interesting times lie ahead.

1 comment:

Bob Piper said...

A good political analysis, comrade. It will be worth revisiting when we are 'another year older' to see how good the predictions were. I think one safe bet is that the egomaniac Hemming will continue to make an arse of himself with his endless self promotion. I hope when you say "Too many of our current councillors will be fighting to hang on to their seats and there are too few likely gains out there to make an outright win likely" you are not contemplating a coalition of the unwilling with the Lib Dems as the alternative to 'an outright win'? Being in opposition would be better than being the dog to that particularly scabby tail.... as Mike Whitless is painfully discovering.

Happy New Year... and keep up your excellent and highly readable good work.