Thursday, January 01, 2009

What kind of year has it been?

And as another year draws to a close, where are we?

It was a pretty rough year up to the autumn, with Gordon's position as leader under very real threat, with each week bringing a new deadline for him to improve or to face the 'men in suits' turning up to urging him to do the decent thing. All this was so far away from last summer, when Brown could do no wrong and the Tories were on the run. We had a year of battering in the opinion polls - with Tory leads of 10-20 points, more than enough to guarantee a solid majority at the next election. They seemed unstoppable...

And then came the crash. The Tories - ever the friends of the free-marketeers and the 'light touch' banking fraternity (something that Labour has also perhaps embraced a little too willingly, enjoying the benefits of a decade of growth) - suddenly saw the rug pulled out from beneath their little feet. Hardly a Comeback Kid, but even as the markets crashed and burned, Gordon was being lauded by Paul Krugman - the Nobel laureate for economics - for grasping the nub of the matter. The Bush presidency - not just lame, but a duck on life-support - was grasping only straws. Gordon - not Flash - just got on with 'saving the world.' We're even starting to see a gentle increase in party membership, after years of decline - just as the Tories are losing members at an increasing rate.

The odd thing is that as the recession deepens, Labour's position in the polls improves - we're only another banking crisis from pulling ahead in the polls. This amazes me, to be honest. I can't believe that after a year with hefty Tory leads, that with the advent of a world-shattering recession, that the Conservatives haven't been able to sustain that lead. They have signally failed to produce a coherent plan to deal with the problems - beyond telling everyone that they wouldn't have started from here in the first place. Comebacks are on the cards for both parties - with the Dark Lord returning from the Euro-wilderness to bring the fight to the Tory menace. On the other side, rumours are abroad that one of the biggest Tory beasts - the genial, jazz-loving Ken Clarke - is also about to make a return to the front bench, perhaps even opposite Mandy. The Tory faithful are also rumoured to be demanding the revival of David Davies' career - which he turned into a single-handed kamikaze mission earlier this year with his short-lived, one-man crusade against a police state. For three quarters of the year, the Conservatives were sitting happily in the box seats and champing at the bit to take over government, but they have seemed strangely rudderless in the past quarter.

Yet, they were not without problems. Derek Conway showed that Tory snouts were ever eager to find the trough, as he helped his family to thousands of taxpayer pounds to fund their lifestyles. Having a son who runs a club night called 'Fuck Off I'm Rich' probably wasn't going to play well with the masses. Then party chairman Caroline Spelman was dumped in the hot water over her multi-talented nanny-cum-constituency secretary - a matter that still has time to run. George Osborne broke the rules of polite society by revealing private conversations to the press and ended up with a beating from a Rothschild over allegations of soliciting unlawful donations from a Russian oligarch - it must have reminded him of his time in the Bullingdon Club, when his friends bounced him repeatedly on his head until he admitted that he was "a despicable cunt".

Meanwhile, our Liberal Democrat friends have decided to forgo their annual leadership contest and have stuck by Calamity Clegg through thick and thicker. One of his first major policy announcements was to set a new bar for Lib Dem MPs, clearing that established by John Hemming and his 26 unfortunate conquests. Nick decided that it was necessary that the British people know that he is a real man who has slept with around 30 women. It is entirely possible that after the next election, Cleggy will have had more partners than he will have MPs. Certainly, the few Lib Dem MPs in the Midlands seem certain to be drowned in a rising blue tide, with Lorely Burt all but certain to be replaced by Maggie Throup over in Solihull. Many believe that the only likely standard-bearer for the yellow peril in the Midlands will be John Hemming - something that can only bring joy in Lib Dem HQ. To relieve their fears, I can assure you that there a number of people who are out to ensure that this nightmare scenario doesn't pan out and that John will also join the ranks of former Lib Dem MPs.

Actually, it hasn't been a bad year for the LDs nationally. They have pulled their polling figures back to around the 18/19 mark, which is pretty solid for a midterm place, largely on the back of some assured performances from Vince Cable, who is pretty much the only front bench opposition spokesman who gets much respect on economics from all the major parties.

But in any case, the biggest story for most of the year wasn't even in this country. With less than three weeks to go to Inauguration Day and the final ignominious departure of Dubya - currently neck and neck with Nixon for the not-very-coveted title of worst US President - we can see the Obama future beckoning. No President in my lifetime has had such hope invested in him - not even Clinton in 92, nor even Reagan in 80 (perhaps the nearest Republican contender). We have to look back to 1960 and Kennedy for the level of adulation that Obama is receiving. The problem, of course, is that it will be virtually impossible for Obama to live up to the standards that people expect. He's inheriting an economy in meltdown and a country scarred by unwanted battles abroad - sorting it will take up his entire presidency, assuming it runs for two terms. He's got a friendly Congress and that will last certainly for the next eighteen months, as the midterms in 2010 will be the first test for the efficacy or otherwise of the Hope Revolution, so he needs to start making an impact fast. Hope is a powerful product to sell, but he now faces the massive challenge of delivery. It did provide my favourite quote of the year
Rosa sat so Martin could walk
Martin walked so Obama could run
Obama ran so we might fly

So, let me uncover the crystal ball again this year, read the tea leaves and make some wild, entirely uninformed guesses.

Firstly, I think we'll have a General Election - depending on the economic outturn of the next few months. If more big employers start hitting the wall, then all bets on this are off, but the omens for a Labour win aren't as bad as they might be. They're certainly a long way off from being good, but there are a number of plus points to going early. Waiting until 2010 means that the election campaign will be long drawn out and will start early in the New Year, whether the election is in the spring, coincides with the May locals or runs until the last possible date in the summer. The Tories should have the funding to batter us over a long, attritional campaign, even if Labour have done rather well out of donations lately and the Conservatives have been pulling their financial horns in somewhat - closing the Coleshill-based Conservative Constituency Services office, with the loss of 40 jobs and slashing 10% of central office staff - including decimating the vital policy unit within months of an election.

A snap election means a lower-cost campaign and should wrong-foot other parties. If the recession looks like being even more drawn-out than many thought, then waiting until we are deep in the doldrums in mid 2010 could be suicidal. The ghosts of Callaghan and the series of elections-that-never-were in 1978 will also loom in the collective memory of the parliamentary party. I think that most historians reckon that Callaghan would have won an election held in that year, but hanging on as long as he did allowed the winter of discontent to destroy his chances of victory and allowed Thatcher in. If the British people continue to trust Brown/Darling more than Cameron/Osborne on handling the recession, then it could be argued that given the depth and the expected length of the downturn, Britain would benefit from a government able to consider more than just the next eighteen months and getting the election out of the way early would allow Labour to get back to work. It is a high-risk strategy, certainly, and Brown hasn't been a risk-taker, but it might yet prove attractive.

Secondly, while 2009 is the fallow year in the Birmingham cycle of local elections, I think we'll see a couple of by-elections, but these aren't going to affect the make-up of the council, so Whitless will blunder on as leader (sic) and the Regressive Partnership will trundle along on the Conservative lines with the Liberal Democrats cheerleading from the sides, even as their few promises to the electorate are ground ever further into the dust.

Finally, England will defeat the inmates of HMP Australia to regain the Ashes.

This blog will turn five in June 2009 and I'm going to try and write a bit more regularly - if work, political activity and family life (not in that order) don't intervene as they have done for the past twelve months or so.

And so, may I wish both my regular readers a Happy New Year.

Even to the Tories and Liberal Democrats.

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