Monday, January 07, 2013

What kind of year has it been?

A quick glance back at last year's predictions saw four out of five hit the mark. There was no general election in the UK, the coalition has stumbled on, we slipped back into recession and Obama won a second term quite convincingly in the end. I missed the mark over the mayoral elections in Birmingham, which were quite resoundingly rejected by the electorate, although we did get a Labour Police and Crime Commissioner, despite an embarrassingly low turnout which demonstrated the public apathy over this flagship government policy.

Personally, it has been a mixed year. The exhilaration of winning Acocks Green for Labour in May was tempered by redundancy from the Energy Saving Trust and it has proved difficult to get back into work since. That said, I'm not complaining - the job of a councillor is challenging and sometimes as frustrating as it is rewarding. Sometimes you can feel powerless to help deserving housing allocation cases who simply don't have enough points under the scheme. On the other hand, getting a tenant back into their home after a water leak had taken out their power or helping a resident find help that wins a benefit tribunal hands down makes for a very good day. I love doing it and am painfully grateful to the electorate for placing their trust in me.

Looking ahead to 2013, I still see no end to this government or the coalition, but this will be a big year for them. A number of their key policies come to fruition in April - the NHS changes kick off and Ian Duncan Smith's Universal Credit starts to roll out. When combined with other changes to the benefits system, this will be a brutal year for many - and they aren't aware of it. While the government have run a maliciously effective campaign designed to set the poorer economic groups against each other, the job of the Labour Party must be to hold a mirror up to the electorate and explain that when the government talk of scroungers, they actually mean people like you - not the faceless neighbours with their curtains drawn as you leave for work.
I'm also prepared to forecast that the Universal Credit scheme will be an ongoing train crash with dodgy IT over-reliant on internet access from a group for whom it is not necessarily a priority.

I suspect the economy will continue to bounce up and down around the point of stagnation. We may well avoid a technical recession this year, but things are so fragile at the moment that two quarters of negative growth are quite credible, depending on external events - there is no resilience in the economy. However, I think that the underlying trend will continue to be around the flatline.

In Birmingham, we are blessed with a fallow year in the electoral cycle, with the next council elections not until May 2014 (or more likely in June, to coincide with the 2014 European elections). That will not herald a year of peace and goodwill, however, as Sir Albert has promised that the summer will bring detailed consultation on what services are to be decommissioned over the next couple of years. 2013-14 will be the last year of trimming and salami-slicing budgets. From 2014's budget, Birmingham will be extracting itself from some functions and services that the council currently provides. Even before that, we will have discussions over the final budget for 2013, which is still guaranteed to be controversial. I have promised never to use the phrase 'This is not what I came into politics for' - although it certainly isn't.

The polls remain positive for Labour, with double digit leads now normal, but I'm not convinced that this is actually all that solid a lead. I do think that Ed Miliband has secured his place as leader - he made some shrewd political calls in 2012 and has got Labour on the right side of the argument a few times, wrong-footing Cameron once or twice in the process. The decision to oppose the 1% limit on benefit increases is both the right decision and a brave one. It is right, because we should be the party in defence of those in need of help and it is brave because of the campaign waged by the government and the press to paint claimants as scroungers, living high on the state. This campaign has proved effective in setting people against faceless claimants, although the reality for many is that if they want to see a claimant, they shouldn't look up at a curtained window when they leave for work in the morning, but in the mirror instead. When IDS lies about people on benefit, chances are he means to punish you. The caution I would urge is that we do not join in the Tory aim of dividing the poor into the deserving and undeserving - do not play into their rhetoric. If you want to cut the benefit bill, get people into jobs that pay a decent wage, not subsistence pay that demands a top-up from the government.

This will also be the year that the coalition moves closer to stage three of their relationship. To start with, they were inseparable, hanging off each other's words like any new couple. Now, they need to find their own space - we see a number of Tories and LibDems querying coalition policies as they manoeuvre for a post-coalition phase. Stage three will be when they each want to see other people - mainly the electorate, although the Lib Dems may find that the dating market is rather tougher for them than for the Tories, who have a chance of doing better out of the next election. In particular, expect to see certain LibDems - Simon Hughes and Tim Farron in particular - become increasingly publicly questioning of government policy and direction. This, they believe, will be of advantage to their party in the run up to the election, so they can point to their differences from the Tories. It will also be of help in the run up to the 2014 LibDem leadership election as Clegg makes way for somebody that the electorate might not loathe on sight.

I see no reason to change my view that the 2015 election will be a bloody one for the Liberal Democrats - I suspect that their parliamentary numbers could easily be halved overnight. This does not necessarily mean good news for Labour, as a number of those seats can be expected to fall to the Tories if Labour tactical voters cannot stomach casting their vote accordingly. Similarly, I still maintain that 2015 will have the economy at its centre and also that the Tories will benefit from any turn round in the situation. However, I'm also convinced that for them to have a hope, that this is the year that the green shoots must really start to show and I struggle to see from where they will come. As I have said before, I still firmly believe that if Labour want an election-winning policy for 2015, then a commitment to build social housing would be it.

We continue to pay a high price for Tory/LibDem economic incompetence and that price is the wholesale dismantling of the post-war Attlee legacy to the nation. Perhaps this will be the year that the people wake up to the destruction being wrought on our public services and our safety net for the poor.

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