Looking back on 2015, the ‘Ed stone’ seems to sum up the state of British politics during the year…it seemed like a good idea at the time. Whether it was the attempt thwarted by the House of Lords to reduce the scale of tax credits or promising a referendum on the EU or the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party ‘by an overwhelming mandate’ (as we are continually and increasingly boringly being told), it has been the year of the political cock-up…yes I know most years are but this has been one of spectacularly bad ideas. Take tax credits. If the Chancellor had introduced his changes in a finance bill, then he would still have faced opposition in the Lords but the legislation would have passed as it would have been a ‘money bill’. Given that he knew the Conservatives no longer had a majority in the Lords, it beggars belief why an individual with the Machiavellian skills of George Osborne tried to get the measure through as a Statutory Instrument…it is true that the Lords normally nodded through secondary legislation but there is no convention saying that they could not reject them…a case of poor advice and vaulting hubris I suspect.
I suspect that many of those who ‘lent’ Jeremy Corbyn their nominations so that there was a left-wing candidate on the ballot paper are kicking themselves now. No one expected that he would win… I do wish I’d placed £100 on him to win when the odds were 100/1!!! But clearly it was a case that ‘The Force was with him’ aided by an electoral system where anyone who paid £3, whether they were Labour party supporters or not, could vote in the election. Having lost the 2015 General Election because of Ed’s perceived left-wing credentials, the Labour Party then took a leap to the left with the beginnings of ‘ethnic cleansing’ of those no longer seen to have the populist purity of the party’s historic principles. The problem with this is that when Labour has elected leaders with openly oppositionist principles in the past—I’m thinking of George Lansbury in the 1930s, Michael Foot in the 1980s—it had proved electorally disastrous and exposed the ideological divisions within the Party.
Something that is also evident within the Conservative Party over Europe. Having already enshrined in law that there would be a referendum over future treaty change, under the perceived threat posed by UKIP and his own Euro-sceptics, David Cameron decided that a referendum over changes he proposed to negotiate with the other EU states. With the continuing crisis over the Euro and the massive migrations of peoples into the EU in the summer and early autumn—neither of which have had a significant impact on the UK—you might have thought that David would be in a strong position. Well no. There is no likelihood of changes to the central tenet of the free movement of people within the EU or over discrimination of EU citizens by imposing a four year ban on in-work welfare benefits. The Prime Minister’s hope was that if he could get agreement on his ‘four points’, he could sell this to an increasingly sceptical public—the poll published today gives 47 per cent in favour of Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn and the referendum will remain central political issues throughout 2016. Although EU Council President Donald Tusk has called for a ‘serious debate with no taboos’ about Mr Cameron's demands, it is clear that unless the ways benefits are paid to British citizens is changed to take account of the ways they operate in many EU countries he will not get agreement across the EU for benefit changes. This will inevitably weaken what he will achieve and what he will be able to present to the country. What politicians seem not to acknowledge..and this was something that was evident when I campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote in 1975 and in my experience has not changed…is that people’s views of the EU are emotional as much and arguably more than political. The problem for those who want to stay in is that those leading the campaigns have little credence amongst ordinary voters…in fact what you need is a single campaign with a single charismatic leader who can get the message across in straightforward terms…and that is not what is currently the case.
For Jeremy, the current situation is unsustainable. Although Labour claimed victory over tax credits and maintaining police numbers, there is little to suggest that the Labour leadership in the Commons had much to do with this. It was the Conservative minority in the Lords that led to victory over welfare payments and the massacre in France that made reducing police numbers politically unsustainable. There is little or no opposition in the House of Commons and little evidence that Jeremy had any significant control over his own MPs. In the short term, this may not matter as the next election is over four years away. But, there is a strong sense of a rudderless party increasing buffeted by left-wing pressures beyond the hallowed halls and, despite the rhetoric, of increasingly vicious and internecine struggles at constituency level. To be effective, political parties need to be led, not a discussion group for weighing contrary arguments. In both the referendum campaign and within the Labour Party, what is needed is effective leadership, something that both currently lack.
Walking into the middle of the road might seem a good idea at the time…the problem is that you will eventually get hit by vehicles coming from both sides!!