From the election earthquake to the Corbyn surge, our panel pick their top momentsby Prospect Team / December 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
From a seismic general election to a surprise landslide for the left in Labour’s leadership race, via David Cameron’s EU wrangling, a Scottish invasion and much waving of large mandates, it’s been a transformative political year. We’ve invited Prospect contributors, politicians, campaigners and other experts to give us their most significant moment.
Philip Collins—Associate Editor of Prospect
The political moment of my year took place a couple of minutes before 10pm on the evening of 7th May. I was sitting in the studio at ITV awaiting the exit poll which would give us the first indication of who was going to be Prime Minister the following day, if anyone. The opinion polls had consistently said that Ed Miliband was likely to be PM and I had resolutely failed to believe any of them. With time drawing in, I turned to Daniel Finkelstein, my Times colleague and fellow guest, and said “if David Cameron is not Prime Minister a few minutes from now, then everything I think I know about politics is wrong.” It wasn’t. It still isn’t. But people in politics can take a long time to learn.
Gerry Hassan—Author of Caledonian Dreaming and Independence of the Scottish Mind
May 8th 2015 stands out as the day Scotland changed. The House of Cards that was Labour dominance collapsed: a domino effect which witnessed 40 out of 41 Labour seats being won by the SNP. Scotland has seamlessly switched from a nation of Labour supremacy to one of SNP ascendancy, and no one is quite sure why and what it means.
The standard explanation is that Labour tied itself to the Tories in the independence referendum, but that is one small part. Much more pronounced is the decline of British Scotland, the hollowing out of the Presbyterian and Catholic traditions, and the absence of any popular, instinctual story of Britain. The liberal unionist establishment of the law, other professions and churches is no longer so sure of its views and place. This has produced an independence of the Scottish mind—where Scotland sees itself as an autonomous nation and one increasingly self-governing. That is an enormous shift, but also one with challenges, in recognising some of the domestic continuities and inequities in public life and public services which need greater scrutiny.
The big questions are: what happens next, can Scotland develop a public culture which is self-governing and honest about some of our own shortcomings, and does formal independence follow from this informal sentiment?
Ellie Mae O’Hagan— freelance journalist
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was my political moment of 2015. It was so important because it was both a culmination of events within the Labour Party, and the catalyst for its future—as well as the wider future of the left.
I regard the election of Corbyn partly as a rebellion by the Labour membership, who had grown tired of the centralisation of the party under Blair—and the anodyne, visionless politics it had embraced as a result. But Corbyn’s victory will also have a ripple effect for Labour in the future. It has altered the party almost permanently: its membership has become much younger and more left-wing as a result of Corbyn’s leadership. In other words, Labour is now different at all levels; a fact which cannot be reversed simply by getting rid of Jeremy Corbyn.
As the most left-wing leader the Labour Party has ever had, Jeremy Corbyn’s success will also have a huge impact on the future success of the British left. If he fails, it is likely his opponents will paint his failure as evidence that left wing ideas do not win elections. It’s impossible to say what the next five years will bring for the Labour Party, and British politics more generally. But Corbyn’s election has fundamentally changed the game.
Peter Kellner—President of YouGov
Apart from the obvious elephant dominating the room—the general election—my key political moment was lunchtime on Monday 9th August. That was when I knew that Jeremy Corbyn was certain to become Labour’s leader. YouGov’s poll for the following day’s Times showed him with a clear majority of first preferences. It was a technically difficult poll to conduct, as we were seeking to poll the rapidly growing number of people with a vote in the leadership election. But his ten-point rise in support from our previous poll seemed to put the issue beyond doubt. I wrote that “I would personally be astonished if Mr Corbyn does not end up as Labour’s leader—but I have seldom released a poll with as much trepidation as I have done this time.” Someone subsequently tweeted that on 12th September, the day the result would be announced, “either YouGov or the Labour Party will be history.” I am delighted to report that, three months later, YouGov is still very much alive.
Read some of our top political long reads from 2015:
Ben Stewart—Leader of the Greenpeace communications team at the Paris climate summit
For 90 minutes delegates had been staring at TV feeds of an empty chair. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister in charge of the talks, had published a draft final agreement that afternoon, but last-minute objections threatened to derail the deal. In a key paragraph the text used the word “shall” instead of “should,” which in UN-speak made that part legally binding, requiring the Americans to get it through the Senate, which they never could. A solution was cooked up.
At quarter-past-seven Fabius returned to his seat. Beside him a functionary took the microphone and announced a typo had been spotted, but that it had now been corrected. Shall became should. The green gavel came down. We had a deal. I quickly bashed out the Greenpeace reaction for global media: “The wheel of climate action turns slowly, but in Paris it has turned. This deal puts the fossil fuel industry on the wrong side of history.”
A monstrous, spoiled baby
Sam Tanenhaus—Prospect’s US columnist
In July, shortly after announcing his candidacy for president, Donald Trump ridiculed Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee in 2008, famous for his long, horrific ordeal as a POW in “the Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War. Everyone, including party brass and conservative pundits, said with a single voice, “Trump is finished. He has insulted McCain and all other war veterans too, most of whom are Republicans.” instead Trump’s poll numbers kept rising. This was the first sign that this election would defy all the rules—and that the Republican Party had no control over its own angry insurgent base. The spoiled baby had become a monster, and they are now trying to strangle it.
Ryan Shorthouse—Director of Bright Blue
In the 1990s, about to lose power for a generation, the Conservatives opposed Labour’s plan to introduce a national minimum wage. This year, following impressive electoral success, the Conservatives announced a significant increase in the minimum wage: to a “national living wage” of £7.20 an hour by 2016 and at least £9 an hour by 2020.
This radical and early policy announcement by the new government will help redefine the Conservatives for years to come. Forget free market fetishism. Conservatives want to be the “responsibility” party: economic, social and environmental responsibility. Conservatism is not about leaving individuals and businesses alone, Cameron is slowly showing, but ensuring that everyone plays their part and contributes to building a better society. If it sticks, expect many more years of Conservative government.
A shameful chapter
Cori Crider—Director at Reprieve and lawyer for Shaker Aamer
I can’t imagine how Shaker Aamer felt when he stepped off the plane at Biggin Hill this October, but for those who fought for his release—the British government, MPs from all parties, his lawyers in the UK and the US, and many others—it was a victory for justice, and an end to one shameful chapter of the “War on Terror.” However, there remain many unanswered questions over the UK’s complicity with torture and rendition, not just in Shaker’s case, but also involving anti-Gaddafi dissidents, children and pregnant women. Shaker is right to say that the truth must come out. In 2016, we must finally see a full public enquiry into Britain’s part of the torture story.
Good news/bad news for women
Serena Kutchinsky—Digital Editor, Prospect
It was all smiles after the general election in May when the number of female MPs elected exceeded 30 per cent for the first time —that’s compared with less than a quarter five years ago. David Cameron reshuffled his Cabinet, giving a third of the jobs to women—the formidable Theresa May kept her role as Home Secretary, Amber Rudd became Energy and Climate Change Secretary and Nicky Morgan added the Women and Equalities brief to her role as Education Secretary. Then along came the Labour leadership election and washed it all away. Not only did we not get a female leader, or a female deputy leader, but none of the top jobs in the new shadow cabinet went to anyone with a vagina either. Yes, Angela Eagle has acquitted herself well in her extra role as shadow first secretary of state, but there are claims that the post was cooked up in response to the rapidly escalating “women row” which threatened to engulf the new leadership. Suddenly, Yvette’s Cooper‘s warning that the Labour Party was on the brink of becoming “startling retro” feels horribly prescient.
The political year in pictures:
No solution for Syria
David Greig—playwright and political campaigner
The moment that stands out for me is the recent vote on launching air strikes in Syria. It was an utterly impotent and pointless debate. A small number of planes won’t make much difference to Islamic State’s grip on Syrian territory. They could have just sent more sorties to Iraq and freed up American planes to bomb the extremists. The vote was a charade to trap Corbyn. In truth the whole debate was—as Borges said—two bald men fighting over a comb. They say generals are always fighting the last war. I think the anti-bombers are still fighting the Iraq war. Assad and IS are two nightmares tearing a nation and an ancient culture to shreds between them. We in the west have failed Syria from the end of the Ottoman Empire and now, again, we clumsily, idiotically, pathetically make it all about us instead of offering clear practical military help to the Kurds. So my moment was the vote—high drama, self aggrandising and pompous on both sides, leaving us feeling important while the Kurdish women fighters of Rojava were busy retaking Sinjar.
Rise of the think tank
Josh Lowe—Prospect’s Assistant Digital Editor
George Osborne “got lucky,” screamed a headline in the Independent the morning after his Autumn Statement—statistical recalibration had handed him extra money. But his policies have made sure Britain is “no country for young men,” according to a piece in the Financial Times. One striking report claimed that his U-turn on tax credit cuts would mean little in the long run thanks to changes to Universal Credit.
Did these critiques come from research by the opposition Labour party? Nah. Labour had written off its chances of much serious coverage when Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell quoted from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book in a bizarre response speech. They all came from think tanks—the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the Resolution Foundation. It was a fitting end to a political year in which independent political organisations have boosted their power, from prison reform group the Howard League to civil rights campaigners Liberty (who tore apart the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill while Labour cheered it) to the IFS, who came up with some of the election campaign’s most important numbers.
As the opposition declines in influence within the mainstream media and Westminster, such groups are gradually taking on much of its day to day work. Perhaps, in an age where politicians on all sides have proved distinctly untrustworthy with numbers, that’s a partly good thing. But democracy can only suffer when unelected wonks are doing all the data crunching.
Bill Cash—Conservative MP for Stone
The most important political event of this year has been the Conservative victory at the 2015 General Election. Within this victory, there was another victory, namely the Conservative manifesto commitment for an EU Referendum Bill—I have campaigned for this since the early 1990s. This was enacted this week. Why do I say this was so important? It is because the question for the individual voters of this country as to whether we remain in or leave the European Union is a historic moment about who governs Britain and how.
There has not been a referendum on the European issue since 1975 and yet a significant number of people who are now entitled to vote have been denied a referendum despite the European Union burrowing into every nook and cranny of our daily lives. Successive Governments have handed over more and more power to the unelected European Commission and the EU institutions, whittling away the right of the British people to choose their own governments and through our own Members of Parliament to pass laws in their own land. This historic referendum therefore ranks, without exaggeration, with historic turning points in our history such as the 1640s, 1689, the 1846 Repeal of the Corn Laws, the Great Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867, and our entering the European Communities in 1972 itself.
Wendell Steavenson—Associate Editor of Prospect
A week after the attacks in Paris that killed 130 people on 13th November I went to have my regular Thursday couscous lunch in St Ouen, just the other side of the Perepherique, with a couple of friends. We talked, like everyone, about the shock of the sudden random terrible violence. How to explain the bad guys to a 10 year old son? How to calm your own strange agitation sitting in a movie theatre and trying to figure out where you would run if a gunmen came in? What did the new State of Emergency mean? After lunch I walked home. It was raining. On a non descript block, in the forecourt of a local athletic track, I saw four men standing in a group, they were wearing jeans and hoodies drawn over their heads. As I got closer I saw that one of them was carrying a submachine gun in a clip harness around his neck.
“Are you the police?” I asked him.
“Of course we are the police,” said the man.
“But how can I tell?”
David Mckittrick—Northern Irish Journalist
Belfast had to wait until November for its first ray of political sunshine following almost a year when its devolved Assembly was mired down in bad-tempered deadlock and then had its very existence threatened by an IRA crisis.
But a collapse was averted when the two parties dominating the Assembly, unionist and republican, knuckled down to weeks of intensive negotiations and against all expectations produced agreement on a range of long-disputed matters.
These included not only the IRA but also thorny issues on budgets and welfare which had eluded solution for many months. Not all problems were solved but mid-November brought an agreed document entitled “A Fresh Start.”