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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

My predictions for 2015

Will we all be friends after the General Election?
So, that was the year that was. The year of the independence referendum, the Commonwealth Games, countless by-election defeats and a growing media obsession with UKIP. It was also a year in which Belgium legalised euthanasia for terminally-ill people, a year of civil unrest in Ukraine, the year that saw the beginning of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and a year in which the world watched on as tensions escalated in Israel-Palestine.

More positively, it was the year in which the myth of Brazilian invincibility was destroyed in a few minutes at the Estádio Mineirão, the year in which marriage equality was finally legalised in the UK (with the exception of Northern Ireland), and in which Ed Miliband showed us all how not to eat a bacon sandwich.

At this time of year I make predictions for the year ahead, some of which turn out to be more accurate than others. This time last year, I predicted that "Ed Miliband will struggle to convince the British public that he is a Prime Minister in the making", that "Alex Salmond will remain the most popular leader at Holyrood and will continue to outsmart both Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson with ease", that Nick Griffin would lose his European Parliamentary seat and that the Scottish referendum would be "much closer than many imagine".

I wasn't too far off the mark with Luis Suarez, either.

Clearly I didn't do quite so well in predicting the scale of the Liberal Democrats' European losses, the relentless "rise" of UKIP, and Everton's inability to put together a decent FA Cup run.

I've consulted my crystal ball to see what the year ahead may hold:

POLITICS

The Liberal Democrats


* The General Election is not going to be a lot of fun for Liberal Democrats, or at least those of us not in Westmorland & Lonsdale. There will, inevitably, be significant Lib Dem losses but not quite the meltdown some are suggesting. The party will do very well in some seats it currently holds, especially where the battleground is between the Lib Dems and the Tories. Unfortunately, the Lib Dems will lose some of their better, and more independently-minded, MPs - including almost all of its women, which in turn leads many within the party to call for quotas rather than get to grips with the reasons for the losses. The party will be reduced to around 30-35 seats at best, although more likely aboout 26-28, slightly better than 1992 levels. It will be far from a total disaster and there will be some gains among the losses - most notably in Guildford (and sadly not in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill). Paddy Ashdown will be credited for running a positive campaign.

* Nick Clegg will survive Labour's incompetent and poorly named "decapitation" strategy. Regrettably, many other senior Lib Dems will not.

* In Scotland, the situation for the Liberal Democrats will be far worse than in England. Alistair Carmichael will retain his Orkney and Shetland seat comfortably. There should be a few more holds for the party but these will be hard-fought contests.

* The overall result will call for calm reflection from the Liberal Democrats and thoughtful consideration of some of the tough decisions facing us in respect to rebuilding. That, of course, is not what happens as the blame game begins the instant the final result is announced. Nick Clegg will remain defiant and insist that if only we keep on telling voters how much we did in government, they'll eventually reward us.

* Nick Clegg will not resign as leader, further increasing internal tensions. Tim Farron will be anxious to dispel any rumours that he is lining himself up to replace Nick. When Clegg finally succumbs to the inevitable, Tim is the only candidate to put himself forward to succeed him (other likely candidates having lost their seats), telling the media "It is a privilege to lead the Liberal Democrats, it's all I've ever wanted to do since I joined the party as a teenager."

* In Scotland, Willie Rennie takes a longer-term view, looking to build for the 2016 Holyrood elections. He is at pains to come across as less adversarial and combative, and will work more positively with Nicola Sturgeon than he did with her predecessor. His difficulty will be in formulating a distinctive vision against the backdrop of the General Election losses and a popular perception that the Lib Dems are a spent force. He is helped, however, by the positions taken by Scottish Labour under Jim Murphy, which underline why a strong Liberal party is needed.

* Towards the end of the year, the Lib Dems will come second in a by-election. The only trouble is, it was one which they'd won relatively comfortably at the General Election.

* As time progresses, the Liberal Democrats will recognise, and embrace, the possibilities of opposition - especially with the government in complete disarray.

The Conservative Party

* In spite of putting together a manifesto that speaks of a desire to return to Victorian levels of social poverty, the Conservatives do reasonably well in the General Election. They finish with only a handful of seats fewer than Labour. David Cameron hails this as a triumph.

* The Tory vote does not actually hold up that well, and almost everywhere a large proportion of their supporters have lent their votes to UKIP. But this does not necessarily help UKIP and in a FPTP election it is not always critical for the Tories, especially when Labour are also heamorrhaging votes to Nigel Farage's party. However, the increase in UKIP support does affect the outcome of some key seats, with Esther McVey, Joanthan Evans and Anna Soubry all losing their seats to Labour as a result.

* David Cameron will attempt to put together a new government but will fail and resign immediately thereafter. The ghost of Edward Heath rejoices three times. In the leadership contest that follows, seven candidates put themselves forward, each of them offering an alternative "radical" vision of Conservatism. These include Eric Pickles, Teresa May, Caroline Spelman, Justine Greening, Phillip Hammond, Jeremy Hunt and Oliver Letwin. In the final vote, Greening defeats May, leading to further rejoicing and May's resignation from front-bench politics to spend more time working for the media.

* Ruth Davidson will seek to distance herself and the Scottish party from the ever rightward drift of the party in Westminster.


The Labour Party

* Labour will continue to struggle but will, as a result of the vagaries of the electoral system, emerge as the largest party at the General Election - but only just. Naturally Ed Miliband proclaims victory, but is unable to form a government. Unlike David Cameron's party, who are keen to negotiate with the Liberal Democrats, the DUP, UKIP and the Greens, Labour show no real inclination to talk to anyone until they realise the game might be up if they don't.

* Labour are unable to put together a coalition that works, or indeed any kind of coalition at all. They are unable to form a working relationship with either the Lib Dems or the SNP and, with many Labour MPs naturally hostile to the very idea of collaboration, they opt to form a minority government when Cameron's failure to work a deal is confirmed.

* The most obvious solution - that of a "National Government" made up of the two largest parties - is rejected by Labour as being "unworkable and undesirable".

* Unfortunately for Labour, this plan backfires when the government is defeated on key votes. Ed Miliband's incompetent leadership is brought to an end towards the end of the year and he becomes the shortest-serving Prime Minister since Viscount Goderich. Labour is also plunged into an internal crisis, with Chuka Umunna providing temporary leadership and steadying the ship to some degree.

* In Scotland, Jim Murphy will show himself to be combative and arrogant - but these qualities actually help Labour in the General Election when Murphy tours Scotland, speaking confidently. The fact that he has few ideas matters less than his willingness to engage with people and boldly proclaim the same messages. Naturally, this won't turn his party's fortunes around entirely, and Labour will lose a number of seats to the SNP, but it will help stop the rot...for the time being.

* Unfortunately for Labour, Murphy's absence from Holyrood means Scottish Labour are dependent on Kezia Dugdale for leadership in the Scottish Parliament. As Labour's difficulties in Westminster deepen, the differences between Dugdale's and Murphy's approaches become clearer, creating further tensions within the Scottish party.

The Scottish National Party

* As the SNP would like, the political debate in Scotland becomes again focused on the question of independence. The descent of Westminster politics into something of a farce aids this, but it is also true that the SNP are able to capitalise on dissatisfaction with what has been offered by the Smith Commission. Party membership continues to grow, albeit more steadily.

* Nicola Sturgeon brings a completely different approach to First Minister's Questions. She is able to outsmart her Labour opponents in much the way that Alex Salmond did, and her civility and more respectful attitude masks a highly purpose-driven agenda and steel-like determination.

* The SNP enter coalition negotiations with both Labour and the Conservatives following substantial gains in the General Election. The negotiations are unfruitful; the SNP say neither party is agreeable to scrapping nuclear weapons, while the Tories in particular accuse Ms Sturgeon's party of having no genuine interest in making UK government work. Such criticisms inevitably do the SNP no harm at all.

* The SNP will find tougher challenges closer to home, chiefly on domestic policy issues such as education and energy, and on the economy.

UKIP

* The General Election does not go well for UKIP. In spite of them winning 16% of the vote, this transforms intself into few gains. The party makes five gains and holds Clacton-on-Sea, but Mark Reckless loses his seat finishing a distant second. These gains do not include Thanet, which Laura Sandys holds - thus denying Nigel Farage a seat in Westminster. In some respects the result is cruel for UKIP, and an example of how the electoral system works against smaller parties.

* UKIP do enter discussions with the Tories in an attempt to broker a deal, but the electoral arithmetic is such that they would need either the SNP or the Lib Dems to secure a majority and the unlikeliest of coalitions.

* In the run-up to the General Election, controversy follows UKIP, with candidates being dropped late in the day for the usual inappropriate comments. Another is dismissed for talking to Pink News, explaining why he thinks the party is wrong on same-sex marriage (and practically everything else).

* The intense scrutiny doesn't help UKIP. While they make a signficant impact on the outcome of the election, they do not benefit themselves.

* UKIP do badly in Scotland, losing deposits in most constituencies. David Coburn, standing in Gordon, does worse than many other UKIP candidates and distinguishes himself only by the number of inarticulate rants he indulges in for the benefit of BBC viewers.

The Whig Party

Yes, there is a new party in UK politics...or should that be an old party?

Either way, after a 150 year absence from the political scene, the newly re-formed Whig Party are looking to make a splash in the General Election.

It's difficult to know precisely what they stand for, but they're apparently pro-Europe, and believers in human rights, democracy and engagement...which makes them a welcome addition in my mind. And, if they wish to champion a new Reform Act, encourage the wearing of wigs and tri-cornered hats and take on the power of the established church, that's fine by me!

Perhaps we should also "revive" the Radicals and the Pittites, and have lengthy debates about the War of Jenkins' Ear (at last, something worth fighting for!) while standing up for "Liberty and Property"?

The Whigs say they are "clearly not about forming a Government or even winning seats, but about raising the standard of political discourse". I wish them luck on that front.

My prediction? They won't do well, obviously. Sadly we won't be seeing any "Whig gain from Tory" headlines. But as a kind of "intelligent man's Monster Raving Loony Party"...well, I hope they stick around.

International

* The Euro will come under increased pressure and will again survive - but what becomes obvious is that there is no long-term answer to Europe's debt problem. Low inflation allows for the ECB to, predictably and unimaginatively, adopt quantitative easing.

* Russian premier Vladimir Putin will cease behaving in an erratic and irresponsible manner in Ukraine. He retains his expansionist and neo-colonial ideas, but will seek to come across as more statesmanlike. This is not due to Western pressure, but because the downturn in the Russian economy means that Putin will not want to embroil Russia in any conflict in Ukraine at the moment.

* Kim Jong-un, angered by the recent US film, will respond with a serious of hilarious "reprisals" which will only serve to underline his personal instability and his country's isolation.

Football

* Hamilton Academical will qualify for Europe. Rangers will not be promoted, losing convincingly to Queen of the South in the play-offs, and will continue to suffer from problems largely of their own making. Mike Ashley will prove not the be the Saviour of the club, but simply another wealthy man of the type who have done so much untold damage already. Fortunately, the Premier League won't go into meltdown because of the absence of a "strong Rangers".

* Morton will also miss out on promotion via the play-offs, but Albion Rovers will again win their play-offs to go up with Arbroath. Celtic, Hearts and Stranraer will win their respective leagues. Aberdeen will win the Scottish Cup.

* In England, Chelsea will win the Premier League title, but will lose out in the FA Cup final to Southampton. Brentford will win the Championship, not winning friends with many bookies in the process.

In lighter vein...

* Westminster will be scandalised by a Tory MP admitting to several affairs with parliamentary staff, a Labour MP getting into a fight at a night club, and a Liberal Democrat MP with something nice to say about the SNP.

* Following on from his "Briton of the Year" accolade from The Times, Nigel Farage receives an MBE in the Queen's birthday honours list for his services to comedy, the Daily Mail and BBC Question Time. He chooses to retire from politics and settles in Germany to be nearer his wife's family.

* Some seriously averse weather and an earthquake in Mexico will be interpreted by many as evidence of God's wrath towards equal marriage. The fact that other countries where same-sex marriage is legal, such as New Zealand, are experiencing fabulous sunshine doesn't register with the fundamentalists.

* The Church of Scotland finally votes at its General Assembly to agree that local churches can choose to ordain a minister in a civil partnership or same-sex marriage. Symbolically, a rainbow appears in Edinburgh on the day of the vote. A few ministers resign from the Kirk in protest, but the schism anticpated by the likes of The Herald doesn't materialise. No-one else really seems to care very much at all.

* The Christmas number 1 will not, this year, go to yet another winner of the Simon Cowell Karaoke Contest. Indeed, the X-factor's appeal will be at is lowest ever, with more viewers opting to watch not only Strictly Come Dancing but yet more reruns of Last of the Summer Wine on ITV3.

* The Eurovision Song Contest will be won by a Polish band parodying Kim Jong-un. North Korea cancels diplomatic relations with Poland, while UKIP blame all the Polish immigrants in Britain for the UK's giving Poland the "douze points" needed to win. (Coming over here, using our telephone networks to vote for their country's song...)

* Justin Beiber will attempt to launch a new career as a lead singer in a rock group. Unfortunately for him, no-one takes Justin's Dustbins any more seriously than they do David Coburn.

* I will stop hearing voices this year. Particularly my partner's voice, telling me to buy a new washing machine. My own handiwork not being sufficiently enduring, I will definitely make the investment.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

What does Osborne's uninspiring Autumn Statement mean for me?

Today, Chancellor George Osborne delivered his Autumn Statement.

What is particularly significant about this is that it represents the government's final opportunity to lay out its economic priorities ahead of the General Election.

Inevitably, the chancellor has heavily imbued the Statement with Conservative thinking, which is neither surprising nor particularly objectionable in itself.

However - lest we forget - the Liberal Democrats declared back in 2010 that the party should be judged according to the government's economic record. Effectively, this was tantamount to staking the party's electoral future on the Chancellor's economic plan. I have never believed that was a wise decision, and not simply because I had (and retain) concerns about Osbornomics.

So, what does the Chancellor promise in this final Autumn Statement? Is there anything that meets our "Stronger Economy, Fairer Society" ideals? Well, yes there is - a little. The problem with this Statement isn't that it's bad, because it isn't. But it's unconvincing and does little to actively further the Liberal Democrats' priorities, or indeed very much other than the kinds of initiatives welcomed by Tory voters. It's not so much what's in it that I object to, as opposed to what has been omitted.

Tomorrow's headlines will be focused on stamp duty reform. Some of my Lib Dem friends have hailed this as a positive move. Well, that's all good and well - but what if, like me, you don't own a home and have no realistic prospect of ever doing so? What if you happen to think there should be higher priorities than delivering an electioneering gift to the Tories? What if you're not particularly excited by the prospect of a 1.4% tax rate on your "average" £275,000 home?

Well, there are other measures. There's the so-called "Google tax", which is aimed at multi-nationals who divert profits to avoid tax. A good but overdue measure. There's also been the announcement that fuel duty will be frozen, that Britain will play a major role in the European Mars mission, and ISA allowances can be inherited after the death of a spouse. Nothing much to object to there, but also nothing that makes me think that the government is delivering fairness, or has the lowest-earning people in mind.

Useful, but insufficiently far-reaching, actions include bank profits offset by losses (for tax purposes) being limited to 50%. Again, this is an overdue measure but one that doesn't get to grips with the need to create a socially responsible financial sector. There was talk of creating a "Northern powerhouse" in England, which might finally go some way to dealing with unemployment hotspots, but it lacked specifics. A review of business rates has been announced to consider ways of helping High Street retailers. All fine in themselves, but there is a notable absence of detail, itself suggestive of a desire on the part of Osborne to talk the talk without actually delivering anything of substance. It's a party political broadcast on behalf of the Conservative Party - and one which is less than honest and lacks transparency.

I'm personally very happy with the advent of postgraduate student loans, but hy limit them only to the under-30s? In the aftermath of a recession, surely we need to be investing in reskilling people of all ages?

On the plus side, a further £2billion will be injected into the NHS and hospices and air ambulances will now be exempted from VAT.  But is that enough? Make no mistake, this is essentially a Conservative economic statement, with its emphasis on stamp duty and increasing the higher income tax threshold. These are not issues Liberal Democrats are passionate about and, dare I suggest it, not what the majority of "ordinary" people are concerned with.

Also concerning to me were the borrowing statistics. These do not make good reading. For all the bluster, and claims of having reduced the deficit, the 2010 deficit target has been missed. Essentially, the statistics confirm that the Chancellor does not have control of the structural deficit. That has to be a worry, especially for a party that hopes the public will reward it for the government's economic competence.

Did we really want to be judged in the next election on cuts to stamp duty and a one-off cash bonus to the NHS? It's not a terrible statement, but I'd hoped for something I could - as a PPC - campaign on...something I could sell on the doorsteps in Coatbridge and Bellshill. Somehow, I can't imagine many of my would-be constituents in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill finding much to shout about in this. Quite honestly, because it does very little for people like them, or indeed me, for whom stamp duty, missions to Mars and ISA allowances don't feature highly in their daily lives. In fact, while I am far from an economic expert, it would appear that the taxation changes will actually lead to the worse off losing out.

What do these announcements do for unemployed people? Or the lowest paid workers? Very little, which is why I for one am quite disappointed - the Autumn Statement is not merely an uninspiring lost opportunity, it is aimed primarily at delivering a party-political vote-grabbing message that fails to take into account the need to tackle rising poverty and social inequality.