Time for the reckoning on my long-term calls
At the start of the decade, I asked what politics in the UK would look like ten years hence. That time has now arrived, so let’s look at how I did and, beyond that, how anyone could have done.
Predicting a few weeks ahead can be a hazardous business; predicting a decade into the future would be foolhardy in the extreme which is probably why observant readers will notice that I dodged my own question and made very few predictions as such. I listed problems, challenges and opportunities; history and precedent to similar situations that the country was in in 2010; and then said nothing specific.
However, the main prediction I did make – that the party structure could well undergo a convulsion – was right: by 2016, the SNP had replaced Labour as the main party of Scotland (indeed, they dominate it to a greater degree than Labour ever did – Labour never won an outright majority at Holyrood or more than 95% of Westminster seats), UKIP overtook the Lib Dems as the third-best supported party for several years before fading to irrelevance, the Lib Dems themselves fell from sixty-three MPs at the start of the decade to eight after the 2015 election, from where they’ve barely recovered bar flattering to deceive this summer just gone. Both the Tories, who fell to fifth and a single-figures share of the vote in this years’ EP election, and Labour, who explored new lows for a main opposition, also flirted with disaster but ultimately came through in one piece despite near-unprecedented numbers of defections, splits and expulsions this year alone.
But how much of that has been down to chance and how much was predictable? As mentioned in the 2010 article, the stresses within the system were plain for anyone to see. Whether a government took a lead in cutting back on spending or whether they were forced into it by the markets was for them to choose but either way the result would have been that the public would have to get used to less – and that could only but have consequences.
Less foreseeable was the coalition government that did so much to advance UKIP and the Greens at the expense of the Conservatives and Lib Dems. Indeed, even as the election night results came in, few foresaw a full-blown coalition resulting. Likewise, few would have seen the SNP performing so spectacularly well across the decade. Against a Conservative government in Westminster and an SNP one in Holyrood, the natural assumption was that Labour would retake control in Scotland in 2011 (indeed, that was precisely what the polls were showing in early 2011). That, however, would have been to predict solely on the great tides of history – the swing of the pendulum – and would have ignored the qualitative difference the candidates for First Minister; a factor which proved crucial once campaigning started. Later on in the decade, when the party leaders would have been unknown to someone at the start of 2010, the great tides would have been all the analyst had to work on; for an election within eighteen months, he or she could have been more specific. I should have been more specific; the data to analyse was there.
(Oddly, for once the Tory leader at the end of the decade was someone who might well have been the favourite to hold the post ten years hence in 2010 but precious few other office-holders; Nicola Sturgeon is arguably the only significant other.)
Ironically, UKIP’s advance against Labour was more predictable: by 2010, Labour’s socially conservative working class core vote was clearly becoming estranged from the middle class university educated progressives dominating the party and its thinking. That swing didn’t occur until after UKIP had already eaten into a share of the Conservative vote but it was always a strong possibility.
The domino effect of all these effects and outcomes, which fed on each other, rapidly becomes far too complex to game years ahead, even without the inevitability of unknowable events being thrown into the mix. We could have foreseen that Europe would continue to cause the Conservatives difficulty but who could have known that there’d be a migrant/refugee crisis across Europe from the Middle East at the same time as the UK would hold a referendum on EU membership?
What’s notable by its omission is Brexit – though arguably I speculated on change of that sort of nature in the penultimate paragraph of the article, in that the change and the issue that have dominated politics for the second half of the decade came not particularly from pressures within the party system but from outside it. It’s true that there was a split within the Tory Party on Europe but it was one of long-standing which had always been managed; what prompted the referendum pledge was the rise of UKIP’s support.
Even so, looking back, it’s remarkable that the word itself wasn’t coined until 2012 and yet only three years later the government was legislating to provide for a clear route to enable Brexit to happen, even if it was a route that the government itself was opposed to.
Similarly, while the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 ended up confirming the status quo, it nonetheless placed that status quo under threats not seen for many decades – and ones which clearly haven’t yet been anything like resolved.
Returning to the party system, was the accuracy of the prediction of convulsions in the party structure down more to luck than judgement? I don’t think so. The precise mechanisms might have been impossible to anticipate but the parallels with previous times of turmoil combined with the discipline expected of MPs, the centralisation of campaigning and the already high levels of public dissatisfaction with the establishment parties all pointed in the same direction.
Still, Brexit and (non-)Scottish independence could well be small beer compared with what the 2020s is likely to throw at us.
p.s. On a more recent note, my predictions for 2019 turned out reasonably well. I missed that parliament would force Brexit extensions on the government (and in so doing, create space for a change of Tory leader and PM before Brexit occurred), which threw out the timescales but the inherent logic and dynamics more or less played out otherwise.