Five political predictions for 2014

Labour will end the year ahead in the polls, Scotland will reject independence by a double-digit margin and Ed Balls will remain shadow chancellor.

J.K.Galbraith liked to remark that "the only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable." One could say the same of political predictions. But with that warning duly noted, here are five of mine for 2014.

1. Labour will end the year ahead in the polls

The polls will remain tight as the Tories continue to benefit (however undeservedly) from the economic recovery, but Labour will end the year in front. The proportion of 2010 Lib Dem voters supporting Miliband's party and the proportion of 2010 Conservative voters supporting UKIP will remain too great for the Tories to move ahead. As May 2015 approaches, discussion will increasingly focus on whether Labour will win an overall majority or, alternatively, become the single largest party, with many Tory MPs resigning themselves to defeat.

End of year polling averages:

Labour 38%

Conservatives 33%

UKIP 15%

Lib Dems 10%

2. Scotland will reject independence by a double-digit margin

The No campaign retained a comfortable lead throughout this year and that won't change in 2014. On 18 September, Scotland will reject independence by a margin no smaller than 10 points and conceivably as large as 25. The pessimists in the Unionist camp and the optimists on the nationalist side point to three factors that could work in the SNP's favour: the large number of undecided voters, Alex Salmond's strength as a campaigner and the unpredictability of referendums. But none of these suggests a yes vote is likely.

There is no reason to believe that the quarter of Scots yet to decide how they will vote will break for the nationalists in the number required for victory. Indeed, according to the most recent YouGov poll, which put the No side ahead by 52-33, even winning over 100 per cent would still leave the Yes camp four points behind.

The SNP might have overturned a double-digit Labour lead to triumph in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections, but there was at least something close to a precedent for this in the form of the party's 2007 victory. By contrast, there has never been anything close to a majority for independence and the uncertainty created by the financial crisis and its aftermath has made voters even more reluctant to take that leap into the dark.

There have been polls showing that Scots would vote for independence if they believed it would make them better off, but the problem for Salmond is that they don't. Asked earlier this month by YouGov, "Do you think Scotland would be economically better or worse off if it became an independent country, or would it make no difference?" (the defining issue of the campaign), just 26% said "better off" and 48% said "worse off". If Salmond couldn't persuade voters that Scotland would be better off alone when the UK was in an austerity-induced double-dip recession, he's not going to be able to persuade them now.

Referendums are uncertain beasts, but the clear tendency is for support for the status quo to increase as voting day approaches (as in the case of the 1975 EU referendum, the 2011 AV referendum and the 1980 Quebec referendum). Faced with the real possibility of secession, I expect a significant minority of Yes supporters to reverse their stance. Ed Miliband, who would struggle to govern if Labour was stripped of its Scottish MPs, and David Cameron, who would become known as the prime minister who lost the Union, will unite in relief.

3. Unemployment will fall to 7% but the Bank of England won't raise rates

Back in August, when Mark Carney introduced forward guidance, the Bank of England didn't expect unemployment to fall to 7% until 2016 (it then stood at 7.8%). But with joblessness already down to 7.4%, my prediction is that the 7% threshold, the trigger for the Bank to consider a rate rise, will be reached by the end of the year.

At this point, hawkish economists will demand an increase in the base rate, but Carney will reject their advice. The governor will cite the continuing weakness of household finances, with many trapped in low-paid work, as the main reason to maintain monetary stimulus and hold rates at their record low of 0.5%.

4. Labour will win the European elections

There is a consensus among the media that UKIP will triumph in the European elections as Nigel Farage turns them into a referendum on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, but my prediction is a narrow Labour win. The most recent poll gave Miliband's party a seven-point lead over UKIP (32-25) and while this will decline as the campaign proper begins, they will retain the advantage. Quite simply, there are too many voters whose default setting is to back Labour (the elections will be held on 22 May, the same day as the locals) for Farage to win in a national contest. The Tories will finish in third place (prompting predictable panic among their backbenchers), with the Lib Dems in fourth and the Greens in fifth.

5. Ed Balls will remain shadow chancellor

Ed Miliband has stated several times, most recently last week, that Labour will go into the general election with Ed Balls as shadow chancellor, but this won't stop Fleet Street commentators speculating that he will be moved. The cries for Balls to be thrown overboard will reach a crescendo as Alistair Darling leads the Unionist side to victory in the Scottish independence referendum (see prediction number two), just days before the Labour conference opens, but Miliband will wisely disregard them.

The appointment of the man who was Chancellor at the time of the financial crisis would be a gift to the Tories and Balls's rare combination of political cunning and economic nous means he remains the best qualified individual for the job. As 2014 draws to a close, the shadow chancellor will, after years of waiting, finally be able to look forward to delivering his first Budget.

Ed Miliband will still have more to smile about than David Cameron in 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage