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28 December 2015

What I got wrong, and what I got right, in politics in 2015

Our Staggers editor, Stephen Bush, looks back at his year in political commentary.

By Stephen Bush

I didn’t think there would be a left-wing candidate on the Labour leadership ballot

“That’s not going to happen this time,” I said, when asked by our deputy editor Helen Lewis on our podcast if there would be a left-wing candidate on the ballot paper for the Labour leadership, just a few weeks after the general election.

“Under the new system,” I continued, confidently, “The MPs can’t game it. If they let a left-wing candidate out into the wild, who knows what they could do. They might win!”

But at least I got that Jeremy Corbyn was going to win

Once the PLP had surprised me by putting Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot, I regret not immediately putting him as favourite – in January, while still working at the Telegraph, I wrote that “Labour’s short-term future lies to Miliband’s left, not his right”, and he was the most left-wing candidate on the ballot. It took for the Newsnight debate – when Liz Kendall was booed, Yvette Cooper was invisible, and Andy Burnham pandered like mad – for me to take Corbyn seriously but it wasn’t until I saw polling putting him ahead that I thought he could get enough overall votes to win under Labour’s preferential voting system.

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I thought Nick Clegg would still be Deputy Prime Minister…

 “It looks increasingly likely that not only will Clegg survive in Sheffield Hallam,” I wrote in April, “but he will return to government as David Cameron’s deputy once again.”

Once again – so close to being right, and yet so far. I thought that Ed Miliband would be unable to form a government, that Cameron would stay in office – but that Nick Clegg would too.

How did I get it wrong? In both cases, I committed the most common sin of politicos – I forgot that sensible people pay less attention to politics than I do. In the case of the leadership election, Labour MPs didn’t quite get that they couldn’t, as in times past, release a leftwing candidate onto the ballot paper, safe in the knowledge that only one of their two top choices could prevail (none of Diane Abbott, Ed Balls or Andy Burnham ever had any chance in 2010, as the support of so many MPs made it a Miliband vs Miliband affair).

And in the case of the Liberal Democrats, I bought into the party’s spin that having lots of photos taken of their candidates pointing at potholes would be enough to see off the electoral consequences of the coalition. Of course, most people looked at the Liberal Democrats in 2010, decided they’d sold out, and switched off.

One Labour staffer reflected to me recently that “When I talked to non-political friends, that was the thing you’d say, knowledgably. They’d say: ‘The Lib Dems are joke. No one’s going to vote for them. And I’d say: ‘Oh, well, actually, what you don’t get is…’ And of course, it was us who didn’t get it.”

Over the next five years, I plan to listen to music radio a lot more and the Today programme a lot less.

…and that David Cameron would stay as his boss

“Dude, where’s my swing?” asked one Labour organiser just days before the party’s shock defeat. Local organisers in the constituencies looked at the numbers and concluded that the party would fall short of where it needed to be – although at HQ, they were more bullish, putting Labour at around the 270-seat mark.

But – because I overestimated the Liberal Democrats, I covered the Conservative manifesto largely through the lens of what bits would be negotiated away. I regret that a lot of the wonkery I wrote about it was effectively “This is unworkable and crazy, but…” not “This is unworkable and crazy!”

I thought George Osborne would face more pressure from his party’s deficit hawks

Looking over the chances of a U-turn on tax credits, I pointed out that “almost everything else, from child benefit to pensioners, has been ringfenced by the government, which makes keeping their fiscal promises impossible without cuts to tax credits”.

I still thought Osborne would have to U-turn, but I expected more (ie any) blowback from it. The Chancellor has effectively given up any hope of meeting his own targets by 2020 – the budget will not be balanced by the end of the parliament or anything like that. (Not that it matters – having “let us finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour is probably good for one more election.)

But within the Conservative tent, the loudest voice sounding the alarm is Paul Goodman at ConservativeHome.

So far, the emergence of a vocal anti-deficit group on the Tory backbenches continues to be a dog that hasn’t barked.

I no longer think Britain should adopt the alternative vote

I know, I know: 2011 called, they want their debate back. I used to love the alternative vote – I actually went round the country during the referendum talking to small gatherings about why they should back it, including a particularly strange trip to a Henley volunteers association.

But covering the Labour leadership election in, at times, frighteningly obsessive detail, has made me do a U-turn.

Some supporters of Jeremy Corbyn gloried in a #no2ndpref hashtag, saying that they would “protest” negative campaigns against their candidate by denying a second preference vote to any of the others (this is a bit like trying to rob a bank by shooting yourself in the head – not casting a second preference vote doesn’t make your first preference do better,but simply means you don’t get to pick again).

And Labour MPs and press officers repeatedly briefed that Liz Kendall or Yvette Cooper should drop out to “stop Jeremy Corbyn”: under a preferential voting system, they didn’t need to.

Every few weeks, I get a pitch for the Staggers blog showing a comically poor understanding of preferential voting – one recent effort suggested that switching to AV would have allowed Labour to split into two parties. AV is even more sharply punishing of parties far from the political centre than first past the post is, meaning Labour would have had even less chance of splitting.

I still think Britain should change its electoral system, but there is no hope of adopting a new one if it is so poorly understood even by politicos. That suggests that both it – and STV, the Electoral Reform Society’s preferred model – are doomed. Electoral reformers should back something easier to understand, like the D’Hondt system or party lists, instead.

But I never expected Labour to fall in love with PR

Tony Benn opposed proportional representation, believing the compromises in a proportional system would prevent a genuinely socialist government taking office – as did John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, then footsoldiers of Bennism. Most of the Labour left opposed a Yes vote in the AV referendum on the grounds that it would “lock in” mushy centrism as a precondition of victory.

But the Conservative majority, and the increasing strength of the Tory party, has triggered a conversion for many. That said, it won’t matter if they can’t win a majority under the current rules. 

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