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28 December 2015

The A to Z of the political year

Do you remember the Ed Stone? Don't worry, we're trying to forget it, too.

By New Statesman

A is for abuse on social media

Who is getting abuse on social media, and from whom, has become a preoccupation in Westminster. Unsurprisingly, politicians attract their fair share of salty comments (look at the pig-themed responses to any tweet by David Cameron), but in the past few months Labour MPs have worried that the vitriol against them is increasing. Chuka Umunna was called an “Uncle Tom” by one left-wing critic on Facebook, and the Ilford South MP, Mike Gapes, has taken a Rambo-like approach to anonymous Twitter “eggs” who tell him to join the Tories. While he was in hospital with chest pains in November, one troll tweeted: “Let’s hope a few more end up like Mike Gapes.”

Jeremy Corbyn, like Nicola Sturgeon before him, has condemned the abuse.


B is for Brexit

If politicians and economists have spent the past five years worrying about a forced “Grexit” from the eurozone as a result of Greek debt, here in Britain the past five months have been dominated by a fear of “Brexit”: voluntary exit by the UK from the European Union after the referendum on membership. The contest will be fierce: the Leave campaign has got the cynical but triumphant NOtoAV campaign band back together, while the In campaign recruits include the architect of the Liberal Democrats’ disastrous 2015 general election campaign and an unsuccessful Labour parliamentary candidate. Small wonder pro-Europeans are increasingly nervy about their chances of winning the coming referendum.


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C is for castration

Yes, this is the year Labour lost its balls: the shadow chancellor Ed Balls, to be specific – defeated by his Conservative opponent Andrea Jenkyns in the Yorkshire seat of Morley and Outwood. The result came in at the end of a terrible night for big beasts, following the removal from the Commons of Vince Cable, Douglas Alexander and Danny Alexander.

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After losing his seat, Balls declined to take a big-money job (unlike Alexander, who recently signed on for a reported six figures to help Bono’s charitable foundation) and is now a senior research fellow at Harvard.


D is for devo-manc

George Osborne regards the Northern Powerhouse as one of his two most important political projects, and devolving more power to Greater Manchester is the biggest part of it. He has handed the (La-bour-dominated) local authority more control of transport and health and a range of other powers, in exchange for an elected “metro-mayor” who will be in charge of it all. The plan has excited Labour politicians in Greater Manchester, but it re-mains to be seen whether Osborne’s other project – reversing the budget deficit in five years, against the advice of economists – kills off his dreams of a powerhouse.


E is for Ed Stone

“The heaviest suicide note in history,” as the journalist Chris Deerin called it, appeared in the closing stages of the election campaign. An imposing granite slab, it listed six Labour pledges (one more than the earlier campaign literature, once the party remembered it needed to say something about housing). It did not receive, shall we say, universal acclaim – and after the election several right-wing newspapers launched a devoted hunt for its final resting place. Alas, it seems to have been ground to dust quietly in a south London garage.

The likes of the Ed Stone and the decision to run with it spring from staffers delirious with tiredness, the former Labour spinner Theo Bertram suggested afterwards on Twitter. He said he had once been involved in commissioning a chameleon costume, designed to mock David Cameron’s changeable positions. The outfit turned out ruinously expensive because the wearer needed to be able to ride a bike wearing it, and therefore it had to be custom-made.

See? The Ed Stone doesn’t look so bad now.


F is for the Fifty-Six

One defining image of the post-election period was the triumphal photograph of Nicola Sturgeon with the SNP’s 56 newly minted MPs in front of the Forth Rail Bridge. It was a remarkable achievement, but references to “the 56” have generally been dropped since the party suspended Natalie McGarry and Michelle Thomson. (The symbolism of the Forth Rail Bridge is also less impressive in retrospect, as its sister, the Forth Road Bridge, closed on 4 December after cracks appeared its structure.)


G is for Garden Bridge

If Boris Johnson has succeeded in doing anything as Mayor of London, it has been in commissioning vanity projects that bear his name. Not content to leave it at bikes and buses, the blond-thatched Tory is now working to make Joanna Lumley’s dream (a bridge covered in shrubs spanning the Thames) come true. The bridge was first proposed as a privately funded venture, but there are now suggestions that it could receive £30m of city funds, and it would cost a further £3.5m annually to maintain it and keep the foliage watered. Those opposed to the plan point out that the central stretch of the river is already well served with crossings and that a new bridge will ruin historic views of London. But if we have learned nothing else from the past seven years, it is that the mayor will have his way regardless. Boris Bridge, anyone?


H is for Harriet Harman

How do we love thee, Hazza? Let us count the ways. First, there was Labour’s “pink bus” for women during the election campaign (which Harman always insisted was in fact “One Nation Magenta”). It may have been mocked by commentators, but the ever-upbeat Harman insisted that any publicity for women’s causes is good publicity. After Ed Miliband stepped down, Harman was once again pressed into service as acting party leader, and managed a fractious summer with steely confidence. After Jeremy Corbyn’s election, she stepped down from front-line politics. Unfortunately, her achievements (getting childcare on the agenda; counting women on boards; pushing through the Equality Act; winning a seat while pregnant at a time when the Commons was 97 per cent male) are still poorly recognised, even within her own party. And she did this in the face of unremitting media hostility: Harriet “Harperson” always knew that the mockery meant the men in power felt she was a threat.

I is for Immigration

They were quickly nicknamed “racist mugs”. But for Ed Miliband’s Labour, the decision to create crockery with the party’s election pledges including the blunt promise of “Controls on immigration” – was an obvious one. All year, his advisers had been briefing that the party needed to be “on the pitch” when it came to talking about immigration; Labour could not win an election, they said, if voters saw the party as an advocate of an open-door policy.

The Tories had problems in this policy area, too: David Cameron had promised to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” (“No ifs, no buts,” he said) but consistently failed in his first term to get anywhere near that goal. Meanwhile, Ukip managed to tie together concerns about immigration with the question of the UK’s continued membership of the EU. As a result, it expanded its voter base among those who would not want to support an explicitly xenophobic party.

J is for #jezwecan

We should have known. The two linchpins of modern politics – rubbish hashtags and random comparisons with Barack Obama – converged in the online rallying cry of those supporting Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader. When the lefty stalwart emerged, saintlike, from the back benches and announced that he would be running for the post, pundits barely glanced up from their keyboards. But after he secured 35 nominations and scraped on to the ballot paper, the Islington North MP’s campaign took off. His rallies were compared to rock concerts, packing venues and creating queues of excitable youths around the block. And no matter how irritating (sometimes offensive) the social media support was, the hashtaggers were right. Jez he did.

I voted Corbyn badges. Photo: Getty

K is for Kay Burley

“Your poor mum,” might not have been the most wounding comment aimed at Ed Miliband during the election, but it certainly punched a sore spot. The mother in question, Marion, has never said whether she voted for Ed or for her elder son, David, in the Labour leadership election that pitted the brothers against each other in 2010. When the inevitable family question came up in the Sky leaders’ debate – “Hi, do you not think that your brother would have done a better job?” – the veteran broadcaster Kay Burley ad-libbed a response after Miliband finished his answer. It was one of the most human moments of the election campaign, and it caused an uproar, as Burley was accused of bias.

As ever, she took it on the chin, tweeting in response to criticism from the footballer Stan Collymore: “Stan, its @KayBurley if you need to slag me off directly. Surely you remember from when your [sic] were direct messaging me.” One-nil to Kay, who also came up with the most memorable tweet following the Paris attacks when she photographed a Golden Retriever on the streets of the city and captioned it simply “#sadnessinhiseyes”. Social media fans, desperate for something light-hearted to break the unremitting bleakness of the news from Paris, instantly turned it into a popular meme.

L is for the Lords

Just when you thought the only function left for the House of Lords was modelling ermine, it has come back to life as a significant political force. That’s in spite of members having an average age of 70, and its tendency to begin business at a leisurely afternoon hour. In this parliament alone, the upper chamber has defeated the government 23 times so far, its greatest triumph being a rejection of George Osborne’s tax credit cuts bill. A day later, the government narrowly avoided the Lords blocking electoral reform needed for its review of constituency boundaries. The Tories are also likely to clash with peers over the referendum about the UK’s role in the EU, and changing human rights legislation.

M is for the Milifandom

Politics is an unpredictable game but no commentator could have foreseen a strange trend that seized social media during the election campaign. One week, the Labour leader was a geek who looked too much like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit to run the country; the next, he was a sex symbol, adored by teenage girls. Sparked by a 17-year-old student and Labour supporter, Abby Tomlinson, this online outpouring of love for Ed Miliband became known as “the Milifandom”. Its emblem? Photoshopped images of the unlikely heart-throb wearing a crown of flowers. Tomlinson explained that she had joined Labour to protest against David Cameron refusing to give the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds – which in turn has become part of the PM’s battle with the Lords (see L).

Ed Miliband with a flower crown photoshopped on to his head. 

N is for the Nearly Man

When the race for the Labour leadership began, Chuka Umunna was quickly hailed as the favourite. Telegenic, personable, clever and with a sufficiently vague ideological pedigree not to upset either wing of the party, the Streatham MP began working the Sunday-show circuit with vigour. But then, three days after finally confirming he would run, he pulled out. “I had always wondered whether it was all too soon for me to launch this leadership bid – I fear it was,” the 36-year-old said in a statement. The references to how “uncomfortable” he had found the media intrusion led some to suspect a tabloid scandal was imminent, but none materialised.

Umunna, a moderniser, made no secret of his support for Liz Kendall and his con-cerns about Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy, but he did not resign from his shadow cabinet post immediately after Cor-byn’s victory. However, after a face-to-face meeting, he said he would find it “difficult to abide by the collective responsibility that comes with serving in the shadow cabinet”. (The notion now seems almost quaint.)

Will Umunna the Nearly Man make another challenge for the leadership? After his support for air strikes in Syria, his divergence of opinion from the Labour electorate looks, if anything, greater than it did in the summer. Another Nearly Man, Dan Jarvis – who cited his young children as the reason why he didn’t run for leader – also voted for air strikes.

O is for opinion polls

Polls are useless. Finished. Dead. Hope-less. Or are they? Although the May election result surprised pollsters, who had consistently overrated Labour’s support and failed to predict how much the Conservatives would benefit from the collapse of the Lib Dems, it is too early to consign the entire area of study to the dustbin. For a start, the exit poll announced at 10pm on 7 May made a bold prediction – a Conservative victory and an SNP landslide – which was thoroughly vindicated as the results came in. So, are polls useful or not? As future samples are published, those who do not trust their findings are urged to refer to the first case, while those who agree with them are recommended to cite the latter.


P is for Pig-gate

In September, as Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott prepared to publish their biography of David Cameron, the Conservative Party braced itself for a deluge of scandals. What dirt did the former Tory chairman have on their leader, with whom he had fallen out so spectacularly? Yet Call Me Dave proved rather tame, its stand-out revelation (that Cameron refused to give Ashcroft a seat in cabinet despite Ashcroft’s large donations to the party) reflecting well on the Prime Minister. But no one talked about that, because the book also contained the anonymously sourced suggestion that, as a student, the PM had inserted “a private part of his anatomy” into a dead pig’s mouth at a drinking society initiation ceremony. Unsurprisingly, Cameron’s team called the claim “utter nonsense”.

A protestor in a Unite t-shirt, wearing a pig’s head mask. Photo: Getty

Q is for the questions in PMQs

One of the most obvious signs of Jeremy Corbyn’s “new politics” has been his approach to Prime Minister’s Questions, posing crowdsourced questions and resolutely refusing to engage in braying or any other schoolyard antics. Indeed, Corbyn has cultivated a geography-teacher-like stare at the government front bench, to the extent that it wouldn’t surprise anyone if one day he said, “Come on: it’s your time you’re wasting.”

The format change brought problems – early versions with no follow-ups allowed David Cameron to brush off Nancy from Sevenoaks or Ajit from Northampton with a pat answer and escape proper scrutiny. But Corbyn has since modified his approach, mixing questions sent in by the public with his own supplementaries. There have been slip-ups (such as the time when “Kieran, a veteran of the first Gulf war” turned out to be the former BNP organiser Kieran Devlin), but overall the approach has breathed life into a tired formula. And in her role as shadow first secretary of state, Angela Eagle had a go on 9 December, facing George Osborne while the Labour leader was away. 

R is for the Resistance

After it was reported that Chuka Umunna’s and Tristram Hunt’s new group, Labour for the Common Good, had been nicknamed “the Resistance”, a band of anonymous centrists assembled to protest what they saw as the Labour Party’s lurch to the left. On Twitter, they call themselves “the Maquis”, after the French Resistance fighters, and, by their account, they are “resisting the takeover of the Labour Party by the far left and supporting those who stand & fight”. In other anti-Corbyn news, it was claimed in November that moderate Labour MPs plotting insurrection have taken to identifying themselves to each other with the code words “interesting times&rdquo

S is for Syria

The Commons debate about extending British air strikes into Syria had moments of great passion and eloquence, but the initial tone felt oddly parochial, thanks to several MPs using their parliamentary time to demand that David Cameron apologise for urging his MPs not to vote with “Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”. Later, however, there were thoughtful speeches by Alan Johnson, Margaret Beckett, Dan Jarvis and David Davis, showing that parliamentary debate can still shed light on a difficult deci-sion.

But what happens next? For the Conservatives, relatively little. Although there were seven Tory rebels, the party made it through the vote relatively undented, and Cameron is already warning of a long bombing campaign. The Democratic Unionist Party and the Lib Dems (with the exceptions of Norman Lamb and Mark Williams) also voted in favour with little drama, while the SNP voted against en bloc, even the two MPs who are suspended from the party.

For Labour, however, the saga exposed the deep divisions between Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow cabinet. Having said in 2013 that he believed decisions about war should always be put to a free vote, the Labour leader changed his mind and lobbied hard for a whip against extending air strikes into Syria. However, after a tense meeting of the shadow cabinet, he was forced to back down.

In the end, 66 Labour MPs voted for strikes (and five more, including the shadow chief whip, Rosie Winterton, abstained). Several of the hawks, such as Stella Creasy and Chuka Umunna, have since been the subject of deselection rumours. Yet the vote did not follow the simple left v Blairites dividing line it might seem to have done – some hardcore Blairites, such as the former minister Ivan Lewis (sacked by Corbyn via text), voted against further military intervention.

T is for tax credits

Andrew Adonis once said that “good governments U-turn, and U-turn often”. If that is so, the Cameron-Osborne regime is doing splendidly. After the latest salvo in their battle against the Budget deficit misfired – and cutting tax credits proved unpopular with everyone from the Sun to the SNP – the Chancellor very publicly reversed his policy in November’s Autumn Statement. (The reduction will now be rolled in to Universal Credit when – if? – that brainchild of Iain Duncan Smith launches.) That was not the only bit of Osborne-sponsored fake largesse in the Autumn Statement. He announced that the state will no longer profit from the EU-enforced VAT that women pay on sanitary products. The money from these will now go to . . . women’s health charities. Because men’s money could never be spent on something so frivolous, right?

U is for unresignation

On the morning of 8 May, having failed to win Thanet South, and with only one Ukip MP heading back to the Commons, Nigel Farage resigned. It was an emotional moment, only slightly undermined by his suggestion, in the resignation speech itself, that he might come back again. Which he duly did, after Ukip’s governing committee rejected his resignation. In the end, his break from being leader lasted all of 48 hours. Still, it was long enough to prompt a minor civil war in Ukip – and it led to the coining of the helpful neologism “unresignation”.

V is for violin, world’s smallest

“. . . the opportunity for men to raise issues that are important to them is very limited.” This remark, during an otherwise dry backbench business committee hearing, was enough to make the newly elected MP Jess Phillips guffaw. Why? It was part of the Tory MP Philip Davies’s rationale for suggesting that the Commons should mark International Men’s Day, as well as International Women’s Day, “in the spirit of gender equality”. Phillips was unimpressed: “As the only woman on this committee, it seems like every day to me is International Men’s Day,” she said. “When I’ve got parity, when women in these buildings have parity, you can have your debate.” After the argument, Phillips received death and rape threats online.

MP Jeff Phillips. Photo: Euan Cherry/Photoshot

W is for wipeout

At the start of the year the Liberal Democrats had 56 MPs, making them the third-largest party, one represented at the highest levels of a coalition government. But 7 May brought a “cruel and punishing night”, in the words of Nick Clegg, and their number was reduced to just eight. As a result, the SNP took the Lib Dems’ prime seating in the chamber, and inherited the PMQs slot they would otherwise have had as the second-largest opposition party. The defeat also left them with an image problem: the only survivors of the wipeout were all white men.

After the defeat, Clegg immediately stepped down; and – in contrast to Labour – the contest to replace him was mercifully brief. On 16 July Tim Farron was named as the party’s new leader. Everyone expected him to move the Lib Dems to the left, taking advantage of the political gap created by Labour’s accommodation with austerity. But then, of course, Labour members elected a viscerally anti-austerity leader of their own. That complicates Farron’s hopes of rebuilding the party, as does his decision to back air strikes in Syria.

X is for Xi Jinping

After George Osborne’s visit to China in September – earnestly flogging British infrastructure projects, including the Hinkley C nuclear power station and HS2 contracts, and ignoring human rights abuses – the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, paid a return visit. The red carpet was rolled out for him at No 10, at the same time as a flood of cheap Chinese imports swept British steelworkers out of their jobs across the north. Why was Osborne so reluctant to allow the British state to take on big infrastructure projects, commentators asked, but so happy to outsource them to communists in Beijing?


In Labour’s response to the Autumn Statement, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, tried to mock Osborne’s chumminess with the Chinese by throwing Mao’s Little Red Book at him across the despatch box. Sadly for him, the Chancellor had a snappy response ready, declaring: “Oh, look! It’s his personal signed copy.”

Y is for Y chromosomes

Nearly a hundred years after women got the vote, the House of Commons remains a male-dominated arena: after the election, the proportion of female MPs rose from just 22 per cent to 29 per cent.

But after a slow start (when there were more men in the cabinet who went to Magdalen College, Oxford, than women), David Cameron is at last seeing the effects of his work to promote female MPs. In February 2014, Ed Miliband tore into the Tories at PMQs, drawing attention to their all-male front bench. “I guess they didn’t allow women into the Bullingdon Club either,” he jeered. Since then, the Conservatives have redoubled their efforts to create a “doughnut” – a ring of women around the PM whenever he gives a speech in the House.

The other parties have issues, too. The Lib Dems are now an all-male party in the Commons (see W) and many senior Labour MPs were unhappy that no women spoke at the special conference at which the new leader was announced, though Kezia Dugdale had just been elected head of Scottish Labour.

Jeremy Corbyn faced further rumbles of discontent when he announced his shadow cabinet line-up and it became clear that all the great offices of state (Home, Foreign, Treasury) had gone to men. Cue the hasty gift of an extra title to Angela Eagle (shadow first secretary) and the creation of several new posts.

Z is for Zac Goldsmith

London is a Labour city – so can anyone stop Sadiq Khan from becoming its next mayor, especially now that the colourful incumbent, Boris Johnson, has returned to the Commons to plot his assault on the top job? Step forward, Zac Goldsmith. The environmental campaigner is the “I can’t believe it’s not Boris” candidate for mayor: same blond hair, same education at Eton, same reputation for independent thinking. On the Conservative back benches, Goldsmith (son of the Eurosceptic billionaire James) has taken on his party over everything from parliamentary recall to expanding Heathrow. Tory strategists hope that his maverick streak will keep City Hall from falling into Labour hands. He crushed his Conservative opponents in the primary, and he is already battle-hardened, having won his Commons seat of Richmond Park against a well-dug-in Lib Dem back in 2010. The election proper has been a struggle thus far, however, with Goldsmith coming out against British EU membership in a largely pro-EU London. But he got a big boost from David Cameron’s decision to delay the decision on a third runway at Heathrow until late next year: Goldsmith had threatened to resign as an MP if the project went ahead.

By Helen Lewis, Anoosh Chakelian, Stephen Bush and Caroline Crampton

This article appears in the 14 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special