What I got right, and got wrong, in politics in 2016

I won some, I lost some.

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I thought Britain would leave the European Union…

The morning after the general election in 2015, when the Conservatives – who had committed to holding a referendum on EU membership in their manifesto – won a majority, I told the BBC World Service there was a “real risk” that Britain would leave the European Union, adding that I thought Out were the favourites.

At the start of this year, I went further, saying that Britain would leave the European Union. Why?

I was convinced of the argument advanced by pro-Europeans on the Labour and Liberal Democrat side that holding a referendum would end in defeat thanks to decades of anti-European and anti-immigration sentiment from the right-wing press and the Conservative party. As I wrote afterwards, Brexit “happened overnight but it took years”.

That’s why I’m wary of analyses that “the establishment” didn’t see it coming, unless your definition of the establishment excludes Douglas Alexander, Chuka Umunna, Tim Farron, Pat McFadden and Ed Miliband, all of whom argued privately before May 2015 that a referendum would be lost if it were held.

I suppose if your definition of the establishment is confined to “David Cameron and George Osborne”, it is true to say the establishment didn’t see it coming.

…but I was wrong about why

I felt certain that if the Leave campaign could turn the referendum into a contest about immigration, they could win it. But I thought that the refugee crisis would be their signature issue.

It’s not that the referendum didn’t occur against the backdrop of a refugee crisis – by the time that Britons voted to Leave, more people had attempted to cross the Mediterranean than had in the entirety of 2015 – but instead, Vote Leave used the illusory threat of Turkish entry into the European Union.

I think, in the short term, this was a more effective technique than the one I would have used, as they might have risked getting caught in an abstract policy debate about the refugee crisis, whereas the Remain campaign’s attempts to rebut the charge that Turkey was about to join the European Union just meant that the words “Turkey” “join” and “European Union” appeared in every story while the word “not” appeared in just half of them.

But I don’t think it would have mattered one way or the other. My feeling, both immediately after the result and now, is that Stronger In did well to get 48 per cent considering the backdrop of in-built euroscepticism and anti-migration sentiment.

What summed it up: that David Cameron spent his entire career until February 2016 pretending that the European Union was a problem to be solved rather than an opportunity to be seized. Unsurprisingly, voters were unconvinced.

I thought that Donald Trump wouldn’t be elected US President…

I spent most of the first half of 2016 overcome with a feeling of dread about Britain’s membership of the European Union, until Sunderland came in, and I felt as if a weight had lifted. No matter what, I thought, we can’t leave again.

In contrast, I spent the second half of the year feeling very cheerful about Donald Trump’s non-prospects of becoming President of the United States until about 1am on election night when it became clear that I had got it wrong.

On reflection, from a “not going grey” perspective, I preferred blissful ignorance to rightful dread.

Why did I get it wrong? I made two major analytical mistakes.

The first was that, after the referendum, there were two schools of thought that arose, neither of which I had more time for. The first emerged among liberals and on the centre-left that basically ran like this: the Conservative majority was a mistake, Corbyn was a mistake, Brexit was a mistake – if you give people a vote, they will vote the wrong way. There can be no wronger way than Trump, so of course, Trump.

The second was a group of people who after Brexit declared that no one could predict anything and just started declaring that crazy things would happen: Owen Smith would become Labour leader, Andrea Leadsom would become Prime Minister, Donald Trump will be president.

Both these schools of thought irritated me, and I made the mistake of analysing Trump’s chances through the prism of my distaste for the people tipping him, rather than looking at his chances dispassionately.  

I also made the mistake of looking back, not forward. Generals, it’s often said, tend to fight the last war, and journalists tend to cover the last election. The 2016 presidential primaries were an intoxicating lesson in the power of black American voters, particularly if you were not that impressed by Hillary Clinton’s ability on the campaign trail.

Despite the breathless, horse-race reporting that is systemic in political journalism but is particularly acute in the United States, Clinton established a lead as far as pledged delegates were concerned on 27 February, one she never again relinquished. Her seizure of the nomination against Bernie Sanders came because she had a commanding lead among black voters.

Those primaries taught me to switch off when people talked about the closeness of the race. They also gave me a fundamentally skewed understanding of Clinton’s unpopularity. Most of the Americans I know well are either African-Americans or Jewish liberals. From that, I interpreted Clinton’s unpopularity as being that people thought of her as shady as hell, but that she had their best interests at heart.

What I didn’t get was white Americans just saw her as shady as hell, and what I forgot was, as Cedric Johnson noted smartly after the South Carolina Primary: “Clinton’s firewall might make some folks feel good now, as a reminder that black votes matter. But African Americans make up only 13 per cent of the population  and sadly, due to voter suppression, felon disenfranchisement, and alienation, we constitute even less of the national electorate in any given year. In addition, we are concentrated in states that the Republicans have won consistently and handily since the 1970s.”

It was a lesson that I relearned sharply on 7 November.  

…but I was right about why

One belief that held up rather better in the US election was that increased diversity helped to inoculate against a Brexit-style shock. American diversity did mean that Trump couldn’t secure more than half of the vote. Hillary Clinton received more votes in defeat than any white male candidate received in victory.

I don’t think that this should exculpate commentators like me who kept saying that diversity would stop Donald Trump, as the original point of the Electoral College was to strengthen the electoral hand of white reactionary politics. It was a constitutional feature that had been advertised for 229 years.

But it’s important to remember that – when right-wing commentators talk about Trump and “the will of the people” or say that “Americans spoke”, or when Labour MPs suggest that Clinton’s loss means that the party needs to abandon “identity politics”, whatever that means  that the will of the people was for Clinton, not Trump.

I thought Jeremy Corbyn would end the year as Labour leader…

“Only God, the membership or Corbyn will be able to move Corbyn,” I wrote at the start of the year. In the minutes after Corbyn’s victory, I tweeted that “the size and scale of Corbyn's win means he will surely lead Labour into the 2020 election” and that is likelier than ever.

…but I was wrong about how

But my assumption was that his strength among members would never be tested. I thought the bulk of the parliamentary Labour party would realise that challenging Corbyn would result in him winning by a bigger margin, and would realise that their best option was to stay quiet and focus on securing re-election.

I didn’t spot until May that the idea that Corbyn “only” won 49.5 per cent of full members had become a meme among senior Corbynsceptics, both in the parliamentary party and the grassroots.

I thought that Zac Goldsmith would lose (twice)…

“Most Londoners want a king as much as a mayor, someone who speaks to their sense that the capital is the best place to live on earth,” I declared. As such, I didn’t think Zac Goldsmith, who I described as “somewhat overrated” – an opinion that has gone from avant-garde to hilariously outdated in just 12 months  could possibly win.

But I wobbled as the day approached. Khan fought a very impressive and disciplined campaign, and I never thought that there was a majority to be found in London for a dogwhistle campaign.

But I couldn’t work out why Goldsmith kept it up. He seemed to be determined to turn a routine loss – what you’d expect for pretty much any Conservative politician against a Labour one in London – into a humiliation.

Did he know something I didn’t? I kept wondering if I had simply misunderstood the city I lived in. “Goldsmith’s chances are better than they look,” I declared in April (they were not).

“Khan's path to victory is not as clear as Labour might hope,” I warned (it is difficult to see how it could have been clearer).

What I learned from this is that it’s very tempting to assume that people are cleverer than they are. If a campaign looks poorly conceived and doomed, it’s probably because it is.

But I picked up enough from that campaign to learn a few things: the first was that Goldsmith had no personal vote in Richmond Park, where he actually underperformed his general election performance. The second was that, if Goldsmith did something that seemed stupid and doomed again, I should assume that it was. As such, at least I can say that I didn't overestimate Goldsmith twice. 

…but I didn’t see Ruth Davidson coming

The year started with a lot of chatter about whether or not Labour would finish third in the Scottish Parliament. I wasn’t convinced, believing that Labour’s “emotional connection” would allow it to retain a distant second.

There’s a lawyer’s trick to get me out of this, which is to say that as far as the constituency vote, Labour did, in fact, retain second. The problem was that they had no strategy to hold onto their vote in the party list. The Conservatives had a brilliant message for the list system: vote for “a strong opposition”. (The SNP also struggled with this in 2016: the Greens ate into its vote by talking about casting both constituency and list votes for a Yes-supporting candidate).

The difficulty is that I don’t really believe this. On the whole, I think the list is a better indication of who people really want to vote for, and on that, Labour were third.

There is a golden thread here. I got my biggest calls right when they concerned politics in the parts of the country I know best: London and the Midlands. I failed to predict results in Scotland and the United States.

As such, I look forward to explaining what I got wrong about the French elections this time next year.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.