Political Review 2015

2015, a year that shocked political pundits; a year that saw Conservatism triumph over One Nation Labour; a year that saw the crushing of the Liberal Democrats and the rise of Scottish Nationalism; and a year that saw a little-known backbencher rise above the pack to become one of the most talked about politicians in the country.

Yes, it has been a year not many will forget, and it started with the build up to one of the most eagerly anticipated elections in living memory. The Coalition Government had divided opinion across the United Kingdom, which led many to believe that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party could take power, either in coalition or, some had hoped, with a full majority.

The polls certainly didn’t disagree.  Most pollsters were certain that no party would win a majority and that the mathematics of Westminster could only mean a centre-left coalition between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, and the Green Party would offer stable government. But they were wrong, and it was the last Budget before the General Election that potentially changed everything.

Claiming that the “sun is starting to shine”, the Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne, used his final Budget of the Parliament to announce a string of tax cuts for workers, savers, and first-time house buyers. Beer tax was cut by a penny, a planned rise in petrol duty was scrapped, and pensioners were offered even greater financial benefits. It was described by many as the most political Budget in an age, and it succeeded in casting the Labour Party as out-of-touch with public opinion, whilst painting the Conservatives as fighters for Britain’s workers. In George Osborne’s words, the Budget proved that the Conservatives, “took the difficult decisions in the teeth of opposition and it worked, Britain is walking tall again.”

Although political journalists, experts, and economists alike all hailed Osborne’s Budget, the polls still showed no sign of movement and stayed on a knife edge until polling day, Thursday 7 May 2015.

It was 10pm that night when David Dimbleby announced to a stunned public the exit poll showing the Conservatives would be the largest party in Westminster. The poll also showed Labour had well and truly been beaten and would be left with just 239 MPs (it would later end up with 232), whilst the Liberal Democrats had been decimated holding on to just 10 of its 57 seats (in fact it would hold onto only eight). The only figure that pollsters did get correct however was in Scotland, where a rampant SNP took hold of 56 seats.

The following morning, resignations flooded in. First, Nigel Farage stepped down as Leader of UKIP, only to return just four days later. Then it was Nick Clegg’s turn; the Liberal Democrat leader and former Deputy Prime Minister stated in a tearful speech that the election results, which had seen big hitters such as Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, Lynne Featherstone and former leader, Charles Kennedy, lose their seats, had been “more crushing and unkind that I could ever have feared.” Finally, Ed Miliband stood down as Labour’s leader, claiming that he took “absolute and total responsibility for [Labour’s] defeat” and called for an open debate on the future of the Labour Party (more on that later…).

With the losers of the 2015 General Election retreating to find new leaders and begin rebuilding their party machines, the winners immediately got to work. David Cameron selected the first all-Conservative Cabinet in almost 20 years, with well-known figures such as Theresa May, George Osborne, Michael Gove, and Jeremy Hunt all taking places on the top table. There were also surprise additions such as Greg Clark being placed at Department for Communities & Local Government and Amber Rudd taking the Energy and Climate Change portfolio, suggesting that the Prime Minister was seeking a fresh perspective from his most senior politicians.

Of course, being gifted an electoral majority meant the Conservatives were now free to govern how they saw fit and, as such, announced a string of policies to be pushed through Parliament. The most eye-catching of these was George Osborne’s long-held vision of the Northern Powerhouse – a programme of policy initiatives aimed at redressing the economic balance between London and the North of England. Included in this would be huge investment into infrastructure such as railways, roads and ports; the devolution of powers from Whitehall to local authorities; and the injection of financial resources into innovation and science in order to create a lasting economic stronghold outside of the capital. Whether this move has worked is still to be demonstrated. There are many critics who claim that the Northern Powerhouse is no more than a clever marketing tool from a politically shrewd Chancellor, who has eyes on becoming Prime Minister, one day. That said, it cannot be denied that the policy has created a debate around the economic and social future of the North which has struck a significant chord in cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle.

Perhaps the most unexpected by-product of the 2015 General Election has been the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. In April, Mr Corbyn was a little-known backbencher and someone whom the political classes referred to as a ‘veteran left-winger’, that is, the last of a dying breed of Labour MPs who took as much pride in voting against their Party as they did for it, and who still saw their role as fighting a class war on behalf of their working-class constituents. But today, he is the official Leader of the Opposition with the largest mandate of any party leader in recent history.

There were many contenders to replace Ed Miliband as the leader of the Labour Party, most of whom were seen as members of the party establishment, such as former Health Secretary Andy Burnham, or the ex-Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. The one name that stood out from the crowd was Jeremy Corbyn, who had managed to secure his name on the ballot after ‘borrowing’ nominations from fellow MPs who thought he should be present on the ballot in order to “widen the debate” during the campaign. As we now know, he did much more than this.

Jeremy Corbyn quickly became the anti-establishment candidate and attracted support from former members of Labour who had left during the Blair/Brown years, students who had grown tired of the so-called political elite, and left-leaning members from other parties such as the Greens and Liberal Democrats. Conspiracy theories were rife that Communists, members of Militant Tendancy, and even Conservatives were signing up for membership cards in order to vote for Corbyn and push Labour into electing a politically unpopular leader. Nothing was ever proven on this, and any efforts were over-shadowed when Corbyn was duly elected leader, winning over 59% of the vote, a first in Labour’s history.

So, what next? The Conservatives are clearly enjoying their majority and next year we will see big moves in Europe as David Cameron seeks to get a deal he can sell to both the country and his own, eurosceptic Party in time for a referendum in 2017. The Scottish Nationalists will look to seize upon their electoral success and aim to take even more seats in the Scottish Parliament in May, whilst Labour seems to only want to fight itself as splits remain between those that voted for Jeremy Corbyn and those that feel his election was mishandled and unjust. Having survived the Syrian airstrike vote and the Oldham by-election, his next real test will come in the May local elections.

2016 looks set to be hugely important for the North of England. With a host of devolution packages being lined up across various city regions, massive changes expected in energy policies, and the potential devolution of Government departments to the Northern cities, politics in the North has never looked so interesting and, as such, we can expect another remarkable year ahead.

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