Tuesday, 30 December 2014

My predictions for 2014: a retrospective and an exercise in humility

For the last few years I have made predictions for the year ahead.  I have done so not because I expect to be right but because I want a record of what seemed plausible at the start of the year and so that I can judge at the end of the year what was right and wrong and why.

Tomorrow I'll make my predictions for 2015, but first of all I need to look back over 2014.  I'm bracing myself.

So what did I predict for 2014?  I put my thoughts on politicalbetting here (near the very bottom of the thread):

For convenience I'll repeat them here


2014: coming to conclusions
2013 was a relatively quiet year for British politics. No big elections were planned and none came unexpectedly. The same cannot be said for 2014, where the EU elections assume an unusual importance in the minds of political obsessives and the interminable Scottish independence referendum reaches its denouement. And we draw ever closer to the general election scheduled for May 2015. By the end of the year, the likely result of that should be clear.

Where are we now?

To work out where we are going, we first of all need to work out where we are now. At the end of 2013, the economy looks in far better shape than even George Osborne would have dared to hope at the end of 2012. We've had a year of growth and if the economists are to be believed, we can expect better growth in 2014. This has no doubt contributed to the appreciable shrinking in Labour's lead over the last year and the appreciable improvement in the Government's ratings.

In the UK as a whole, no politician commands much respect. Nick Clegg remains deeply unpopular, while Ed Miliband is not faring much better. David Cameron performs better than both, but still has negative ratings. The public dislike both George Osborne and Ed Balls a lot. Alex Salmond does a bit better in Scotland, mind. Nigel Farage does better than the three main party leaders, but largely because he is still not that well-known by the public.

The public remain in a surly mood. In an important though misreported ICM poll, the great majority of the public professed themselves to be angry or bored with politics and politicians, with nearly half choosing anger as the dominant reaction.

The importance of this is that the public are not being led. So they are heading off in their own direction, with little leadership. They won't change their minds unless some event happens to change them. It's unlikely to be the words of a politician that they don't respect, unless that is someone who they were reluctantly thinking of voting for who says something to lose their vote. Ed Miliband, as leader of a party which outstrips his own popularity, and Nigel Farage, as leader of a party of protest, have particular need to be careful about what they say and do in 2014.

What's coming up in 2014?

It's impossible to know what is coming up with any certainty. For example, who would have thought at the beginning of the year that we would have a horticultural theme to our scandals, with both a Bloom and Flowers hitting the headlines? But we can make a stab at some things.

When the public aren't being effectively led by politicians, the economy will be disproportionately important. Is it going to do as well as expected? Personally, I have my doubts. But since I'm not an economist, I shall take my cue from the experts. If they're right, we can look forward to steady growth, at last exceeding the 2008 peak (a potentially important landmark). The deficit should continue to come down. Unemployment is expected to reduce – though with productivity at unexpectedly low levels at present, employers might instead address this first before recruiting. And earnings might - might - start outstripping inflation again.

If these things happen, you can expect George Osborne to make hay with this. It won't make the British public like him more – the public have already decided that they don't like him in the same way that they don't like Simon Cowell or Jimmy Carr. But that won't stop some of them grudgingly accepting that things might be getting better.

The result of the EU elections will set the tone for much of the rest of the year. Will UKIP remain a force to be reckoned with? Can the Conservatives secure their right flank? Can Labour get its vote out in a real election for once? Just how badly can the Lib Dems do? It's likely that all will have reasons to fret, almost regardless of the result.

We get two sporting events that might affect the politics of the nation. First, we get the World Cup. David Cameron and Alex Salmond will both be hoping for an England triumph. Neither is remotely likely to get their wish. Then (and with more plausible political consequences) we get the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign will be hoping for a well-run games to get the type of fillip that the Olympics gave the UK as a whole in 2012. If the games run into trouble, however, Scotland would visibly have failed on the international stage. The consequences for the Yes campaign would be dire.

It's going to be a year of anniversaries. Many have already noted that it will be 100 years from the outbreak of the Great War, and cynics have noted that we shall reach the 700 year anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn just before the Scottish independence referendum. An anniversary that has so far been less commented-upon is the 100th anniversary of the Government of Ireland Act. Ulster was on the brink of armed insurrection as a result, and it may well prove the launchpad for some fresh perspectives on unionism (both positive and negative) in the run-up to the Scottish referendum. At the very least, it might provoke some northern Irish unionists into discussing the impact of a hypothetical Yes vote on northern Ireland.

One wildcard: we may get the Chilcot report. That would almost certainly cause fireworks, but like a Catherine wheel these might spray out in all directions.

The future is unwritten, but I don't propose to sit on the fence. I shall put my tin hat on now, because a lot of people aren't going to like these.

1. UKIP will peak at the EU elections and then decline quite sharply in their polling

In many ways, UKIP were the story of 2013. Many political observers have forgotten just how recently they have shot to prominence. At the beginning of 2012, UKIP were going nowhere. Off the back of the omnishambles budget they built a support base of lower paid voters who felt abandoned by the main parties and who in turn rejected them. In 2013, they have built on this further.

But the party leader does not seem ready for the scrutiny that he is now going to get. The UKIP annual conference was derailed by Godfrey Bloom's gaffe and by Nigel Farage's panicky reaction to it. He reacted with a complete lack of humour to an ill-advised joke by Anna Soubry at his expense. Under a storm of protest from his support base, he partially retreated from an eye-catching policy in support of taking refugees from Syria to supporting only taking Christian refugees. He seems to make up policy on the hoof and to be unsteady under fire. Interestingly, Godfrey Bloom (a longstanding friend of his) has also made similar criticisms.

This is unlikely to impede UKIP's prospects for the EU elections, which the public by and large does not treat seriously. Few vote and many of those who do will do so without giving their choice much thought. UKIP may well finish top of the poll, propelled there on a wave of angry voters telling the main parties "up yours". Labour has struggled to convert its polling into success at the ballot box and there is no obvious reason why it should start outperforming expectations in 2014. The Conservatives lack a USP for the EU elections, though their voters do at least tend to turn up. I expect something close to a photo-finish between these three parties, and they could feature in any order.

But once the raison d'etre of the party, to cause trouble in the EU, has been fulfilled, it will struggle to find a reason to be more. While voters will cast protest votes, they will like to tell themselves that they are voting for a serious party. With a leader who simply isn't good enough, I expect that many of their current supporters will drift away.

2. Labour will be at best level pegging in the polls at the year end

It's the economy stupid. At present voters still don't feel the improvements in the economy and many still don't believe the economy has turned the corner. If the economy performs as we currently expect, this will change. Some voters will give the Government the credit and change their voting intention accordingly. Not many need to do this to bring the Conservatives back to parity. Don't be surprised if some of the UKIP supporters who came from Labour decide to take their allegiance to the Conservatives rather than to return to Labour, using UKIP as a conduit between the two main parties. But I expect most of any increase in Conservative support to come from "don't know".

I do not, however, expect Labour's vote share to decline all that much. With the Lib Dems in government and the Greens performing hopelessly, Labour will remain the repository for most of the progressive vote.

3. Lib Dem polling may pick up a bit, but it will still look dire at the end of the year

Some progressives may conclude that the performance of the economy vindicated the Lib Dems' decision to go into government with the Conservatives. This will be a niche segment and will not boost the Lib Dems' polling much.
4. We'll have another year of no major changes in political personnel...

This is a braver prediction than in previous years: if Nick Clegg is going to go before the next election, he will do so in 2014. He has the escape route of EU Commissioner if he wishes to take it or colleagues may seek to oust him before the 2015 election, which looks to be at best challenging for the Lib Dems. But a coup would be difficult - too many senior Lib Dems have been too complicit in the coalition to make it easy for them to participate. Nick Clegg has said that he is going to lead his party into the next election, and he's famously a man of his word. I believe him. I also expect the Lib Dems to see the coalition through to the end of the Parliament. Having got this far, there's no advantage for them in changing their minds.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband both look safe to the next election, excluding accidents. David Cameron doesn't like to reshuffle (it's too complicated in a coalition). Ed Miliband will probably stick with his present team as well.

5. ...except for Alex Salmond

After the result of the Scottish referendum, I don't see Alex Salmond carrying on. Unlike many politicians, he has a hinterland (he's already retired from politics once before) and after a once in a generation referendum, I can't see him wanting to stick around, because...

6. The Scottish independence referendum will be decisively lost

If votes were measured on intensity of feeling, the Yes campaign would win comfortably - its supporters are passionate to the point of monomania. But unless Alex Salmond can turn the referendum into a referendum on the Conservatives (something which he is now trying hard to do), it's hard to see how the Yes campaign can gather the support necessary to win. It is still floundering on the process questions. Until it has a cogent answer as to why Scots should take a leap in the dark, it will struggle. Since it hasn't found one in time for the White Paper, I expect it to lose and to lose convincingly this time.

That's not to say the No campaign has been much good. It has given no positive case for Britishness. But in the short term, spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt should be sufficient to see it home.


So how did I do?  In truth, not very well.  So this should be instructive.


I was correct that UKIP could win the Euro-elections and I was correct in expecting something close to a photo-finish between the three main parties.  But as for the rest, I could scarcely have been much wronger.  Far from fading after the Euros, UKIP finish the year stronger than ever and are enervating both main parties.  They now have Parliamentary representation and can reasonably hope to increase that in May.

Why was I wrong?  A few reasons.  First, I fell into the trap of thinking of the electorate as a single entity.  While many voters detest Nigel Farage, many other voters are either not bothered by his missteps or actively enjoy and identify with his image as a non-politician and his party's image as the naughty boys of politics.  Secondly, UKIP's fortunes were transformed by Douglas Carswell's defection.  If he and Mark Reckless had not defected to UKIP, it would be far from clear now that UKIP would have sustained the autumn momentum to stay in the public consciousness all the way through to May.  There is no chance of UKIP slipping from public view now.  Thirdly, both main parties but especially the Conservatives have chosen to respond to UKIP's rise by effectively admitting that UKIP is right - a strange way to persuade voters back.

Anyway, I got this seriously wrong. 

2. The main party polls

Labour remain slightly ahead of the Conservatives at the end of the year.  So I was wrong on this too.  And not only was I wrong on the headline, I was wrong on the detail too.  Far from only dropping a little, Labour dropped quite a lot, losing votes to both UKIP and the Greens.  But the Conservatives completely failed to recover in the polls, despite the economic upturn.  That is the single most surprising development in the polls for me over the last year, and is ominous for the blue team if they have eyes to see it.

3. The Lib Dems

Tick VG.  I was right on both the headline and the detail. 

4. Political personnel

Also tick VG.  OK, David Cameron had a reshuffle and Michael Gove was demoted, but I think I can give myself this one.

5. Alex Salmond

My best prediction.  Sometimes I get things right for essentially the right reason.  No matter that he seems to have changed his mind within a month, I'm giving myself this one.

6. The Scottish independence referendum

OK, I got the result right.  But I'm not giving myself this one.  I was expecting the margin to be substantially wider.  Why was I wrong?

I largely put this down to a very poor campaign by the No side.  At the end of last year I noted that it had given no positive case for Britishness.  I expected it to try to do so during 2014.  Its failure to do so was an affront to its cause.  Its victory in September may yet prove to be Pyrrhic as a result.


I got some stuff right, but to be honest I feel that I got the really important things wrong.  It's important for me to remember that the next time I put together what seems like a penetrating analysis of the shape of things to come and still more so when I start relying on my analysis to place bets.  Sometimes things turn out quite differently from how you expect.

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