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5 Possibilities That Could Shape Politics in 2016 (and Beyond)

It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. After all, the last 12 months have given us plenty of surprises, not least the first Tory majority since 1992. So when Editor-in-Chief of NovaraWire, Craig McVegas, asked me if I’d like to write a list of predictions for the year ahead I was initially reticent. After all, I’d been adamant that last May’s general election would lead to a hung parliament – something which seemed a safe bet – and, along with most bookmakers, I was wrong. What’s more, most of the correct predictions I’ve made in recent years, like Ukip finishing first in 2014’s European elections, have been deeply depressing.

So, rather than formulating a list of predictions like some political clairvoyant, I’ve decided to identify five possible outcomes which, should they transpire, would be of major significance in shaping the politics not only of the coming year, but the rest of the decade too. They might not all happen, indeed none of them may come to pass, but in suggesting them my hope is to point to the major fault lines, and opportunities, for 2016.

1. Bernie Sanders wins the the Democratic nomination ahead of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Despite most media coverage being about the proprietor of the most famous hairpiece in politics, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, polling in December shows that Bernie Sanders would annihilate Trump in a general election by a margin of 13%.  While Hillary Clinton remains the favourite to take the Democrat nomination, right now Sanders is doing better than Barack Obama was this time eight years ago. What is more, not only does Sanders – a self-proclaimed democratic socialist – have better politics than Clinton, but it seems he is also more electable, with the same poll showing that Clinton enjoyed a smaller lead of 7% over Trump. The shibboleth of the last three decades, that left parties win by taking the centre ground, might just come undone this Spring if Sanders surprises the pundits and overturns Clinton. All of a sudden the ‘unrealistic’ proposals of Jeremy Corbyn, Sinn Féin (in the South) and Podemos would seem a lot more credible.

2. Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination.

While it might seem like playing with fire, Trump winning the Republican nomination would be a catastrophe for the Republican party in the long-term, and a decade of assiduously cultivating the BME vote would disintegrate overnight. That would interact with the longer term changes re-making US politics: the Republicans have won more votes than the Democrats in only one of the last six elections, while changes in the ethnic composition of the United States – it will be a majority-minority country around the middle of this century – means that any party fronted by someone so eager to offend minorities stands little chance of winning. A Trump candidacy, unlike say Rand Paul, would mean mainstream conversation after a Democrat win in November would orient itself around ideas from the ‘centre’, say Hillary Clinton, but facing leftward.

3. Reformists make gains in Iran’s parliamentary elections in February.

Late February sees parliamentary elections in Iran to both the Majilis, the country’s larger legislative chamber, and the ‘Assembly of Experts‘. A coalition of ‘Principalists’, conservative parties which back the Supreme Leader and wish to see little deviation from the values of the early revolution, have held a majority in the 310-seat Majilis since 2004, when they overturned a reformist majority during the Khatami premiership. Changing that will not be easy, with Principalist hegemony deriving in large part from its favour among the Guardian Council, a body which vets candidates and tends to disqualify reformists, including sitting members. In 2012 that led to a boycott by reformist parties, which in turn meant huge gains for the Principalists.

In reality, something similar is likely to happen this February, with many reformists likely to be banned from running once again. That is especially probable given Hassan Rouhani’s surprise victory in 2013, with the country’s leading conservative institution – the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) – marking its territory by arresting five journalists since July’s nuclear agreement, as well as businessmen such as Siamak Namazi.

While it is safe to say that Principalists will control the Majilis after February’s election, any inroads by reformists would still constitute a step in the right direction. What is more, how strongly the IRGC tries to direct proceedings – the results, particularly the turnout, of the 2012 Majilis election seem questionable  – would indicate whether it is ready to play the decisive role in a different kind of country. If Iran is to have a comprador bourgeoisie the IRGC will be the decisive part of it. The question is, then, whether it prefers the status quo of sanctions and a protected market or integration into the world economy and a ‘normal’ country.

4. Britain votes to leave the European Union.

I’m in a minority on the British left, along with Owen Jones at least, that thinks Britain should leave the EU and the left should campaign accordingly ahead of this year’s referendum. While leaving would not be an unadulterated political opportunity – indeed far from it – it could mean new possibilities, especially if Labour under Corbyn were to do well before and during the 2020 general election.

Those possibilities would not not be limited to Europe either, but might undergird a conversation about changing the fundamental institutions of global governance: the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank. As it stands trade policy isn’t even a competence held at Westminster any more, residing instead with the unelected European Commission. And it’s EU trade policy-making within the WTO, along with the disgraceful treatment of Greece by the Troika, and the EU’s central role in the militarisation of the continent’s external borders and privatising migrant detention centres, which is the basis for my antipathy to the Union.

In the unlikely, although not impossible, event of the public voting to leave, David Cameron would almost certainly resign, with George Osborne replacing him as leader of the Conservatives and the country at large. Or maybe Osborne would learn his lesson from Gordon Brown’s mistake to not hold a general election in 2007 when he took over from Tony Blair and strike while the iron is hot? My suspicion with Osborne is that like David Miliband with Labour, he is far more media-savvy than he is clinical. After May the Tories, for the first time in two decades, looked genuinely formidable at the ballot box. If anything is going to undo that in a heartbeat it will be Europe this year.

5. Sadiq Khan wins the London mayoralty, offering a template for election success in 2020.

On paper Khan should have a real shot at winning in May. The London Labour membership is huge compared to the Conservatives and the party – when you include councillors, MPs and the unions – commands considerable forces in the capital. While over 80,000 voted in the Labour mayoral nomination, with Sadiq Khan winning 48,000 votes in the final round, fewer than 10,000 participated in the Tory ballot, where Zac Goldsmith amassed 6,500 votes.

While you often hear talk of the Tories being in bed with big business and led by a cabal of former Etonians – both broadly true – the personal wealth of Goldsmith, yet another old boy of Britain’s most famous private school, is something altogether different. The 5th Earl of Rosebery, often viewed as the wealthiest prime minister at the time of his death in 1929, left a probate of £1.5m, the equivalent of more than £60m today. But even that pales alongside Goldsmith’s fortune of at least £200m. Indeed Goldsmith is in a league only with Michael Bloomberg when it comes to being a mayor from, as well as for, the 1%. The scale of his wealth while holding such an office would be genuinely new in British politics, including since before universal suffrage and even the Great Reform Act.

Were Khan to win, it would relieve the pressure Labour can likely expect from big losses in Scotland to the SNP and the Greens in elections to Holyrood. More importantly, however, it would be a real bellwether for the 2020 general election. Now, as then, Labour would be facing down a hostile print media – the Evening Standard in London and basically everyone in four years time – with the contest being a large membership and strong ground campaign pitted against money and the mainstream media. Such a shame, then, that Khan – who only has the nomination because Corbyn supporters preferred him over the favourite Tessa Jowell – was quick to distance himself from the radicalism of the new leadership. To stand a chance of winning he’ll need to change his tune. If he loses, the task for Labour in four years time would appear nigh-on impossible.

Photo: Paul Brocklehurst/Flickr

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Published 1st January 2016

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