By Chris Jarvis
2015 has been a tumultuous year for politics. From the rise of the SNP to the shock victory of the Conservatives in the General Election and from the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party to the decimation of the Liberal Democrats, it has been a year like no other. As the year draws to a close, our Co-Editor Chris Jarvis offers analysis as to who are the 10 biggest political winners of 2015.
Within the Labour Party this year, there were two elections, one that achieved notoriety for seeing the rise of the left wing Jeremy Corbyn, and one that slipped quietly under the radar. The latter was the battle for the Deputy Leadership, in which Tom Watson emerged victorious. His election in and of itself would be worthy of a position on this list, but the impact he has had on the politics of the Labour Party since then reaffirms that.
Watson has been instrumental in softening some of Corbyn’s positions since the pair became Deputy Leader and Leader respectively. First it was over Trident and NATO, and then it was on pushing for a free vote over Syria. In these instances, he has managed to maintain his traditional style of talking politics as an outsider, while reinforcing his initial calls for the party to get behind their new leader.
By publically calling out what he deems to be Corbyn’s excesses, Tom Watson has effectively pushed Labour away from the left and positioned himself as a more ‘reasonable’ left wing voice within the upper echelons of the Party. A cynic might say that this is very astute political manoeuvring for an eventual leadership bid, but either way, Watson has reaffirmed his strong position from the Leadership election and goes in to 2016 as one of the biggest influencers on Labour policy.
Theresa May is politically unique. She is now the longest serving Home Secretary since 1892, which is some achievement, given the Office notoriously shortens the frontbench career of vast swathes of ministerial talent. May has managed to stay in office for an extraordinary length of time, and is the kind of politician that seems capable of evading reality and its subsequent scrutiny. At the Tory Party conference this year, she delivered an aggressively anti-migrant speech, building on previous negative rhetoric on the subject that she has uttered over the previous years. This speech was delivered in the year when immigration hit a record high. In spite of talking tough, Theresa May has resolutely failed to deliver on her own words and her Party’s previous manifesto pledge to get migration down to the ‘tens of thousands.’
Perhaps Theresa May’s success and longevity in the role therefore stems from her ability to take a hard stance on traditional Tory issues in public, irrespective of her capacity to deliver on the logical conclusions of such stances. Whatever the explanation, to have lasted another year as Home Secretary with no major scandal and still be in the running for the future Tory Leadership election means Theresa May has had another good year.
The idea of John McDonnell holding a Shadow Cabinet position early this year was utterly unfathomable. If Jeremy Corbyn is the principled and friendly left-winger, John McDonnell is the firebrand. McDonnell’s ascension to Shadow Chancellor has been peculiar, not only to see such a figure responding to George Osborne in the House of Commons, but also in his reinvention of his political self.
Throughout his career, John McDonnell has made a name for himself by saying things that he probably shouldn’t have said. Whether it was that he would swim through vomit to vote against welfare cuts or praising the IRA for bringing about peace in Northern Ireland, he has not shied away from controversy in the past. What has been fascinating to watch in light of this is his transformation on television performances, whether on Question Time or the Andrew Marr Show into a thoughtful, reasoned speaker. In doing this, McDonell has tied himself in with Jeremy Corbyn’s new style of politics and has begun to present Labour’s fresh political direction in a palatable way.
The Scottish National Party is one of the most astounding political phenomena of the last five years, and 2015 was the year that their success and influence has reached its apex. Off the back of the Scottish Independence referendum, support for the SNP surged, leading to their astronomical success in the Westminster election, where they won all but three Scottish parliamentary seats.
Part of this was down to the momentum achieved by the referendum campaign, part of it due to the fact the Labour Party teamed up with the Tories in Scotland to be the voice of Unionism, but part of it was also down to the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Whether it was her incredible and ultimately winning performance in the seven-way leadership debate, her accurate claims during the Summer that the SNP were the true opposition in Westminster or the fact that she enters 2016 as leader of an SNP which is set to completely sweep the board in the Holyrood elections, Sturgeon has had a year of success unprecedented in politics. 2015 was the year of the SNP and 2016 will only see them grow stronger.
The Green Party had a mixed year in 2015, achieving over one million votes in the General Election and yet only winning a single parliamentary seat. The election period was marred for the Greens by Natalie Bennett’s now infamous ‘brain fade’ during an interview in LBC and the party failed to make the breakthrough in seats such as Bristol West and Norwich South they were hoping for.
But Caroline Lucas has avoided being the collateral damage of this, winning her re-election in Brighton Pavillion with a substantially increased majority against the negative media backdrop and the tide turning on the Green led council in Brighton, which had a terrible reputation as a result of cutting pay for refuse workers, leading to a bin strike among other things.
Caroline Lucas surviving this and coming out of the election and the rest of the year in a much stronger position (with awards to boot) demonstrates her effectiveness as both a constituency MP and an astute politician with an independent voice in the public sphere and our political system.
Few of Labour’s new parliamentary intake have yet made waves. One notable exception is Jess Phillips, the new MP for Birmingham Yardley. From telling Dianne Abbott to fuck off during a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party to stating she will ‘knife Jeremy Corbyn in the front’, Jess Phillips is making headlines as an outspoken critic from the right of the party.
This, combined with her media persona as a down to earth, ordinary person, who just happens to have stumbled her way into the House of Commons means that, despite having made many enemies on the left, Jess Phillips is the new MP that ends 2015 in by far the strongest position.
Nicola Sturgeon may have led the SNP into their phenomenal parliamentary success, but it is Angus Robertson who has led the parliamentary party in their subsequent performances in the chamber. Given the sheer number of SNP MPs in parliament, it would be expected that divisions would have begun to emerge, but as of yet, rebellions have been few and far between and on no major issues. Keeping the parliamentary party united is one of the two key roles of the Westminster group leader, the other being the effective advocacy of the views of the group at key moments in the Commons, such as PMQs, at which Robertson’s performances have been impeccable.
Far from being eclipsed by Alex Salmond’s presence in parliament as was predicted by some, Angus Robertson has strengthened his position as well as strengthening the position of the Scottish National Party in parliament. To go from leading a parliamentary group of 8 to leading one of 54 is a steep learning curve, but Angus Robertson has been successful in his endeavours.
Chuka Umunna’s success in 2015 stems from his absence. Shortly after the General Election, he announced his candidacy for the Labour Leadership, before withdrawing from the race just three days later. Fortunately for Chuka, following Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable ascendancy to the leadership, this has turned out to have been a wise move. Unlike the three ultimately losing candidates in the Leadership contest, Chuka Umunna has escaped from the ordeal largely unscathed, meaning that when the time comes, his leadership ambitions are much more likely to be successful, unlike those of now two time loser Andy Burnham.
Chuka’s subsequent silence in the following months will only help this. Unlike his political bedfellows such as Tristram Hunt who has openly and publicly criticised Corbyn’s leadership and decision making, Chuka has refrained from mud-slinging in the public domain, leaving him in a much more dignified position than his Blairite peers.
At the start of 2015, no one could have predicted that the Labour Party would have been where it is now. We were still expecting a hung parliament to emerge out of the General Election, even up until the day before it took place and pollsters were predicting Labour entering Government and Ed Miliband in Downing Street. After the shock results on election night, with the Tories winning an unexpected overall majority in parliament, Ed Miliband stepped down the following day sparking an instantaneous Leadership Election.
Enter Corbyn. Most people in Britain would never have heard of Jeremy Corbyn until June 15th when he scraped together a place on the ballot paper with the help of allies and enemies alike. From then, Corbyn toured the country speaking at rallies of thousands, often having to speak twice, once inside the building and once to the crowds outside. We then know that after the long Summer campaign, Corbyn was elected with a phenomenal mandate of 59%, convincingly defeating the rivals and reshaping the Labour Party in the process.
Jeremy Corbyn has brought a seismic shift to the politics of the Labour Party, and consequently to the politics of Britain, whether it’s in his stance against imperialist wars in the Middle East, bringing party members and the public directly into parliamentary debate or in his continued support for grassroots campaigning. Few leaders of the Labour Party can lay claim to such an achievement, possibly only Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. 2015 will be seen as the moment the Labour Party dipped its toe into a different kind of politics. 2016 will be the year where the commitment to its success and longevity is put to the test.
In 2015, David Cameron entered his tenth year as Tory Party leader. In his early days of attempting to soften the Conservative’s image as the ‘nasty party’, Cameron famously went round hugging things, whether it was ‘hoodies’ or husky dogs. This presentation as the Tory Party as a born again social liberal party with a deep tinge of green was presumed necessary in order for Cameron to win an election for a party that had been in the wilderness since Tony Blair’s landslide election victory in 1997.
Nowadays, all of this (both the absurd and embarrassing photo opportunities, and the liberal and environmental politics) has almost completely gone. In May Cameron became the first Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher to win two successive General Election victories, and has done so without the need to concede ground to political positions outside of the traditional Tory strengths. Cameron has maintained a hardline position on refugees and migration and welfare, committing himself to traditional Tory values, refusing to move to the ‘centre ground’ and has ended the year with the party with a strong position in the polls.
This has been attained while achieving the remarkable feat of keeping the parliamentary party united on most issues and so, despite a tiny majority and what is a party with highly divergent views, has been able to govern in the new parliament with relative ease. The true test will be next year when Cameron opens the can of worms of an EU referendum and the divisions within the party will become public and apparent for all to see. Until that moment, Cameron’s leadership of the Tories throughout the last ten years and the last year in particular has been an undeniable success.