The last time I made a prediction in public, I ended up eating my own book on national television. To be fair, the prediction was not that bad. Shortly before the 2017 general election I had tweeted that the Labour Party would lose the election (which they did), but that along the way they would not poll above 38% of the vote (they polled 40%).
The story went viral. Although virtually every election forecaster had also miscalculated, many by a much bigger margin, I was the only one to find my book-filled cheeks adorning the pages of Mumbai News. It was probably not my finest hour, even if my mother found it hilarious and my publisher was delighted to shift a few more books. So, having completely failed to learn from my mistakes, here are another 10 predictions to see us through 2019. Just don’t remind me about them at the end of the year.
- Europe’s populists will have their strongest result yet
In May, at the European Parliament elections, an assortment of populist parties will make gains and further squeeze the mainstream. As I pointed out on UnHerd, projections suggest that the two mainstream groups – the centre-Right European People’s Party and centre-Left Socialists and Democrats – will remain dominant. But I think that given the likely low turnout, and that the polls have a poor record at these elections, the two main groups will lose their majority of seats.
Populists such as The League in Italy, Alternative for Germany and Sweden Democrats will probably do well. Yet others, such as the True Finns in Finland, may struggle, while it is not clear how the experience of being inside the government will affect the fortunes of parties such as the Austrian Freedom Party. There is also a question over whether these parties can cobble together a large and unified group in the European Parliament. Either way, I expect a populist surge. This will be a difficult moment for the EU which has been trying, ever since the Brexit vote, to project a message that things are improving. Amid a fresh round of volatility, I also predict that somebody in Brussels will declare that the wind is back in the EU’s sails.
More astute observers should also watch turnout. Rates of turnout at European Parliament elections have been nothing short of dire, falling from a respectable 62% at the first contest in 1979 to 43% in 2014. But look at individual states. Five years ago, turnout slumped below 30% in Hungary, Slovenia and Poland, and to just 13% in Slovakia. Alongside the more recent finding that nearly one in two people do not feel that their voice counts in the EU, 2019 will underline the way in which the EU is struggling from a lack of grassroots democratic engagement.
Meanwhile, away from the European Parliament, national elections will also keep us all talking about populism – Denmark, Poland, Switzerland, Estonia and state elections in Germany will keep the debate going throughout 2019.
- The strange death of European social democracy will continue
As populists have risen, centre-Left social democrats have fallen. While the downward trend in support for social democracy began in the mid-2000s it has recently become far more visible. At recent elections in Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and Sweden, social democratic parties have fallen to historic lows. In Germany, just two years ago, the once-dominant Social Democratic Party (SDP) plunged to barely 20%, its worst result since 1933. It has since fallen further to just 15% in the polls, facing competition from both the resurgent Greens and the national populist Alternative for Germany. In Sweden, the social democrats won the election last year but on their lowest share of the vote since 1908. None of this is a coincidence.
Social democracy has increasingly struggled to hold together different voters – workers and professionals – who hold irreconcilable values and views, especially on issues like immigration. 2019 will be a mixed bag for social democrats but I predict no major recovery. The main centre-Left group in the European Parliament will be significantly weakened while at national elections social democrats face difficult battles in Estonia, Poland and Belgium, in the latter facing competition from the Greens, as in Germany. True, the centre-Left might do well in Finland, Portugal and Denmark but without disrespecting the first two, they are not major ‘core’ powers, while the Danish centre-Left is not exactly the fluffy liberal kind (it is on board with restrictive immigration and integration policies). While Left-wing pundits will cheer the likely Left-wing gains in Portugal they will avoid Greece, where Syriza looks set to be defeated by the centre-Right.
- Macron will remain unpopular
The President of France has had a terrible time. While his plans to reform the EU encountered problems, so too has his domestic reform agenda, which in late 2018, resulted in the rise of the gilets jaunes or ‘yellow jackets’. These protestors, whose anger initially focused on diesel tax (which they argued is intended to finance tax cuts for big business), have since developed a broader set of demands for economic and social reform and called for Macron, whom they see as favouring an urban business elite, to go. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the protestors, who variously voice sympathy for the populist Right and populist Left, have won support from Italy’s ruling populists who have fallen out with Macron on several occasions.
Macron, then, enters 2019 a diminished figure, unable to command broad support at home and struggling to realise his vision for the EU. In fact, he ended 2018 with weaker approval ratings than President Trump – just 23% of people approve of their young leader.
It is always tempting to view Macron’s problems as a reflection of French exceptionalism and engrained opposition to reform. But I see the events in France more as a symbol of the deeper challenge facing liberalism and the shifting mood in Europe.
Few voters today are looking for a reboot of the economic and social liberalism that is still held up by Blairites as a ticket to the future. The reality, in sharp contrast, is that the average voter is looking for a combination of greater economic and cultural security, of which Macron offers little. Yet while I predict that Macron will remain unpopular in 2019, also under-performing at the European Parliament elections in May, I have no doubt that at some point a Blairite commentator in Britain will write a column declaring that it is time for … a British Macron!
- Britain will formally leave the European Union
Britain will formally leave the European Union in 2019. For the first time the EU will shrink. While there is still a range of possible outcomes, I still think that the most plausible outcome is that some version Prime Minister May’s Brexit deal will, ultimately, squeeze through the House of Commons. This will probably follow some concessions from the EU, pushing crunch votes as far back as possible and heaping pressure on Eurosceptics to accept a Brexit in the hand or risk losing it forever.
If I am right, then the passing of a deeply unpopular deal that has achieved the remarkable feat of uniting Remainers and Leavers will have strong political effects. It will feed an already palpable narrative of ‘betrayal’ among Leavers (see Prediction 6) as well as general disillusionment among Remainers. But, perhaps most important of all, it will also strengthen our emerging political identities as ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’.
Indeed, one of the big risks that faces Britain in 2019 is that Brexit continues to evolve from being a divisive moment in the history of our national politics into a more permanent dividing line that could yet lead to a fundamental realignment.
- There will be no mass ‘Bregret’
One of the more striking features of Britain’s Brexit debate has been the relative stability of public opinion. While the British have become more pessimistic about how Prime Minister May and the Conservative government are handling Brexit, and also about how leaving the EU will impact on the economy, there has been no mass ‘Bregret’ among Leavers.
And whatever the precise shape of the Brexit withdrawal deal and eventual relationship, I think this will remain the case. According to the most recent poll, when asked whether the decision to leave the EU was “right or wrong”, 89% of Remainers said it was “wrong” while 83% of Leavers said it was “right”. Even among all voters, 47% feel it was wrong and 41% feel it was right, while the remainder are not sure either way. As research has shown, this polarisation reflects the fact that the Brexit vote was never rooted in transactional considerations about the economy, but people’s deeper and more rigid values. And this is why Britain looks set to experience further political turbulence – which brings me to my next prediction.
- Britain’s Leavers will inevitably feel betrayed
Leavers might not have changed their minds about Brexit but they have become visibly more dissatisfied both with how Brexit is being managed and its overall direction. A year ago, when Leavers were asked how well or badly they thought the Conservative government was doing at negotiating Britain’s exit, 41% said “well” and 48% said “badly”. This seven-point lead for “badly” has since ballooned to 36 points. Today, nearly two-thirds of Leavers are unhappy with how Brexit is being handled.
And this is not just about the government’s basic incompetence. Rather, Leavers simply do not like the deal on offer. The most recent polls show that only three in ten Leavers support Prime Minister May’s draft Brexit deal while many openly say they would prefer to see Britain leave without a deal. In fact, if Leavers were given the option of May’s Brexit deal versus No Deal they would break by a 60-19 margin for No Deal.
So, assuming that May gets her deal through, or politicians intervene to prevent No Deal, we will be left with a large number of Brexiteers feeling betrayed by the whole process, which is basically where all of this started back in the early 1990s with the Maastricht Treaty, if not the first referendum in 1975. This is the reservoir into which a new pro-Brexit populist party could yet jump.
- Prime Minister Theresa May will stand down
While I expect the Prime Minister to lead Britain out of the European Union I also predict that at some point in the year ahead she will stand down as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party. Theresa May has always reminded me of Bruce Willis in the Die Hard franchise. There was always a scene in which Willis would be getting shot at by Uzi submachine guns. To survive, he would grab the nearest dead body and use it for cover as he ran across a room full of bad guys. For the Conservative Party, Prime Minister May is that dead body.
From one day to the next, she is soaking up all of the toxicity and negative energy emanating from Brexit. Indeed, the Prime Minister has already confirmed that even if she gets her Brexit deal through then she would not lead her party into the next election. But Conservative MPs, ever the ruthless pragmatists, won’t hang around. They will want her out of the way quickly so that they can promote new talent, reboot their domestic policy agenda and try and repair the Conservative brand in time to stop Jeremy Corbyn, which brings me to Prediction 8.
- Britain will continue to drift toward ‘Corbynomics’
We talk a lot about populism but less about protectionism. And we talk a lot about Brexit but not a lot about what might follow. Both of these observations lead us to Jeremy Corbyn who, as I have previously argued on UnHerd, has a better chance of becoming Prime Minister than many think.
Indeed, it speaks volumes that while political anoraks have spent virtually every day obsessing about Brexit, most of the people I know in the City of London have moved on to the question of Corbyn. They have sensed what the data tells us, which is that ‘Corbynomics’ – an assortment of more protectionist and redistributive economic policies – enjoy fairly widespread support. Ideas like renationalising rail, putting electricity and water into public hands, putting workers on company boards, raising tax on corporations and, more generally, redistributing ‘from the few to the many’ enjoy pretty strong support.
In fact, Corbyn’s more economically populist cry is far more in tune with the zeitgeist than Jeremy Hunt’s recent call to turn Britain into some kind of Singapore-on-Thames (free tip: a low-tax, low-regulation economy which is seen to be skewed toward helping big business over the ordinary worker is not where most voters are right now).
Among the British people economic pessimism is on the rise and so too is support for raising taxes in order to invest more in the country’s creaking public services. And while growth looks set to be rather sluggish I would not be at all surprised if more local councils go bust. All of this will help rather than hinder Corbyn. Whether he actually manages to exploit any of it, however, remains to be seen.
- Anti-Populists will remain in a cul-de-sac
While the political shocks of 2016 were some time ago there has still been remarkably little self-reflection among either Democrats in the US or Remainers in Britain about why they lost. Few thinkers or activists appear to have seriously thought through both how and why they lost key groups in society, like white working-class voters or white non-graduates, and also how they might win these groups back.
In Britain, I have been stunned by the utter failure of Remain organisers to shift gears and change the message. For three years straight, the basic message of the anti-Brexit camp has not really changed at all, and nor have the polls. This strikes me as just poor campaigning.
In the US, meanwhile, Democrats appear to still be consumed by identity politics (see Elizabeth Warren as a prime example), and are quick to shout down anybody who points out why this might be problematic. Relentlessly encouraging groups to focus only on what differentiates them, and urging them to define themselves only as victims who are engaged in a competition for recognition, is fine as a political strategy. Just don’t be surprised to find that along the way you are also encouraging the mass mobilisation of other groups on the same lines, and who feel that – rightly or wrongly – they too are being actively discriminated against.
In short, 2019 could be the year when both camps engage in serious self-reflection, ideological innovation and come out the gate with something surprising and interesting to say. But I predict that this won’t happen.
- Twitter will become even more unbearable
Meanwhile, on Twitter the never-ending cycle of virtue-signalling, the race to participate in the Outrage Olympics and cheer-on spontaneous witch-hunts or ‘pile-ons’ will reach dizzying new heights. People will be sacked and others will be ousted, presumed to be guilty before words have even been spoken.
Insignificant objects will suddenly find themselves as the symbol of today’s culture wars. Indeed, if the early days of 2019 are anything to go by – disputes over vegan sausage rolls – then we look set for a vintage year of Twitter hysteria.
Only, I’m not entirely sure I want to watch it unfold. Maybe it’s just my bad memory but Twitter did used to be a valuable platform for reasoned discussion. Today, however, it is neither particularly enjoyable nor interesting. So, here’s another and more personal prediction: I will leave Twitter in 2019.