This Political Spring Promises Fresh Challenges

Blog (2015)

1st September 2015 

The sun-tans are fading, school shoes are getting their first airing and policy statements are being dusted down and honed for the coming months of debate. September’s political rentrée is upon us and although it is technically Autumn there is always a more Spring-like feel to the air as we anticipate the developments that lie ahead.  Here are some of our ideas as to what lies ahead between now and Christmas -and indeed beyond.

The Labour leadership will be the dominant political story of the season.  Come the Labour Party conference in Brighton on 27 September, it is likely that Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson will be ensconced in their roles of Leader and Deputy Leader.  It’s a salivating prospect to anticipate the fringe events, bar room conversations and conference showdowns which this huge shift in political direction will generate.  Those of us who were only waking up to politics in the mid 1980s have the inglorious chance to live the party in-fighting experience anew, whilst older viewers will face the prospect with weary resignation or delight, according to taste.  Once the political caravan returns to Westminster in October the effects of this reorientation on the workings of the House will be equally fascinating.  Cameron and Osborne will move quickly to paint Labour into the left-wing corner the membership is so keen for it to inhabit.  We can expect early Parliamentary set-pieces on welfare and public spending as Ministers seek to nail the red flag firmly to Labour’s mast.  Thus front-line politics will become increasingly polarised, as not only are Tory Ministers now free of the shackles of Coalition, but Labour’s swing to the left and the decimation of the Lib Dems means there is no real need to shore up the Tory centre.  This calculation will embolden the Euro-sceptic right flank, for whom last week’s news of the badly missed immigration target will act as yet further proof of the need for renegotiation of border controls.  Ironically therefore, there is a chain of reasoning that sees a Corbyn victory as potentially tough news for Cameron as it will make the already difficult task of party management even harder.   Not to mention, given Corbyn’s euro-sceptic noises to date, getting a “remain-in” result in the EU Referendum.  However, it also provides him with the great opportunity to cement his image as The Most Reasonable Guy in the Room.  As Steely Dan might have put it: “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right…”

Don’t Take Your Eyes Off the Other Leadership Battle.  Highly unusually in the modern era a sitting Prime Minister has given the strongest possible indication that he will not be fighting the forthcoming General Election.  We are already seeing a strong sub-plot will play out in the Conservative Party over his succession.  The high probability of George Osborne becoming Prime Minister in 2018 depends entirely on his being able to demonstrate a strong and successful track record on the economy (not that personal political calculation is the only reason for the government wanting to see a strong economy, of course) and a successful negotiation of the UK’s membership of the EU.  Those other potential candidates waiting in the wings, chief amongst them Boris Johnson, have an agonising political calculation to make, between moving too soon and being hammered for disloyalty, or leaving it too late and failing to build momentum.  It will be entertaining – though probably not terribly edifying – to watch the skirmishes on this.

Therefore There Will be a Shortage of Political Oxygen.   These leadership political narratives will be the prism through which the salience of our, perhaps more mundane, issues will be viewed.  Important discussions about Open Access (to be reviewed by the Universities Minister Jo Johnson), text books (being reviewed by Schools Minister Nick Gibb) and copyright (being strongly supported by IP Minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe) will not dominate the political headlines – which on balance is probably a good thing.  Our policy messages – be they around literacy, workforce development, innovation and copyright – will have to be alert to this and continually drive the link between what is good for publishing being good for the economy as a whole.

In the EU, the Digital Single Market programme will continue to challenge and frustrate.  The European Commission has undertaken to produce a draft legislative package on copyright reform by the end of the year.  However, many MEPs we speak to are betting that early next year may be more likely.  Whenever the document emerges we can be confident that it will require a great deal of detailed analysis and yet further engagement with Commission officials.  There can be no doubt that the evidence based impact assessment of policies is being developed before it is even clear what the proposed policies are.  Conversations with the various economic consultants advising the Commission on the current workings of the market leave a disconcerting sense of a process which has only the vaguest idea of how things actually work.  Whilst publishing is perhaps spared direct involvement in the heated debates about so-called “geo-blocking”, flaky ideas around treatment of educational works and data and text mining mean that Brussels will remain a key centre of interest.    

So all in all it looks set to be a very busy political season – and that’s not even taking into account the Spending Review, the increasingly shaky devolution settlements, the controversy about the burgeoning House of Lords or electoral reform.