by Dan Hodges
2011. What a twelve months it’s been. Tweaking the nose of convention. Hurling itself robustly into the face of popular wisdom. The year of living counter-intuitively.
It started, of course, with the amazing scenes from the Oldham & Saddleworth by-election. Tory activists barring the way to the polling stations for known Conservative voters. David Cameron, in yellow rosette, claiming that his great grandfather was best friends with Lloyd George. Ken Clarke, in sandals, and ill-fitting “Save the Whale” t-shirt, urging voters to “hold your nose, close your eyes, and vote Lib Dem”.
All to no avail. Labour: 25,000; Tories: 15,000; Lib Dems: 133. “A wake up call”, said Nick Clegg.
Oldham & Saddleworth only heralded the start of the electoral drama. There were the unprecedented seventeen by-elections held after Labour MPs convicted of erroneously charging paper clips to their expenses were each sentenced to 13 years imprisonment. Their decision to appeal their convictions was widely condemned by the media. “These paper clip thieving ratbags just don’t get it”, raged Richard Littlejohn. “Hanging’s too good for the scum”.
The Scottish, Welsh and local elections loomed large as the first major electoral test of the Tory-Lib Dem government and Labour’s new leader, and all parties went to extraordinary lengths to court the voters. David Cameron again called for “respect” between Scotland and Westminster, and surprised many by falling on bended knee during a meeting with Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond.
Nick Clegg attempted to widen his appeal to voters of Scotland’s minority parties by expressing a wish to one day go clubbing with Tommy Sheridan. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband raised eyebrows when he claimed that his favourite sporting memory was watching Kenny Dalglish slide the ball through Ray Clemence’s legs at the 1976 England v Scotland home international. It later transpired that the seven year old Miliband had actually been attending a meeting of the Woodcraft Folk at the time.
Labour’s large gains in the elections were accompanied by a resounding “no” vote in May’s referendum on the alternative vote. Though counting was not expected to be formally completed until March 2012, exit polls pointed to a clear defeat for the “yes” camp, leading to calls from some Lib Dem activists for Nick Clegg to resign and be replaced by “a serious statesman”, such as Paddy Ashdown or Lembit Opik.
Back at Westminster, we saw a Parliamentary session of unprecedented drama. The budget was overshadowed by the kidnapping, the day before the statement, of Labour’s entire shadow treasury team. Drafted in at the last minute to provide the opposition’s response, both Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper won plaudits for what Kevin Maguire described as “their masterful demolition of the coalition’s decisions to abolish income tax for Oxford graduates, impose a windfall levy on unemployed former coal miners and introduce ‘chimney sweep apprenticeships’ for under elevens”.
Alan Johnson, released unharmed after 48 hours held captive in a lock-up garage in Morley, West Yorkshire, responded with the words, “Budget? What budget”? The identity and motive of the kidnappers remain a mystery.
At prime minister’s questions, Ed Miliband, now wearing a Kangol bucket cap to cover his grey spot, struggled to make headway against an increasingly confident David Cameron. Though some observers questioned whether Cameron’s trademark response of “Ha, ha, ha. Boom, Boom”, was sufficiently prime ministerial.
His colleague, George Osborne, was again cited for “use of unparliamentary language” after describing Labour frontbencher Chris Bryant MP as “a mincing, girly poofter”. Osborne insisted that his comments were not homophobic but merely, “part of the rough and tumble of politics”. “Some of my best friends are benders”, he said.
Speaker John Bercow faced further questions from Conservative MPs about his impartiality after he leapt to his feet during one fiery pmqs exchange and cried, “Get in there, Ed”! The controversy was exacerbated when the Speaker’s wife was spotted taping “Vote Labour” posters to the windows of the Speaker’s apartments.
In government, Simon Hughes’ appointment as “higher education advocate”, was followed by the appointments of Paul Gascoigne to front the summer “don’t drink & drive” campaign, and Kelvin Mackenzie as special advisor to culture and media secretary, Jeremy Hunt. The MOD announced the commissioning of the new Royal Navy flagship Charles de Gaulle, while health secretary, Andrew Lansley, announced that a panel of independent health experts had recommended that winter flu vaccinations be rationed to “at risk groups”, specifically old Etonians, top rate taxpayers and former prime ministers above the age of 75.
Away from Westminster, the “anti-consumer, pro-student, anti-police, pro-direct action, anti-monarchy, socialist-anarchic people’s grassroots popular alliance” plan to disrupt the royal wedding foundered when it emerged that parents of 76 of the 113-strong executive committee were on the official guest list. “Fighting the power’s all well and good”, said a spokesman, “but I’ve got my allowance to think about”.
Other protestors enjoyed greater fortune. UK uncut led a successful boycott of “capitalist tax dodgers” such as Turner & sons butchers in Widnes, Mrs Wilson’s flower shop in Tunbridge Wells and Grime’s family bakery in Kirklees. In a statement justifying their actions, the group said “We’re not just going to sit back and wait for these family businesses to grow into mega-corporations. We’re nipping their greed in the bud”.
It was also another year in which the media made the headlines, as well as reporting them. Sky News presenter, Kay Burley, gained plaudits for her Dimbleby lecture – “The Julian Assange I Know”, while the Guardian faced criticism for its failure to publish a leaked US state department memo advising “if we dump all this rubbish out there the liberal media will wet their knickers and we can just get on with bombing the hell out of Afghanistan and Iraq”.
On the international stage, president Obama became embroiled in the “Palingate” scandal, after allegations that he had been secretly channelling funds to the “Sarah Palin for president” exploratory committee. In a terse statement delivered in the White House rose garden, a clearly emotional president told reporters, “I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again. I did not have financial relations with that woman”.
In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi stunned opponents by surviving yet another confidence motion, having been photographed frolicking naked in the Trevi fountain with the seventeen year old daughter of a “business associate”. Berlusconi dismissed the incident as “il dolce bunga”.
Meanwhile, both the foreign office and David Miliband were again forced to deny reports that the former foreign secretary had been offered the combined roles of ambassador to Washington, the united nations and the holy see. Ed Miliband’s official spokesman, Tom Baldwin, denied “categorically” reports that he had urged David Cameron, “to get the guy out of our hair once and for all”.
And so another year draws to a close. Old Father Time checks his watch, sharpens his sickle and waits to turn another page of his eternal ledger. What, we wonder, will 2012 bring? The olympics. The London mayoral elections. Fresh speculation about a gold medal election.
Whatever happens, it will take something to match the past 12 months. 2011. The year that defied prediction.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut and works for the “Labour No to AV” campaign.