John Harris

Journalist & Author

What are your news predictions for 2011?

I reckon the next 12 months will be as grim as 1981 – let me know what you think, and I’ll pop back and discuss your views

There is a pop-cultural theory that great things happen in years ending in 7: 1967 (the so-called summer of love), 1977 (the high water mark of punk), 1987 (when acid house arrived), and 1997 (the fall of the Tories). What might apply when faced with the number one is unclear, but as we face 2011, it might be instructive to look back to 1981.

Then, as now, things were grim, and getting grimmer: Geoffrey Howe’s deflationary budget, skyrocketing unemployment, a newly split Labour party, the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, and by the end of the year, martial law declared in Poland. That June, as riots flared in Liverpool, Manchester, Brixton and Birmingham, the Specials famously reached number one with Ghost Town – as fretful and forlorn a chart-topper as anyone has ever managed.

The next 12 months, needless to say, threaten to be every bit as awful. After a period of phony political war, the cuts will bite, redundancies in the public sector will pile up – and contrary to the view that hacking down spending will leave sunlit uplands for private industry, it too will inevitably feel the pinch. VAT goes up to 20% in January, and recovery will be made harder by rising inflation.

Unemployment will rise beyond 2.5 million. On 26 March, the TUC will stage a national anti-cuts demonstration – which, what with the Unite leader Len McCluskey talking about a “broad strike movement” and students vowing to keep up the noise, will just be one of countless protests and face-offs. Last year, senior police officers were talking about a likely “summer of rage”; this time, it may actually happen.

Which brings us to the coalition, and the prospect of more pain for the Lib Dems. In terms of legislation, there will probably be nothing as seismic as the tuition fees debacle – though a looming review of anti-terrorism measures will jangle their nerves, and in the wake of recent uncertainty about child detention, the coalition’s reputation on civil liberties could be further eroded.

UK political heat

Their true season of nightmares, however, will be the early summer. May brings elections for 279 English councils, and both the Welsh assembly and Scottish parliament – as well as the most likely date for the referendum on electoral reform, whereby the archaic first post the post system could be replaced with the much fairer and sexier alternative vote.

Unless some miracle comes to pass, they will be blitzed in the former, and few people predict success in the latter. At that point, plenty of Lib Dems will surely wonder what on earth their leadership is up to, and all hell could break loose. Westminster insiders are already whispering about the idea of the more clued-up Chris Huhne replacing Nick Clegg, something that may be worth a bet.

Not that we should neglect tensions on the Tory side, either. The travails of the back end of the coalition horse have rather obscured how maddened the Conservative right is getting – on Europe, Ken Clarke’s liberal line on crime and punishment (which even Theresa May has been sounding off about), and Cameron’s general cosiness with Clegg et al. Already, Labour is putting out feelers to the Tory hardcore, with a view to maximising anti-government numbers in the Commons, and making life for Cameron as difficult as possible – which, in turn, will increase his ardour for his new Lib Dem friends.

Ed Miliband’s year begins with a speech at the Fabian Society’s annual conference, which will doubtless be cracked up as yet another “make or break” occasion. He – and his party – have no end of challenges: to finally come up with a pithy and credible line on the cuts, stiffen the spines of a shadow cabinet still wondering what happened last May, and come up with the clear political definition that has so far eluded them.

He will campaign for a “yes” vote on AV, though how he might escape the odour of defeat is a very interesting question. As with all Labour leaders in times of unrest and anger, he will also be faced with an obvious enough conundrum: as tempers fray on the streets, whither the parliamentary road to socialism?

Chilly world climate

Abroad, there are no end of anxious rumblings. Tensions between China and America will crackle on, and burst into the headlines anew when President Hu Jintao visits the US in January. Iran’s nuclear programme – and the nightmarish prospect of an Israeli strike – will refuse to go away. Things will probably be febrile in Cuba and North Korea. And we should nervously watch Sudan: 9 January sees a referendum on whether the southern half of the country should secede.

A former vice-president recently said this: “Next year Sudan is going to break apart. The question is will it divide peacefully like the Czech and Slovak republics or will it follow the example of Yugoslavia? Only time will tell.”

Just as worryingly, the same applies to Sarah Palin’s plans to run for president — a prospect that, should it come to pass, should be a boon for the private space travel industry.

Still, just to cheer the world up, Prince William and Kate Middleton will be getting hitched, Sweden will host the 22nd World Scout Jamboree, and Coldplay will return with their fifth album – presumably full of the usual assurances that we should hold on, and await a better day. They are rumoured to be headlining Glastonbury, possibly in the company of the equally irksome U2. Really, what joy.

My advice? Even if the snow stops, stock up on supplies and brick yourself in.

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