Sunday 18 September 2016

The Myth of the Ineffective Opposition

Cast your mind back to just over a year ago. You will remember that awful general election result won by Tory scaremongering and lies. You may also recall the short interregnum in which Harriet Harman took on the mantle of acting leader, and stumbled into the most decisive, disastrous misstep the Labour Party establishment - from its point of view - has made since the foundation of our party. In the July 2015 budget, Harriet took to the dispatch box and attacked the former chancellor for planning to cut social security and tax credit payments to millions of our people. Then, days later, she said there would be no "blanket opposition" to such cuts because the public had rejected Labour as we were, apparently, "soft on benefits". And so, the next thing anyone knew Harriet whipped the PLP into abstaining on the second reading of this cuts programme when it came before the House. In the context of the Labour leadership election, she might as well have strapped rocket boosters to Jeremy Corbyn's campaign.

Harriet's going along with demonstrably unjust policies that were later dumped by the Tories, didn't find much criticism in political comment land beyond the usual suspects. Yet after the government was forced to kill off these welfare cuts, in part thanks to the implacable opposition of Labour, we suddenly start hearing a phrase bandied about that's rather new to British political discourse: 'effective opposition'. And this, apparently, is something the party falls short of under Jeremy's leadership. Given the job of the opposition is to oppose, which is something Labour has done to greater or lesser degrees of success, I'm somewhat puzzled by how this efficacy should be defined.

Let's assume a key test of political opposition is a capacity to make the political weather. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has little problem attracting media coverage, but has a major issue getting the right kind of attention. Jez prefers to talk about policy, the press and the broadcasters are more interested in personality and division. Given that's not going to change, all the more reason why his leadership needs a media strategy. Nevertheless, to a degree some of these ideas combined with principled opposition has cut through. There are plenty of commentators who argue Ed Miliband opened the door to Corbynism by choosing to (incoherently, haphazardly) address inequality. This imbued his leadership with the halo of Saint Crosland, but it had an effect on politics: it shifted politics a touch to the left. This was deepened when, last summer, extensive coverage of the first Labour leader contest led to a mainstreaming of the standard positions of the Labour left, winning it a a new mass audience. It would be fair to say that many of the policies articulated by Jez have a popularity that extend beyond himself, too. In the short term, it has meant the callous and cruel programme of overt welfare cuts have been abandoned, that the perceived necessity of cuts have receded somewhat since the general election. Antipathy to egregious abuses of working people by parasites like Mike Ashley and Philip Green has grown, and last but perhaps most significantly, May has pitched herself way to the left of Dave's reflex two-nation Toryism. On economic issues at least, with Labour tanking in the polls, it has nevertheless shifted this crucial ground to the left. Overt neoliberalism is losing friends.

How about the mechanics of opposition? Despite being openly and distressingly divided, as a collective Labour in the Commons and the Lords have delayed and forced abandonment of key planks of the Conservatives' legislative programme. Let's reel them off like pig iron production figures. The lowest paid have been spared a £1,000 tax credit cut, thanks to Labour opposition. Cuts to disability support to subsidise tax relief for the middle class, again, abandoned. Labour's call to renationalise the steel industry forced the government to intervene and do something, when previously they were happy to see it go to the wall. We should also remember the government's defeat in the Lords over Sunday trading, forcing a significant delay on mooted cuts to housing benefit, stopped the Tories from furnishing British aid to the Saudi prison system, and now it is likely that united Labour opposition to May's grammar school wheeze will water the proposals down so much that its application amounts to an exercise in political homeopathy.

Does it come down to performance at Prime Minister's Questions? It has to be said that Jeremy's style takes some getting used to for the PMQ aficionado, but it was one Dave got the measure of soon enough and a few short sessions passed before he evaded questions with his customary sliminess. It also looked like Theresa May was going to have a rather easy time of it until, last week, Jez departed from his signature moves and showed off some new steps. It was more conventional vis the point scoring and theatre indulged by ministers and shadow ministers, but the single-minded attack line - on the aforementioned grammar schools - left the PM looking wooden and enfeebled. Not a good place for her to be on just her third outing against a man widely derided as useless. So if effective opposition is to be boiled down to half hour Wednesday lunch time, Jeremy has shown he does have what it takes when he shifts the gear out of neutral, though as a measure the leader now has to be consistently light footed and focused.

What about polling? As this exercise in the myth of the ineffective opposition in The Economist argues, Labour is hopelessly behind in the polls. As readers of this blog know, I'm a firm believer in taking reality on the chin. There's no disguising that the polls are not great reading. Yes, the party is divided and voters don't like divided parties, and yes, it would be nice if the PLP majority stopped acting like children and started responding to the instruction given them by the membership. Still, them's the punches so it might be an idea to roll with them. Therefore, The Economist suggests, that with such low resonance for Jez's leadership among the electorate, the gap between us and the Tories mean they can get away with anything - including the sacrifice of every first born child - and still win a general election. As the above demonstrates, the ins and outs of Westminster and the shift affected in political values completely undermines that argument. And political history demonstrates it's a hypocritical position too. A week may be a long time in politics, but some of us do have memories a touch more reliable than the average goldfish. During the 1997-2003 period, in which the Tories lagged miles behind Labour in the polls (and in popular standing), none of these concerns about "effective opposition" were then raised. Few, if any in mainstream commentland showed such a touching concern with the opposition's constitutional role.

Lastly, how about scrutiny? Admittedly, with 171 MPs boycotting the shadow front bench, there is a problem in holding the government to account. It is beyond even the ken of the most able politician to juggle several briefs simultaneously. Yet the complaints about effective opposition predate this summer of nonsense, with its resignations and shenanigans. There are the well circulated reports about Jeremy's competence, or lack, by former shadow ministers - and they will get a post of their own this coming week. But making up for this were talented and effective MPs that were doing a good job of holding the government to account and contributing as a collective to the reverses inflicted on the Tories. Doing that as their more experienced colleagues, former A-listers, and previously favoured sons and daughters of the ancien regime indulged playground politics from the backbenches was no mean feat.

You've got to ask then what constitutes an effective opposition when, all told, Labour has acquitted itself quite well as such this last year. Is it because internal difficulties mean the party is landing blows with one hand tied behind its back? Is it because the polished media darlings of old don't get the air time they had grown accustomed to? Or is it because Labour has a leader with politics at odds to so many consensus positions held across the House that claiming his opposition isn't credible is a device for delegitimising those views, and by extension the positions around cuts, inequality, and a different, radical vision of what British society should look like? I'll leave it to the reader to judge.


Unknown said...

Could I add that during Harriet's first stint as acting leader, in 2010, she did absolutely nothing to prevent the Coalition in their successful effort to blame the economic crisis on over-borrowing and overspending by the New Labour government. She has a lot to answer for, with regards to the false perspective some quarters of the population have of the Labour party.

Speedy said...

Ever the optimist!

At no point during New Labour - even under hague or IDS - did the Tories have a leader, and an entrenched movement, that was so evidently out-of-touch with popular opinion.

Compare IDS's Eurosceptic "bastards" with the values of Corbyn's Momentum: Euroscepticism was never far from the surface of British public opinion, though much derided it may have been, as Brexit bore out. Meanwhile, Corbyn's position on everything from CND to immigration is widely out of touch with the public mood. And this is not a question of "winning the argument" but reflecting it - Corbyn represents 10-15 per cent, Euroscepticism was much, much more popular. And yes, the Tories lost during this period, but only because New Labour tracked right.

Sure, the opposition can delay etc, but that's small change next to the possibility of power. If the opposition does not present a meaningful alternative to the voters, then the ruling party will not modify its policies.

Anonymous said...

We're doing the bare minimum. That's all. We've had some successes, largely off the back of some good work from quality front benchers like Owen Smith and from a good team in the Lords. The Tories have helped by bungling in a few areas and allowing their own back benchers to revolt. This is not a very good government and a really well organised, focused and professional opposition should be able to make their lives very difficult. We should be doing a lot better.

The test of an effective opposition isn't to win some minor victories in Parliament: it is to present itself as a credible alternative government with a leader who might be considered as a potential PM.

Currently we are a long way from doing that and have a leader who will never be trusted by the wider electorate to form a government.


johnny conspiranoid said...

How do you know what's popular with the electorate?

Paul Ewart said...

The scrutiny issue falls down when Angela Rayner hits more targets in a month than Tristram Hunt or Lucy Powell managed in 6 years between them. Similarly Diane Abbott's current performance suggests that she has for more interest in scrutinising, challenging and holding the government to account than her predecessor: Abbot at least respects the members and our leader's views and amplifies accordingly.

Anonymous said...


But the problem is, the likes of Harman, Umunna and Hunt seem to genuinely believe "effective opposition" means actually agreeing with the government on the fundamentals.

Smith was good in his SC role I concur (one of the reasons I voted for him, though with little enthusiasm)

BCFG said...

If public opinion is anti immigration anti Europe etc then let them vote for a party that offers those things. It isn't like they are not spoilt for choice. But please let those of us not anti immigrant and not anti Europe and not bigoted or prejudiced please let us have some sort of viable choice. is that too much to ask?

This is what Corbyn offers, genuine choice and a genuine voice for working class people. at least that part of the working class whose brains have not been totally debased by the unfree media.

Corbyn takes a very sobered approach to debating with those sections of the working class whose brains have been ravaged by bile from the corrupt unfree media. During the EU debate he debated in a calm and measured way with those who wanted refugees to drown in the sea. I personally would have been far more explicit in what I thought about these brianwahsed morons but that is not Corbyn's style. He believes in calm and measured debate and treating people with respect no matter what garbage spews from their mouth. And for this they crucify him!

This is both Corbyn's main strength and his weakness.

Any effective opposition must but must have a general agreement between leader, members and MP's. Ideally there should exist a small % of critics who act as token figures so a party can claim to be a broad church. But you can never ever have a situation where the vast majority of MP's are at odds with the leader and its members. Blair would never have put up with that! No party would ever put up with that because it cannot work.

So either Corbyn must go or the MP's must go. In order to actually be an genuine opposition then Labour has to move left, so it is the MP's who must go. If they stay in the Blairite centre left ground they are nothing but Tory lite and ultimately you may as well vote Tory. The last 8 years have proved that Blairism leads to Toryism and for the most part the 2 things are exactly the same.

Corbyn at least offers real politics, with real choice, and with real debate between opposition politics. If we allow the centre left to win we consign ourselves to a future where there is no debate, no choice and just PR firms offering window dressing.

The stakes could not be higher!