Lessons for Labour: how to be an effective opposition

Looks like we’re always stuck in opposition. 'UK Parliament/flickr', CC BY-NC-ND

Labour suffered an enormous electoral defeat on May 7, and senior figures have warned that the party faces the worst crisis in its history, with little chance of Labour regaining power in 2020. So far, attention has been focused on the race for the new Labour party leader.

Alongside this, difficult questions are being asked about the purpose and future direction of the party. Closer analysis of their performance in marginal seats in 2015 is only likely to deepen the gloom.

In the meantime, it should be remembered that Labour has an important constitutional role to fill, as Her Majesty’s Opposition. For Labour, any effort to regain power will crucially depend on being able to carry out this role effectively.

Taking advantage of luck

It is often remarked that “oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them”. For instance, when Labour suffered a shattering fourth successive election defeat in 1992, it prompted many to doubt that the party could ever win again.

Yet only four months later, Britain was forced to exit the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, costing the UK billions of pounds. This hugely damaged the Conservatives reputation for economic competence, and gave Labour an opportunity to assert itself as the more economically trustworthy party in later years.

For Labour to climb the electoral mountain ahead of them, they may need a divided Conservative party and policy disasters. But such events can only benefit oppositions electorally if they position themselves effectively. Former heavyweight boxing champion, Hasim Rahman defined luck as “being prepared when opportunity presents itself”.

In this sense Labour has to portray itself both as competent and as a potential government in waiting. If it struggles to do both – as arguably it did under Neil Kinnock – even monumental political mistakes such as Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax may not help it regain office.

Choosing your battles

The official opposition’s task is to oppose government policy, and Labour will seek to channel popular discontent with the Conservative’s approach to austerity. This may be made easier if they can be seen to voice the concerns of civil society about the likely impact of cuts. However, in the race to tackle the economic deficit, Labour has also committed to large cuts, and will now need to be careful about how and where it attacks the government’s approach.

Channeling the popular mood. 'ajehals/Flickr', CC BY

A primary danger for opposition parties is appearing to leap opportunistically on every problem for government. In opposition, William Hague became nicknamed “Billy Bandwagon” for attaching himself to various populist criticisms of the Blair government. So while Labour may continue to cause David Cameron discomfort on issues such as the NHS, any attacks should be attached to a wider Labour narrative about areas that should be prioritised and protected, and they may advance further if they manage to damage the Conservative’s image as the pro-business party.

And it is possible that the referendum on EU membership may provide such an opportunity, if Labour can present itself as protecting business interests by campaigning for the UK to remain part of the EU. Any splits within the Conservatives could be exploited as placing jobs and investment in jeopardy. This worked before in the 1990s, when New Labour capitalised on Tory divisions on Europe, using votes in the House of Commons to embarrass the then prime minister, John Major.

Disunity is electorally damaging, and David Cameron’s small majority makes him vulnerable to party rebellions. The prime minister’s commitment to scrap the Human Rights Act may be Labour’s first opportunity to draw blood, particularly should Conservative backbenchers such as David Davis decide to rebel. In this context, by-elections also assume a greater political significance. Labour can generate a sense that the authority of the government is ebbing away, if its majority dwindles.

Asserting leadership

Recent history suggests that it is important for a new leader of the opposition to hit the ground running. The period shortly after their election is important in defining their leadership. Arguably, in his five years, Ed Miliband struggled to provide a clear sense of purpose, too often letting opponents define it for him. Given that the new leader will not be elected until September this year, it will also be important for prominent candidates to establish and enhance their national profile during the leadership campaign.

Already, two of the frontrunners for the Labour leadership have expressed a belief that the party must reverse its stance on holding an EU referendum. This could work in Labour’s favour, to re-focus attention on the Conservative’s difficulties on the issue of UK membership.

If the new leader can establish momentum quickly, it can be easier to present the unified front needed to establish competence and develop their status as an alternative prime minister. Iain Duncan Smith didn’t manage this for the Conservatives, and his attempt to whip a vote on gay adoption backfired, exposing internal splits between “modernisers” and “traditionalists”.

In contrast, David Cameron asserted himself as opposition leader as a moderniser. He made life more difficult for dissenters, who knew vocal criticism of policy shifts could harm a leader who looked like he could be an election winner. The lesson for the current Labour leadership candidates is that avoiding difficult internal questions may not pay-off in the long term.

However, if the new leader can establish themselves positively in the public mind in the next two to three years, they may accrue another advantage. David Cameron has said he will not run for a third term, so Labour will eventually be facing a new and untested Conservative leader. Labour will be able to question the legitimacy of a leader who has not yet won a general election, just as the Conservatives questioned Gordon Brown after Tony Blair resigned.