Opposition, as Sir Humphrey said in Yes Minister in the 1980s, is ‘impotence and insignificance and people at parties asking you if you know Robin Day.’ If you substitute Andrew Marr for the late Sir Robin, the sentiment rings as true today. The frustration of sitting on the wrong side of the House of Commons is certainly acute, as any Conservative MP will testify, but what of their counterparts in local government – surely being out of power in the Council Chamber is even more agonising?
On the face of it, yes. Local government has such limited power, even for those in office, that Councillors on the opposition benches could be excused for feeling they lead a pretty pointless existence. My own Borough of Greenwich has suffered nearly forty years of Labour misrule, and the last Conservative administration of 1968-71 is but a distant memory (although one of my ward colleagues is a rare survivor of those glory days). With our 13-member Conservative Group facing 36 Labour incumbents, we are quite clearly outnumbered in the Chamber. But despite all this, you rarely see me or my colleagues burying our heads in despair – except perhaps during speeches by the Lib Dems. You see, whisper it softly… Opposition can be fun.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’d much rather be in power, and have a chance to put right the many atrocious errors of complacent Labour maladministration to which the Borough and people of Greenwich have been subjected for too many years. My colleagues and I would delight in slashing the bloated Council propaganda budget and junking the Prava-esque ‘Greenwich Time’ weekly ‘free newspaper’ (which is of course neither free, nor a newspaper). Most important of all we would begin taking the urgent, radical steps needed to improve the scandalous state of our local schools, which are failing thousands of children each year. That is what all of us are in politics for, and an Opposition should be clear what it would do differently in office.
But until the glorious day, the fight in the trenches to wrest power away from the current rabble can be, yes, fun. With a demoralised Labour Party scoring numerous own-goals, it is certainly a legitimate objective to harass and depress them still further by some nimble footwork and never missing a trick. In fact, it is our duty to do so. This doesn’t mean opportunism, or blind opposition for its own sake. As our Group’s Olympic spokesman, for example, I have backed them to the hilt on ensuring all the 2012 events planned for the Borough are kept here, rather than farmed out to Kent or elsewhere, as some have suggested. But when the administration splurges taxpayers’ money sending double the number of Councillors and bureaucrats to Beijing than have any other Borough (and in Business Class), we have cried foul. When they run roughshod over the concerns of residents trapped in dilapidated housing estates, or those fighting to save community sports fields, we have packed the public gallery with outraged and vocal critics to hold them to account.
I admit the current resurgence in Conservative fortunes helps lift our spirits, and gives us the resolve to keep going. In the recent Mayoral election, Boris Johnson actually out-polled Ken Livingstone across the Borough, which is an astounding feat, and bodes well for the next Borough elections. Until then, we will continue doing what I advise all other colleagues in a similar position to keep doing: Working hard on canvassing and finding out people’s grievances and priorities; asking exhaustive questions; tabling motions; calling roll-call votes to shame those voting against the interests of their constituents; Exploiting divisions in the other side’s ranks; teasing, heckling and laughing at Council meetings. It may not seem a lot, but it matters.