By Alex Deane
At first glance, this is perhaps a strange title to read on ConservativeHome, from a Conservative Party member; but – to restate a cliché - effective Parliamentary government requires an effective opposition (just consider the excesses of the heyday of Tony Blair's government, permitted in part by the disarray of post-1997 Conservatives on the opposite benches, to appreciate the point).
If you think that Labour is currently performing even tolerably well as an opposition, stop reading now – because this column is based on a premise on which we might as well agree to disagree. As I see it, Ed Milliband has yet to set out his stall – on anything. This is tremendously negative, not merely for the Labour movement but for the country. In a very good article for Parliamentary Brief back in September, Dr Simon Lee wrote that:
Labour’s next leader will need to concede that New Labour’s economic legacy was a deeply-flawed British model of political economy which bequeathed a poisonous fiscal legacy of massive public and private debt that in turn has fostered a neo-liberal ambition to begin a rolling back of the frontiers of the state more ambitious than that of Thatcherism.
The new leadership must also acknowledge that New Labour’s principal political legacy has been a constitutional settlement that has led to an increasing Anglicisation of the domestic policy debate at Westminster and in the London-based media, which has barely registered in the narratives of any of the major political parties.
Redressing that lacuna of an effective English narrative of democracy and policy will be a prerequisite if the Labour Party is to have any prospect of winning the next general election.
My point, three months on, is that none of this has been done and none of it looks like it's getting done, either. The no-longer-new leadership team may agree or disagree with each of the notions Lee advances, but it should have a position on each (and much else, besides) – those positions should be visible and contestable, for Labour members and sympathisers to support or at least discuss. There ought to be an identifiable alternative national narrative, a Britain-as-we-would-have-it-be, on offer from the Opposition (which, after all, might plausibly be asked to offer itself at the polls following disruption within the Coalition at short notice).
For us of course, it's an exciting time, with the most important arguments of the day being had within the Coalition, rather than between the Government and the Opposition. But I question the extent to which this is a good thing – in both principle and in practice.
First, the principle; when someone tells you that "this is not a time for partisan politics," he's usually wrong (and you should check you've still got your wallet, to boot). Adversarial politics tests ideas in the fire of argument, confronts those seeking to enact or change important things about the way we run our country and live our lives with the strongest possible set of points to be made for the contrary point of view (it is this adversarial quality which, in part, also explains the superiority of common law justice systems). It is always bad when that adversarial challenge is lacking.
Secondly, in practice; there are legitimate, fundamental differences to be discussed on current government policies - on, say, the armed forces (which, after all, Labour so liked using), or prisons (ditto). Fill in your own examples here – even if you're 100% convinced that every aspect of what the Coalition's doing on your chosen ground is correct, wouldn't you rather that it was robustly tested, given what's at stake?
The Loyal Opposition has a part to play. I think we should all hope that they soon start playing it.