The job of the Opposition

A good start says Paul Teasdale, but Starmer’s Labour needs to up its game against this new populist Toryism

One of the more satisfying developments of recent months has been seeing the Labour Party acting like an Opposition, doing its job, something that it has not done for some years. And that gives me some hope that although the Labour Party may be a long way from office it may nonetheless be able to help shape the path out of the crisis. This administration is unusually directionless on economic and social policy, so the potential for an effective Opposition to influence debates and give a steer to the policies of the Government is greater than it has been for a long time.

The role of an Opposition is more than criticising and exposing the failings of the government; it has to try to improve public policy – whether that is amending legislation or holding minsters to account. Some people dissent from this: the Opposition lost and should let the Government get on with the policies for which it has a mandate; wait your turn. From individuals on the left I have heard that the Labour Party should let the Conservatives do their worst so voters can see them for what they are; or that by modifying polices we are tainted and implicated. Individuals may choose to opt out, but the Labour Party exists to achieve the best outcomes whatever the circumstances, whether it is in office or not.

Corbyn never understood the role of the Opposition in Parliament. Opposition is a lot more than saying what you dream of doing if you were ever to be in government. That may belong to manifestos. It is not part of the day-to-day work. A more adroit Opposition leader should have been able to unseat Johnson when he split the Conservatives in September 2019.

In the current situation the Labour Party has no prospect of winning a vote in Parliament and the prospect of electoral success is a long way off – so nobody is really interested in what a Labour government would do. But the opportunities for the Opposition to shape debate and policy are greater than for a long time. We have a Government lacking the economic ideology of its predecessors and searching for economic policies. Many on the left – writers in this magazine included – have not acknowledged that the changing Conservative leadership has now abandoned most of the key tenets of Thatcherism. The Covid crisis has opened up new territory, but this Government’s course towards higher spending was clear before the crisis.

Johnson does not have beliefs, just pick-and-mix policies. Most people who enter politics want to improve society – they have views with which you may agree or disagree. But Johnson’s sole purpose is his own elevation. He is an opportunist. He wants office, but without purpose. His objective is to stay in office. There is a strong anti-democratic strain not previously seen in the UK, but already on the rise in parts of eastern Europe. Johnson and Cummings are already reducing the role of checks and balances within the state – judicial review, select committees, parliamentary debates, neutral civil servants.

But in policy areas there is no clarity of purpose beyond the slogan of “get Brexit done”. It is a nationalist, populist leadership and like all such it is attracted to spending, not balanced budgets. Johnson likes grand projects and, when criticised, we have already seen a readiness to spend (e.g. school meal vouchers). Populist/authoritarian governments usually end up with high inflation due to profligate spending.

Dealing with the virus, the Government’s response has been chaotic and always late. However, on the economy it has, mostly, done the right things. But it has not always done them well. There are gaps: some because civil servants were starting from scratch because of the lack of planning for an emergency (for which past governments can be blamed). But there have been problems caused by a preference for announcing targets over proper consultation.

In the months ahead, Labour needs to combine criticism of the government’s approach with proposals for actions.

The main criticism must be the failure to consult. This is not because of a need for urgent decisions; it is a pattern and ties in with their authoritarian, centralising tendencies. Second, social solidarity has been much stronger than the Government understands and has been undermined by the Government’s failure to consult (and Cummings). Third, the easiest way to help industry would be to extend the transition period before leaving the single market.

Trying to be specific with proposals, we can begin with areas where the Government has already indicated it might act but has no plan: public sector wages, an all-party approach to social care, the northern powerhouse rail schemes, increase NHS capacity. And with so many more people claiming Universal Credit there should be support for reforms.

The Government has been pushed into accepting the need for a more sectoral approach. In some sectors it will be necessary to intervene to preserve the infrastructure. Yet the Government does not consult with industry. The Labour Party should aim to lead the consultation and fill the gap.

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