The role of politicians with regards to their duty to voters has been muddied, in the West at least, for decades, but I think the role of the politician in the UK was thrown in to disarray, drastically, with the sweeping to power of New Labour in the late 1990’s. It’s not my intention to discuss New Labour in any real detail, but that change continues to have an impression on today’s political climate, As has been argued by Adam Curtis in mesmerising fashion, Tony Blair and New Labour saw an appetite for power to be taken away from the ideologies of politicians, and instead trusted to the target-based culture of the free market; promising to improve health and education by placing targets under the noses of teachers and doctors, and letting them achieve them by any means they could. It is this shift away from ideology that this article is concerned with, and especially with relation to the role of ‘The Opposition’ in Britain’s political chambers.
Current Prime Minister Theresa May, forced by the Supreme Court to hold a Parliamentary vote on the UK leaving the EU, recently announced an bill for Brexit that revealed a preference for a ‘clean’ and decisive withdrawal from the EU. Eschewing attempts to negotiate a place for the UK in the European single market, May announced a plan to ‘Brexit’ as quickly as possible while exploring trade deals internationally to compensate for potential losses from the withdrawal. It is in this context that the role of the opposition, led – officially – by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, has come under scrutiny. Corbyn announced that he would be instructing his Labour MP’s to support Theresa May’s bill, ostensibly because he wanted Labour to support the result of last year’s EU referendum result where the majority of those who voted, did so to leave the EU. While Labour publicly opposed Brexit, it was deemed that the democratic will of the voters should be respected. In isolation, this is reasonable, but the move was met with lots of opposition by many people, including many of his supporters in a way which further splintered the Labour Party, and the idea of parliamentary opposition.
Labour MPs found themselves in a dilemma: most Labour MPs opposed Brexit, and felt that the traditional centre-left ideals of Labour did too; but the referendum result was not only democratic, but was supported by roughly two-thirds of Labour constituencies. They have been asked to decide on which way to vote regarding Brexit, but have different responsibilities pulling them in often conflicting directions – as representatives of a constituency, as representatives of a party, as representatives of their own ideals, and as representatives of the official opposition.
There has been a lot of criticism of Corbyn’s decision to back the government’s bill on Brexit exactly because they are the opposition to the government, because it has been seen by some as giving Theresa May something of a ‘free pass’ to Brexit – something that has been seen as him not doing his job as opposition, and negligently assisting Theresa May’s agenda. That suggests, though, that the leader of the opposition exists simply to frustrate the government, an approach which has been roundly criticised in the case of the likes of Mitch McConnell and House Republicans in the United States as selfishly frustrating the business of government for political gain. Surely ideological opposition should oppose governments based on their ideology rather than based on the idea of playing a role that doesn’t necessarily relate to their stance. This raises the central question of this piece: what is the duty of the opposition in British politics, is it effective, and does it make sense philosophically?
The Labour Party, which on the surface at least has moved back towards traditional socialist values following the less ideological period of New Labour rule, is an independent political party with it’s own manifesto for power. While this will respond to the current political climate as well as the manifesto of the governing Conservative party, Labour’s manifesto is based, ultimately, on it’s own political values, not all of which are at odds with those of the Conservatives. Where the parties differ, it is based on ideology, and it is in this climate where political ideology is seen as naïve, sometimes self-indulgent, and even sometimes, undemocratic, that a political party can be expected to act a certain way simply because they are in official opposition to government. Later the same week, Theresa May stated that she and the British government officially was explicitly opposed to waterboarding, but this is something that Labour agree with, as most do, but as the opposition, should they be criticising May’s denouncement of waterboarding? This may seem like an obvious example, but it follows that if it is not the opposition’s job to oppose the government on every issue, they can’t be expected to on any specific issue.
There is no doubt that having a public figure challenging the government is a valuable idea that should be preserved, but if they are expected to simply react negatively to the government, regardless of their own ideology, the role becomes, in actuality, apolitical; something along the lines of an auditor. What is lost is a sincere ideological debate, in which each party can set out their respective ideological stall and let the public decide. This is compounded by another shift magnified by New Labour – towards politicians setting out manifestos they think will get them elected, rather than ones they believe in. New Labour worked hard to move away from their traditional socialist identity and moved significantly towards the political centre to appear more moderate and therefore, more electable. This was incredibly successful, leading to over a decade of power; but who was it that was elected? New Labour were a new party in more than just name and as time progressed, the difference between them and the Conservatives became less and less tangible, embracing the free market and hawkish tendencies more than ever before. This is a shift from the public expressing themselves through voting for parties who represent the closest thing to the vanguard of the time, to parties chasing the vanguard themselves for power. The power is empty – the result of essentially campaigning for a role that has been defined by others (the media, press, lobbies, and extremists with the loudest voices). Like the role of the opposition, it is almost an apolitical, managerial role that ignores, on a daily basis, political ethics. Politicians devise policy because they think it will appeal to voters, rather than formulate what they think is best for humanity, and let the people decide on if they are right.
This is what I advocate for, though I am not confident it is an approach that will return any time soon: political parties build manifestos based on their beliefs and ethics, and the people vote for whichever set of ideals they agree most with. In comparison with Labour, who changed their ideals for votes, this is something the Greens – to their credit – have always done; only wanting to be elected with a mandate to pursue policies they believe in, and not seeking power under any other terms. So then what of the role of the opposition? If the opposition is just the party which came second in the election, then it sets up this contradiction of roles again. Well, the answer, I believe, is to formalise the opposition as what it already is: an apolitical body which publicly challenges the sitting government on all issues; a Devil’s Advocate, you might say – and what’s more, this job shouldn’t be that of another political party, but of an independent public body. The usual, natural worries around things like corruption and politicking, especially with regards to state funded mouth-pieces, are totally countered by the nature of the role – if their only job is to challenge governmental policy, then not doing that job would be completely obvious. If their job is to raise a counterpoint to governmental policy, there is nothing to do but argue against the government. If the government advocate for tax breaks for a certain group, the opposition devise an argument for that being a bad idea; if the government want to intervene militarily abroad, the opposition argues against it. It would be a role that is essentially purely debate based and would be best suited to lawyers rather than politicians.
I think this would secure a dependable, effective opposition, rather than the responsibility essentially being inherited by the party receiving the second largest count of votes, while freeing up that party to put forward their ideological case for power without having to do so in relation to the government – a trend which I believe is responsible lack of true progressive change in Britain in the last 20 years. It won’t of course, stop parties chasing the vocal vanguard – usually more right wing, and represented by the powerful tabloid press – altogether, but I do think it would help create conditions in which parties could offer a more sincere political ideology for the general public to vote on. Of course, since Donald Trump is prancing all over the established “rules” of politics, it’s hard to say for sure what the political arena will be like after the next few years, but I think this system preserves the two elements that are crucial to a healthy democracy – effective opposition, and debates over political ideology.