I recall after the 2010 General Election, when 13 consecutive years of Labour government came to an end, a Labour-supporting friend of mine comforted himself with the optimistic observation that “a spell in opposition will be good for Labour”. He elaborated that the party needed a period of rest after being in government for so long, needed to formulate new policies, and acquire a fresh leader. The Labour Party, he was sure, would charge back into office after the public fell out of love with Conservative government.
Six years later, Labour are still in opposition, having lost a second consecutive election, and, based on a national opinion poll of December 2016, are no closer to winning an election than any time since the financial crisis. Indeed, Labour’s performances in the most recent mid-term elections strongly suggest that Labour is becoming less relevant to the general public than the sitting government.
The commonly accepted logic tells us that the sitting government becomes more distant from and less appealing to the public the longer it is in power, while the opposition grows in stature and popularity as an alternative. The pattern of modern by-elections and local elections is of the public “sending the government a message” by giving it a pounding in local elections or by-elections.
This was certainly true under during the 2010-2015 Parliament, when Labour won hundreds of council seats off the government and UKIP came first in the 2014 European Parliament Elections.
At present, however, the Conservative majority government, first under David Cameron and now under Theresa May, has not suffered the severe electoral punishment that a six-year old government would expect. The official opposition, led by Jeremy Corbyn, has not been able, ever since his first election in September 2015, to land a significant electoral blow on the Conservatives, and has even suffered the kind of electoral rejection that long-sitting governments would normally be subjected to.
We might, for instance, look to the huge Parliamentary losses the Conservatives suffered after 18 consecutive years in government in 1997 and which Labour suffered in 2010 after 13 years in government. Yet, during the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Election, the Scottish Labour Party, from a position of opposition, received its lowest share of votes and fell to third in terms of number of seats in Holyrood.
This obviously witnessed much smaller numbers of seats changing than the 1997 and 2010 General Elections, but the scale of Labour’s reversal in Scotland in 2016 was nonetheless demonstrative of Labour’s deep unpopularity, much the same as Gordon Brown’s Labour and John Major’s Conservatives had become widely unpopular.
In the 2016 English local council elections, both the government and Labour lost seats. This constituted the first instance where an opposition party lost seats in local council elections in a non-General Election year since 1985 when Labour, then under Neil Kinnock, lost over 100 seats. Furthermore, with average government losses in local council elections numbering over 400 seats, the Conservative loss of 48 seats in 2016 is one of the lightest government losses in local council elections since they were introduced in their present form in the 1970’s.
Opposition serves an important official purpose: that of scrutinising government policy and making appropriate criticisms. This is undoubtedly a vital public service. Because there will always be a party questioning the government, the public can have confidence that the government will not simply be able to pass any legislation it likes. It also means that government failings or inconsistencies can be brought to public attention.
For example, Labour has been correct to highlight the fact that the government has missed several of George Osborne’s fiscal targets, including having to extend austerity from one Parliament to three.
Without detracting from this necessary function of opposition, however, it must be pointed out that no self-respecting politician likes being in opposition. I am certain that if you were to ask every MP in the Commons, virtually all of them would tell you they preferred being in government to being in opposition: they would much rather be the ones under scrutiny than those doing the scrutiny. There is something inherently thankless and inconsequential about telling those in government where they have gone wrong.
Though functionally opposition should be about scrutinising the government, in the minds of MPs opposition should only be about preparation for re-entering government. Scrutiny should not a way of life, but a hopefully short interim between lengthy periods of office.
Notwithstanding how wrong he proved to be in his political forecasts, my friend managed to highlight one of the benefits of opposition: the time and space it affords parties to rejuvenate after a difficult time in office. Opposition has the advantage of giving a political party the anonymity and therefore the freedom to learn what went wrong in office, learn why they became unpopular, and create new policies.
The statistics outlined above indicate, however, that for the Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership is very likely to be forced to spend not only a second but also a third Parliamentary term in opposition.
Part of the reason for Labour’s increasing distance from electability is that Corbyn and his closest colleagues do not seem to be taking the central task of opposition seriously. They have not demonstrated that they understand the necessity of making the party electable and of making the party popular among voters.
Since his re-election as Labour leader Corbyn has been almost silent on the twin issues of Brexit and immigration. Labour’s silence on these two pre-eminent issues, issues which are of acute public interest and which, surely, command the respect and attention of any politician seeking to become Prime Minister, has enabled Labour’s relevance to the average voter to decline.
For Labour to say nothing about Brexit other than to accuse the government of being unclear in its negotiations strategy, is to fall into the trap of accepting scrutiny, and therefore opposition, as a way of life. Without communicating a Brexit negotiating position unique to Labour, a vision for post-Brexit Britain unique to Labour, and without communicating to the public how the party would seek to lower immigration, the Labour Party will not be taken seriously as a party of government, risking its permanent immersion in opposition obscurity.
And the public are already punishing Labour for this silence on the two most pressing political issues of 2016. The Richmond Park and Sleaford by-elections, though not seats Labour was likely to win, show the extent to which Labour has been dwarfed in the Brexit argument by other parties. The fact that in Sleaford Labour fell behind the Liberal Democrats (who won only 8 seats in the 2015 General Election) should be particularly worrying for Labour election strategists.
The public have no evidence to suggest that Corbyn cares about immigration or Brexit. His silence tells them that he is not only disinterested in dealing with what they see as too high immigration numbers, but also that he is not Prime Minister material, that he is, to use a phrase applied to other leaders who failed to convince the public, “not up to it”.
Corbyn has spent his political life very far from the centre of political power, and certainly never came anywhere close to holding any real political responsibility, even during Labour’s 13 years in office. He has worked and campaigned for 33 years without ever having to risk anything, having constantly been the insurgent, constantly reminding those in high office how wrong they are, constantly opposing those in power but never wielding any power himself.
Corbyn now finds himself in the most powerful and responsible position he has ever held. He is now the official Leader of the Opposition. And Labour MPs, Labour members, and Labour voters want him to achieve what they see as the only point of being in opposition: getting back into government.
If he is ever going to fulfil this ambition, Corbyn needs to demonstrate to the public that he is in politics for the right reasons. If he is to dispel the impression of extremism and incompetence that has settled upon his formerly turbulent, now insipid leadership of the Labour Party, Corbyn has to prove to the public that that he has a programme for government worth voting for.
But before he can do this, Corbyn must shed his contempt for the establishment, forget his instinctive assumption that those on the outside are correct, and embrace the best aspects of what is sometimes called the status quo, but which is better understood as the reality of what lies in front of him. Corbyn cannot afford to appear disinterested from concerns over immigration for much longer.
The challenge of government is much more difficult to deal with than the disappointment of opposition; Corbyn should be taking advantage of the time available to him to show that he is up to the challenge.
If he does not, then electoral statistics suggest Labour MPs will likely be made to suffer the disappointment of opposition for a few years more, possibly running the danger of being forced to make scrutiny a way of life.