Labour must learn to oppose, says Benjamin Wegg-Prosser

I did something very strange last week: I read a speech by a Secretary of State (Jeremy Hunt’s first – perfectly good if a little predictable).

I did something odder this morning: I watched the Parliament channel on the iPlayer.

Having been lucky enough to have access to the heart of government at various points over the past 13 years, I had fallen out of the habit of actually reading and watching the business of politics.  Having an inside track seemed to give me sense of what was going on without having to do so much of the legwork.

Times have changed. And in changing times following the nitty gritty is essential.  The Tories and Liberals are without doubt approaching government in a different way: identifying common ground, being honest about their differences and, if they can keep this going, I suspect making quite an impact on the public.

Labour politicians are making lots of positive noises about doing things differently as a political party: engaging in communities, opening up our organisation and reflecting the outlook of the million voters we lost on May 6th.  But thus far we appear to only focus on how we should be running our party.

We need a similar debate on how we operate as an opposition.  My heart sank when our response to the leak of the Queen’s Speech was to call for an enquiry.  It sank even lower when we limply attacked the Tories for announcing their cuts package at a press conference rather than in Parliament.

And while jokes about the marriage of convenience may be amusing, I suspect the public are refreshed by some of the more grown up aspects of the coalition.  Don’t misunderstand me: I am not undermining the sanctity of Parliament, nor am I suggesting that we avoid political knock-about.  But we have been in government for more than a decade and should be doing better than these lazy habits of the past.

We know the issues ministers worry about.  A month ago our shadow cabinet was the cabinet.  The Tory rows about capital gains tax, the 55% rule, the 1992 committee elections and much more show that the government creaks when under pressure, though mainly from its own side.  We need to apply our own pressure using the levers with which we are most familiar, namely those of government.

Now is the time to really question the advice which ministers are receiving (Labour ministers received the same advice a month ago).  We should probe areas that officials would have told us we had to avoid.  We should be raining down on the government a shower of Parliamentary questions before they learn the ropes.  We should be bombarding them with freedom of information requests to identify what they are trying to hide.

I doubt this coalition is going to collapse through internal political tensions.  There is too much at stake and, as I said last week, a merger or electoral pact is the logical conclusion to their current alliance.  So Labour’s approach must be to undermine it through applying its knowledge of government.  Now is the time to pool our collective understanding of how government works and put the incumbents under great pressure.  Whichever leadership candidate is able to do this over the next three months will no doubt be well rewarded in September.

Benjamin Wegg-Prosser was Director of Strategic Communications in Tony Blair’s Downing Street.

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6 Responses to “Labour must learn to oppose, says Benjamin Wegg-Prosser”

  1. Anon says:

    Some fair points Ben, but have to disagree on “….response to the leak of the Queen’s Speech was to call for an enquiry. It sank even lower when we limply attacked the Tories for announcing their cuts package at a press conference rather than in Parliament.”

    This isn’t obviously a main line of attack. It is just the kind of tedious minutae/righteous indignation and process you have to chuck at them when in opposition. It won’t resonate with the public and it isn’t the main line of attack, but its part of getting in their faces and trying to dominate the chamber.

  2. Mr Keith Majors says:

    “Labour politicians are making lots of positive noises about doing things differently as a political party: engaging in communities, opening up our organisation and reflecting the outlook of the million voters we lost on May 6th. ”

    First of all, it is time to get honest and realise the scale of the defeat. Labour did not just lose a million votes in May this year. Labour received a million fewer votes than John Major in 1997! labour were only saved from utter humiliating destruction by the seat boundaries giving labour a 10% lead over what the voting numbers would give on equal allocations.

    IF the boundaries had been in the tory’s favour as much as they have been in labour’s, then labour would have been slaughtered.

    That is how unpopular labour are. Labour are less popular in this country than John Major’s tories were in 1997.

  3. Mike Killingworth says:

    Fine. What you call the “centre ground” some of us call the right-wing. I don’t understand you – why don’t you take a couple of years off, go back-packing or whatever, and come back to announce that you will join a new, united Liberal Conservative Party because you have no philsophical disagreement with them whatever, they are going to be in office for a generation, and what you really really like is pimping for the powers-that-be.

    Whatever else Britain needs in the next twenty or thirty years, it isn’t three political parties kow-towing the organised criminality of “market forces” and “banks to big to fail” – to say nothing of providing taxation without representation to American foreign policy, no matter how grotesque.

  4. Baig says:

    Labout must be fierce in opposition. From all the discussions I have seen so far with a Tory and Labour guy sat together, the Labour guy almost always looks stronger. It is one thing making newsheadlines but when it comes face to face when you cannot escape that facts being thrown at you it’s a different matter. I think this is heavily because of Labour’s 13 year experience of govt. The new govt seems to making flimsy arguments that don’t quite add up and have been rather uncomfortable when challenged by good tv presenters or somone from Labour sat next to them. I think the new coalition are finding that it’s not so easy once you are in govt and many of them still seem to be finding their way around.

    Labour must use this to their full advantage. They have just come out with all that wealth of governing experience and I think there is great potential to trap this coalition at their every point of weakness, especially at this early age.

  5. AmberStar says:

    Labour could kick the coalition all over the parliamentary park – it wouldn’t be reported by the media so who would know? Becoming good at opposition will not get Labour elected. Winning the hearts & minds of voters will. Getting involved in communities & community organisations will.

    Make re-connecting with voters a reality – that’s what will win the next election for Labour.

    Labour MPs & prospective MPs probably have 5 years to persuade every constituent to at least consider voting Labour at the next election. So… do something real or sit in Westminster sniping at the government & hoping the coalition falls apart? Which is more likely to win votes at the next election? 😎

  6. Henrik says:

    Again, my apologies for a non-comrade parachuting into this cosy domestic dispute. My motivation is that of a vague fan of the Coalition who still thinks it needs a credible and competent Opposition to keep it on the straight and narrow.

    If Labour, under whoever ends up accepting the hospital pass which is the leadership, starts ‘getting in the government’s face’, using the skills honed in what was probably the least competent, least honest, most partisan and most illiberal 13-year time in Government since records began, the electorate (you remember them, the ones who didn’t vote for you, right?) will switch off. The sad reality is that, while there are undoubted tensions within the current government, most folk in the country are willing to give them a chance. Constant sniping and ‘process’ stories from the Opposition will look petty, partisan and unpatriotic.

    Get yourselves away into the wilderness, work out what *positive* message you can send, if necessary apologise for the appalling devastation you’ve left behind you and then come back with some new ideas. It was noticeable during the election campaign that pretty much everything coming out of Labour was destructive and to do with trying to demonstrate why Tory ideas were bad, rather than expressing any sort of vision or desired end state, or any ideas of your own which were inspirational and motivating.

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