The twelve christmas rules of opposition

by Atul Hatwal

Today is a day for presents. And at Uncut we are keen to join in the joy of giving. So we bring the gift of opinion.

It’s a gift that will keep giving, over the Christmas holiday at least. Each day for the next twelve days, twelve rules that determine how to be an effective opposition will be set out. The rules are drawn from a review of the experience of the seven successful oppositions since the second world war, with an emphasis on the most recent.

This isn’t Labour specific, as the rules are eternal and apply to whoever is unfortunate enough to sit on the wrong side of the House.

Neither is it remotely concerned with the substance of politics, the big changes that will make a difference to the lives of people in the country. For the current opposition, there is a paintbox of pamphlets – red, purple and black – waiting to be read for that and a massive policy review process under way.

Instead, the focus here is the low politics, the process, which most politicians profess to disdain but still somehow provides the content for 99% of political discussion.

The rules are divided into four categories that map the essentials for a short-lived life in opposition – first, adjusting to the limits of opposition, second, building an alternative prime minister, third, hitting the government where it hurts and fourth, how to make it all happen.

There could be more individual rules, or fewer, but whichever way the format is cut, the same basic truths of opposition will always emerge.

Adjusting to the limits of opposition

The transition from government to opposition is traumatic. It’s more than demotion, it’s diminution. Where once you mattered and made decisions that had consequences, opposition is life on the other side of a mirror. Visible but immaterial.

The first three of the twelve rules of opposition help the party deal with the immediate consequences of defeat.

How effectively an opposition implements these three rules will either establish the foundations for them to one day make the transition back into the waking world of government or doom them to remain trapped as shadows.

Rule 1: The past is now dead

Understanding the totality of being ejected from government is a lacerating feeling, but for a new opposition, an indispensable one.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Conservative’s pollster, Andrew Cooper, had a phrase: “concede and move on”. Cooper used this when Tory shadow cabinet members would rise to Labour’s bait, reacting to charges of eighteen wasted years.

Up they would jump to justify their achievements, trying to win an argument lost in 1997 and defining themselves ever more as the same old Tories.

Before any attempt at a fightback or renewal can be mounted, it’s critical that an opposition accept they are beaten and understand that the past is now dead.

This doesn’t imply that the party’s philosophy needs to be abandoned or that the essence of the policy platform is wrong. But the old glories, the ones which prompt the fiercest reactions, need to be let go.

Naturally, it is easier said than done to simply concede and move on. Particularly if the previous election was close. The immediate reaction to a narrow defeat is to keep fighting and keep believing.

But politics isn’t Glee and hanging on to the past just serves to remind voters that the opposition is the same party that was rejected last time round.

The public will already know about previous successes, not least because the party will have recited and lauded them ad infinitum in preceding election campaigns.

Including the one where the government was voted into opposition.

If it’s a tough task for a politician to try to convince voters they were wrong at the last election citing the same argument that failed before, it’s almost impossible when facing a first term government with voters inclined to give the new administration the benefit of the doubt.

One more heave doesn’t work if the public’s last decision was to give you the heave-ho.

The three most recent successful opposition leaders – Mrs.Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron – defined their offer to the electorate in stark contrast to the approach their parties had previously adopted.

On the campaign trail in 1979, Mrs.Thatcher expunged Edward Heath from the Tory narrative along with his disastrous slogan ‘Who governs?’ which had helped propel him from Downing street back to opposition in 1974.

Tony Blair changed the name of the party to New Labour and went on to rewrite clause four of the party constitution, succeeding where Hugh Gaitskell had failed, just so no one could be in any doubt as to how different his party was to its previous incarnations.

And in 2006, David Cameron changed the colour of his party with his slogan, ‘vote blue, go green’, and ditched the Tory torch logo for a scribbled green tree.

Old hobby horses like Europe were quietly parked, even though the policies remained substantively the same, as the party talked instead about international aid and protecting the NHS.

Conversely, the least successful opposition leader of modern times, William Hague conducted a master class in living in the past.

Hague’s 2001 election manifesto, Time For Common Sense, boomed,

“The tough decisions and hard choices made by the British people and Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s transformed our economic prospects and made Britain’s businesses competitive”.

And Hague doubled down on the issue that had done so much to destroy John Major’s government – Europe – by putting it at the heart of the general election on a daily basis with his campaign to save the pound.

The net result of all of this was that William Hague managed to cut Labour’s Parliamentary majority by 12 seats, from 179 to 167.

The first and most important step for a new opposition is to embrace the failure that voters perceive. They must accept the past is now a country that cannot be visited.

Tomorrow: Rule 2 – Use the government’s tax and spending plans as a bridge back into the argument.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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9 Responses to “The twelve christmas rules of opposition”

  1. Nick says:

    And at Uncut we are keen to join in the joy of giving.


    You’re not particularly keen on paying the bill for all the giving.

    7,000 bn of government debt being the evidence.

  2. Nick says:

    Rule 1: The past is now dead

    [What you might wish for, but not the reality. People know you ran up the bills, after all, “You spent all the money”]

    So you can expunge Blair and Brown, but you can’t expunge their debts.

  3. Joe Roberts says:

    I await the next installments of this series with anticipation. So far we have seen lots of Ed-bashing from LabourUncut but rarely any suggestion of what they think the party should be doing.

    I’m interested by the references to Willliam Hague. It’s been very difficult to ascertain what political strategy Atul, Dan Hodges, Rob Marchant, etc., think we should follow as they are so focussed on finding the negatives and their role as so-called ‘critical friends’. But from reading Dan Hodges’ Telegraph column, the LabourUncut approach seems to be a headline-chasing, tabloid-pleasing, poll-driven ‘quick win’ strategy. That actually sounds very similar to William Hague’s strategy between 1997 and 2001. As the article correctly points out, that resulted in the Tories losing by a 167 seat majority.

  4. swatantra says:

    The fact is Govts lose elections, Oppositions don’t necessarily win them. Once a Govt loses trust, the public think its time for a change and will vote the Govt out, and its got little idea what the Oppositions alternative is; in fact it doesn’t very much care. Because it knows that words written in a Manifesto never work out in practise. A Party may well pledge things, but the public think:That’ll be the day.
    But Atul is right The past is history and the public have the memories of gnats, besides which there is a newer genration of first time voters with no memory of what it is to live under a tory Govt … or a Labour one for that.
    And usually the complexion of a Govt will change after 10 to 15 years because its time for a change, no matter thatt the economy is healthy and people in jobs, etc It makes not the blind bit of difference. Thats what Democracy is about: give the other bloke a chance. So Labour shouldn’t be surprised tto find itself in Oppo, its to be expected.
    Tories are better at geetting rid of unelecatble Leaders than Labour are. Thatcher got rid of Heath. IDS got rid of himseldf and the elecorate got ridd of Howard and Hague. With Hague the Tories hesitated and allowed him his full term to lead them to oblivion rathe like Labour with Foot Kinnock and Brown. And thats what could happen if Ed continues; Labour has to be more brutal.

  5. Madasafish says:

    It’s quite simple.
    Acknowledge the failures of the past, get rid of the people associated with them and get some realistic policies and a credible Shadow Chancellor..

    And a Leader who is not a privatelyl educated millionaire..

    That will take about 10 years based on the Tories (13 years) and Labour (18 years).

    () = period in Opposition after last losing power.

  6. AmberStar says:

    So, if accepting you lost is step 1, when will Uncut accept that New Labour lost & Ed Miliband won?

  7. swatantra says:

    If Ed is red then I’m a banana.
    Ed is just temping, until something better turns up.

  8. John P Reid says:

    Amberstar I’ll rise to the bait,labour uncut can accpet that New labour lost in 2010?, when ed milband wins the next election (if that ever happens

  9. Rallan says:

    Oh come on! “The past is now dead”? Really? Don’t you mean “The past is now denied”?

    It doesn’t matter what children say on Christmas Eve, Santa judges whether they’ve been naughty or nice all year long. Ho Ho Ho!

    The country won’t forget the past simply because you call it dead. Especially as we’re going to be suffering the consequences of Labour government for at least a decade.

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