The twelve rules of opposition: day 12

by Atul Hatwal

Rule 12 Understand how a mirror works

And so as the twelve days of Christmas finally end, we come to the last rule of opposition. Unlike the others, this is not about the presentation of policy, improving the leader’s image, tactics against the government or party management.

It’s not about any of the conventional areas of political action.

Instead, it’s to do with honesty. Specifically the leader being honest about what they see when they look in the mirror.

A stroll down the high street of any British town after eight in the evening on a Saturday night reveals a strange phenomenon.

Most men and women out and about at this time don’t understand how a mirror works.

They’ve squeezed themselves into outfits that are far too tight with muffin tops, pot bellies and bingo wings spilling out over every edge of corset tight clothing.

At some point in the preceding hours they will have dressed themselves and looked in the mirror. Instead of seeing reality, the figure in the reflection would have been a ready-air-brushed visage of acceptability. Maybe not perfect, but far from shabby and largely flattered by the clothes.

Failing to understand that mirrors show us as we are, not who we would like to be, is a failing to which politicians are equally vulnerable.

It’s just with politicians, the polls are their mirrors.

Professional vanity is an abiding trait for most politicians and regardless of what many say about not being bothered with these snapshot surveys, the majority habitually pore over the polls, eager to catch a glimpse of their eventual fate.

They will strain this way and that, examining the data in various different combinations to look their best in the results.

With the right flattery whispered in the ear, many can even believe that they are making progress whatever the real image shown by the numbers.

There are always acolytes at hand, ever ready to offer scented praise regardless of reality that transports the politician into an alternate world where their endeavours are fully recognised.

For an opposition leader, the flatterers are plentiful and while the patterns of these warm words vary, the most common message heard is what can be termed the long haul argument.

It excuses a lack of progress over the years following a defeat by conveniently assuming away the possibility of improvement.

In this scenario, voters need time to hear the opposition case and acknowledge the new government as owning the problems faced by the country.

Sound familiar?

Ed Miliband made this argument in his interview with the Financial Times just before Christmas saying that 2011 was the year the government case fell apart and that voters would soon be looking again at Labour.

Ed Balls pitched a similar case the same week, in his interview with the Fabian Review. He argued that 2011 was a turning point for the party and that Labour were now ideally positioned to be the answer that voters would be seeking in 2012 as the scales fall from the public’s eyes about the government.

And reliable as ever, Polly Toynbee last week called for Labour “not to lose its nerve”, because it had been “proved right on the economy and right on social policy”. For Polly, 2012 is also the year when public opinion will turn.

When enough people say it, and you want to believe it, this political version of trickle down theory, where opposition wisdom will seep into voters over time, can be persuasive.

But the mirror doesn’t lie and looking back into polling history the facts are damning.

At this stage in 13 out of 15 parliaments since the second world war, the opposition has needed to be leading the government by 7% or more if they are to go on and win the next election.

There are two parliaments which were exceptions  to the rule – in 1961 Labour trailed by 4% but went on to triumph in the 1964 election, and 1976 when the Conservative opposition led by only 5% yet still went on to victory in 1979.

In both cases the common factor was a subsequent change of prime minister, with Harold Macmillan giving way to Alec Douglas-Home in 1963 and Harold Wilson passing the baton to Jim Callaghan later in 1976.

For Ed Miliband’s Labour party, at the end of 2011, the average poll lead in December over the Tories was 1.8%.

Woefully inadequate.

The highest the average monthly lead during this parliament was almost a year ago, in February 2011, when it reached 6.8%. But since then, there has been a steady downward trend with December marking the lowest lead in over a year.

The lesson from past oppositions is that it is indeed a very long haul to remove a government. That’s why there needs to be consistent progress throughout the parliament, building a lead with a sufficient cushion so that the inevitable government fightback at the election can be repulsed.

Even John Major’s government managed a comparatively strong finish at the death. Although they were trounced by 44% to 31% in May 1997, they had been up to 40% (yes, 40%) behind Labour in the polls, just a couple of years earlier.

Without a steady advance in the party’s standing from the start of the parliament and a solid lead approaching 10% over the government by this stage, there is simply too much ground to make up in the remainder of the session.

The duty of an opposition leader, at minimum, is to leave their party in a better state than when they took over. Looking into the mirror, Ed Miliband needs to be honest with himself.

The plan, if there was one, hasn’t worked and Labour is going backwards. Either he changes or the party will endure the same fate as the five other failed Labour oppositions since the war.

The clock is ticking. What does he see?

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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10 Responses to “The twelve rules of opposition: day 12”

  1. Nick says:

    The problem is that you are being dishonest.

    The fundamental problem with government in the UK is that you have been running a set of fraudulent books. If a company adhered to the same standards as the government, they would have blown all their pension money on bonuses. Banks would take deposits, and immediately book all receipts as profits. Liabilities? Who needs to put those in the accounts. Some new depositor will come along in the future, and we can use their money to pay back the money we have spent.

    That’s enabled government to rack up massive debts. 7,000 bn rising with inflation. 350 bn a year on top of a 150 bn a year overspend. 500 bn a year compared to 550 bn tax revenues.

    So if you are going to be honest, start with listing all the debts that have been Bernie Maddoff’ed off the books. Insist that every taxpayer (they pay for it after all) gets an annual statement, listing the change, and their share.

    However, you won’t be honest. You will carry on with the fraud.

    Largely, because if people found out the truth, then quite a few MPs would be killed by the mob.

  2. Frederick James says:

    Ooh, I think this is Rule 13 in disguise! Apologies, Atul, I take it all back.

  3. Plato says:

    Excellent article – many thanks, will read the rest – do retweet these.

  4. Madasafish says:

    You are wasting your time in my view.

    Labour is full of the “none so dumb as don’t want to see”..

    Ed Miliband was chosen Leader as he would make an ideal fall guy when Labour failed in Opposition.. well not really but that is how it seems.

    Of course lots of things could happen..before 2015. Ed might grow smart and learn to act like a normal human rather than a 40odd year old geek.. and he might believe in his policies.. but I doubt it.

    Whilst he has the constant reminder of Labour’s economic failure – Balls – in his Shadow Cabinet he has hitched his star firmly to the past..

    There is also another problem: after 13 years of largesse unjustified by economics, many Labour supporters expect generous benefits as a right. (see Labourlist for the proof).. Even the dumbest person who can do basic sums must realise that is not feasible for at leat another decade or two. I doubt many Labour supporters can adjust to such reality if Labour adopt it as policy so the more leftwing are likely to desert the Party at the next General Election.

  5. toni says:

    Think back to Cameron’s election thanks only to the blue rinse brigade when the party desperately wanted David Davis, and being Lamont’s right hand man, and his cringe making stunts and ‘Gay News’ type interviews, and the endless criticism he’s been subjected to mainly from right wing papers and blogs, and consider that Miliband is in a no worse position currently than Cameron and previous Tories were at this stage.

    See the helpful graph illustrated at CoffeeHouse.
    Mirror image comes to mind.

  6. AmberStar says:

    I love the polls. I haunt UKPR & invent words like polldrums, for when nothing is changing: It seemed particularly appropriate after Osborne’s Autumn statement. He talked about storms & heavy weather but, to the astonishment of all, his admission that the UK was not a safe haven didn’t move polling by so much as a point! Polldrums indeed.

    One thing the polls certainly tell us is: We need some good hits against Cameron himself because he is more popular than his Party. I don’t think people are minded to consider him weak. I think we have to show he has poor judgement & is nasty. Not Flashman nasty (because a depressingly large number of people mistake arrogance for being ‘strong’), I mean really ‘out of touch’ nasty & dismissive of people. It should be possible because, if the rumour mill can be believed, he is nasty.

  7. Mike Homfray says:

    Wrong – what about Heath’s surprise victory in 1970?

    And in any case, the big difference in the next election will be the decline of the LibDem vote – the question is, how much of it will stay loyal, and where will the section which has left it go?

    There is absolutely no polling evidence that the Tories are likely to pick up all of this vote or for that matter, that we would gain all of it, and given the existence of a coalition government, we would have to have gained virtually all the LD vote to be 8% ahead.

    And Labour, after being in government for 13 years, were beaten badly in 2010 and we should expect, particularly given that BOTH opposition parties are now in power, for the Tories to be doing far better. After all, their supporters are getting what they voted for.

  8. Madasafish says:

    And Labour, after being in government for 13 years, were beaten badly in 2010 and we should expect, particularly given that BOTH opposition parties are now in power, for the Tories to be doing far better. After all, their supporters are getting what they voted for.

    You have forgotten history. Mrs Thatcher won in 1079, cuts followed and Labour had poll leads over 10%..

    Ditto Kinnock at times his poll leads were more…

    And Thatcher won and Major won…

    History says a new Government with spending cuts leads top massive poll leads >10% for the Opposition. As most people are affected by cuts.

    Except the poll leads are not massive just now for the Opposition.. so either the cuts are not hurting or the Opposition is rubbish..
    Take your pick.

  9. Mike Homfray says:

    The Tory voters voted positively FOR cuts. Not so in 1979 when they were hardly part of the election campaign. And those most affected this time are largely non-Tory voters – public sector workers in the north and claimants

    And Labour were ahead before the Falklands skirmish and the internal war in the party, which isn’t actually happening now at grassroots even though the Blairite ultras want it to be so.

    Very little comparison.

  10. swatantra says:

    One of the Rules must surely be ‘Luck’. You have to be lucky the Party has to be Lucky and so does the Leader have to be lucky. At the moment none of us are lucky.
    So we might as well sit back, gp through the motions and just wait till the right moment when our luck changes, and that time will surely come as night follows day.
    But not under Ed.

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