The twelve rules of opposition: day five

By Atul Hatwal

Rule 5: Be the change you want voters to see

How does an opposition leader convince the sceptical public that they have what it takes to lead?

Just as defeat means voters do not believe a losing party’s economic prescription, they equally have little faith in the leader to make the big decisions that will determine the fate of the country.

Even if an opposition elects a new leader, they are usually little known by the electorate and tainted with the failure of the past.

Starting from this position of deep public mistrust, the opposition leader needs to demonstrate that they are fit to take that 3am call.

And this has to be achieved without being able to make any actual decisions that will impact voters’ lives.

Making statements on national and international issues is expected, but ultimately it’s merely opining.  An opposition leader has as much actual power as a newspaper columnist or a blogger.

In practice, the only area an opposition leader has the ability to change is the opposition.

Rule five entails demonstrating leadership by changing the party. The process of change needs to showcase the leader as a winner, overcoming opposition from within the party to enact a reform that that addresses a weakness from the last defeat.

Although this is far from simple to achieve, it only takes a single issue for an opposition leader to achieve the necessary definition.

Tony Blair’s rewriting of clause four is commonly seen as the archetype of how to demonstrate leadership through party reform.

Even though the left of the party was largely a spent force and the whole movement was desperate to be electable succeeding, where Hugh Gaitskell had failed, was still a powerful symbol.

Perhaps the most pointed display of leadership though was actually under Labour’s almost forgotten leader – John Smith.

He might not have been personally keen on the idea of one member one vote (OMOV) until forced into a commitment during his leadership election against Bryan Gould, but Smith’s victory in reforming the way Labour voted for its leaders was pivotal.

It showed his judgement and courage, helped tackle charges of union domination in the party and generated a running story which put the opposition in the news for weeks for the right reasons.

But experience suggests that for each of the rare occasions an opposition leader has grown in the public’s eyes by successfully completing the reform process, there are multiple failures where the journey has been abandoned and the leader diminished.

In every one of these abortive attempts at reforming the party and showing leadership, two features recur – a lack of clarity about the detail of the specific change being pursued, followed swiftly by a loss of leadership nerve in the face of opposition.

In 1997, William Hague began his leadership by talking about modernisation and reconnecting with the country. In his first conference speech, tolerance was a key theme and he spoke about wanting to make the Tories more inclusive and caring.

But one year later, when he launched his fresh future reforms, claiming them to be the biggest change to the Conservative party since Disraeli. Real change was off the agenda, replaced instead by technocratic tinkering.

Establishing a women’s network, having a national membership database and merging the various youth organisations was never going to turn around the public perception of either Hague or the Tories.

The problem was that at the start, for all the warm words, Hague and his team had not defined exactly the change they were going to implement. They had not identified who would oppose them, how the debate would be played out and what would constitute a clear victory.

When the party began to get restive at the initial vision, and pull at the threads of what Hague was saying, his team backed off the reforms to the point where precious few even in the Tory party now remember their once fresh future.

For Hague, the reform process ran him, rather than vice versa.

Michael Howard started off in a similar manner using the moderniser’s lexicon in his early speeches. Words like fairness, inclusion and tolerance made repeated appearances.

But by the time of the 2005 election, the Tories were focused on immigration and law and order, singing from an older, more familiar hymn sheet. Again, Howard had retreated in the face of criticism back to the Tory comfort zone.

Most strikingly of all, in 2010, on the eve of the general election, yet another Tory leader confronted the results of having followed a similar trajectory in his attempts at party reform.

Despite facing a Labour prime minister who was viewed as a disaster with the lowest poll ratings of any PM ever, a PM who endured cabinet splits and rebellions on an almost weekly basis, David Cameron was not decisively ahead of Gordon Brown in the public’s view as a leader.

The last YouGov poll before the election had David Cameron leading Gordon Brown as people’s preference for PM by just six points, 32%-26%. And in terms of his leadership, only 24% felt Cameron was decisive and 23% strong.

A large part of the reason for this was that Cameron seemed untested to the country. He had never struggled or enacted major change.

As with Hague, and Howard, at the start of his leadership, Cameron had talked a good game. He instituted the A-list for preferred candidates and spoke of the need for the party to look more like the country with more candidates from women and ethnic minorities.

But as the mood music built in his first two years as leader, the crescendo never arrived. Cameron did not drive through any concrete proposals even vaguely comparable to either OMOV or clause 4. Instead he turned tail in the face of dipping ratings in summer 2007 and sought comfort in a more traditional Tory approach.

Once more the process had run the leader.

Most recently, Ed Miliband’s refounding Labour programme seems to have tracked a rather familiar route.

At its launch it was to be the most fundamental reform since the party was founded. There were briefings about the union link, allowing non-party members to participate in elections and re-writing swathes of the constitution.

By the time of its implementation, the content was very different.

Streamlining the selection process for candidates and ending multiple voting in party elections in various sections of the electoral college are positive, but hardly the epochal change billed last year.

Rule five requires a clear plan from the outset of the reform on what is to be done, how it is to be delivered and when success will be achieved.

It generates public respect and helps move the opposition on from the definition of failed leadership that is the legacy of each lost election.

The fresh look that the public then give the opposition leader then enables the next step in moulding an alternative prime minister – introducing a rounded person to the voters, someone who has a hinterland as well as leadership mettle.

Tomorrow: Showing the human side of the leader through their biog.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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2 Responses to “The twelve rules of opposition: day five”

  1. Nick says:

    Notice that there isn’t a peep on giving the electorate a say on anything. Labour wants to dictate. Tories want to dictate. From choosing candidates, to choosing policies. To lying on manifestos and to not implementing manifestos its all in a days work for the fascists in Westminster.

    Get the chosen in to Rent seek, be it unions, greens or corporates, one of the parties will sell the electorate for hard cash, and after all, when the electorate doesn’t get a say in an issue, its just fascism.

    So there is no respect. You’ve been caught out with your hands in the till. The public have learned from that lesson. Screw the government, and hide what you have.

    Hence firms like Barclays have got the message from Vince Cable and Labour. You’re not welcome. We are out to get you. They will move. Then you’ll be arguing that they are evil because they have walked with the tax revenues.

  2. Brumanuensis says:

    Why do you start from the assumption that a reform MUST be made? Labour has a number of internal problems – Robert Marchant has already written about alleged deficiencies in the selection process – but I can’t think of any that fulfill your criterion: ‘Rule five entails demonstrating leadership by changing the party. The process of change needs to showcase the leader as a winner, overcoming opposition from within the party to enact a reform that that addresses a weakness from the last defeat’. Dismissing the Refounding Labour reforms as tinkering is one thing, but if they work well then what difference does it make if they are telegraphed to the public with giant flashing letters saying ‘BEHOLD: A MAJOR REFORM HAS BEEN MADE’? Most of the alterations that need to be made within Labour are organisational, not constitutional. Given that this website – particularly contributor Peter Watt – have frequently composed (normally rather tedious) articles upon the refrain ‘we must stop talking to ourselves’, how does highlighting an internal party policy modification exercise persuade the voters that we aren’t self-obsessed?

    Above all, I – as an ordinary party member – find it rather vexing to be continually treated as an obstacle to be surmounted by our glorious leader. Could we have a slightly more reasonable, collegial approach? The Labour Party is not riddled with Bennite zealots. Party members voted to change Clause 4 after all, by a fairly hefty margin. We’re not congenitally incapable of accepting reform unless the heroic leader patronises us first and then ‘overcomes’ us to the tumultuous applause of know-it-all web-loggers and journos everywhere. For the record, I think OMOV was an excellent reform, but it was excellent because it was the right thing to do, not just because it was politically expedient.

    Before we start rushing around after reforms like Knight Errants, perhaps we ought to find an area that needs improvement and then ascertain which reforms will work best and most efficiently, rather than those that might generate the most headlines.

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