Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Opposition politics: Be careful what you wish for

With the speculation about David Miliband's future at fever pitch, and the deadline for putting names forward to the shadow cabinet elections at 5pm today, a word of warning for Labour politicians.

Ed Miliband talked about a 'new generation' but the reality is that this is a generation of Labour politicians who has not experienced opposition. In short, opposition politics is grim. 

To be successful in opposition you need to deploy guerrilla tactics and be willing to act with fantastic speed. Decisions can and should be made by small groups with policies sometimes thought up in the back of a car (think The Thick Of It).  This allows you to seize the initiative away from government so by disrupting their ownership of the news agenda. The Labour shadow cabinet will be 19 strong. This is far too large. To really be successful,  an opposition party needs to utilise just a handful of individuals who are great media performers, as well as another handful of street fighters willing to take the fight to the government.

Clearly the relationship with the media in opposition is very different to when in government. However all the media want is to be fed a story a day which will distract them from taking too close a look at any disagreements within the shadow cabinet. The problem is that this is easier said than done as resources are finite to say the least.

After the 1997 General Election a small group of former middle ranking Conservative Ministers were so shocked at the lack of administrative, speech writing and other support they could afford alone, they grouped together and founded the Parliamentary Resources Unit. This small team, based in the House of Commons, meant a few blows could be landed in debates and the quality of speeches made on the backbenches improved. It also took some pressure off Conservative Central Office meaning the quality of political support also improved.

Labour has had its equivalent to the PRU, also based at the bottom of Members' staircase below the Commons chamber, but has previously relied on cut and pasting Civil Service briefings. To build an effective opposition this should be bolstered and bright young things employed at Labour HQ.

There is little glamour in politics but there is none in opposition. No Ministerial limos, no grand offices (the shadow cabinet block in the Commons is like a prison block), hours as long as in government but with even less reward.

They have until 5pm to put their name forward to the shadow cabinet elections. I would think long and hard about it first.   

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