Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Why I can't take the opposition seriously

I'm sorry.

I have tried.

Really I have.

But they oppose absolutely everything the government does. Everything. Even the things that were in their own manifesto. Or if they can't find a way to directly oppose it (because they agree with it) it's "the wrong time" or "it's too fast" or "too slow".

In some ways it reminds me of a jaded spouse who constantly niggles away trying to undermine their partner, scoring petty points for slights either real or imagined that have long since been forgotten by everyone except them.

This matters. It matters because this is the sort of thing that really turns people off politics. All they ever hear are politicians having a go at each other, slagging each other off and pretending that they, and only they have all the right answers (and their opponents are wrong about everything).

It also matters because it helps to polarise the debate. There are two and only two views. The government and the opposition. The plethora of nuance rarely gets a look-in when the tub-thumpers with their bully-pulpits are in full throated voice.

It's also turning me off.

I very rarely read opinion pieces by front-bench spokespeople of any party these days. There's not really any point. They just parrot the party line accentuating the good in their proposals and the bad in their opponents. People who were really interesting to read before they were front-line politicians like Michael Gove, David Willetts, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have to play this game.

It's a silly, silly game.

When Stephen Twigg responded to the government's proposals on examinations yesterday I knew exactly what he was going to say. Of course there are some problems with the government's proposals. There were reasons why we changed from O-Levels to GCSEs in 1988 and some of the old problems still apply. But there is some merit in them too. It is far too easy to cheat on coursework these days and the changes will attempt to address that problem. There are also long overdue attempts to address grade-inflation. But Twigg just attacked, and attacked and attacked.

I've met Stephen Twigg. He's a nice, moderate sort of chap. But he too has to play this game. The government are wrong, wrong, wrong and the opposition are right, right, right.

I surely can't be the only person who would respect oppositions if they sometimes just agreed with some of what the government was doing. Not in total. They could of course suggest changes that might improve things (as almost always happens in committee quietly and gently aware from the glare of the camera and the microphone). But they could just sometimes say "Do you know what, we basically agree with this. Let's move on.". I would definitely respect them more if they did this. More importantly I would then be willing to give them a fairer hearing when they then strongly opposed something. The problem at the moment is that we face Mandy Rice-Davies syndrome. They would say that wouldn't they? So why should I be bothered to listen? I can't even be sure if they really believe what they are saying or if they are just opposing for opposition's sake.

I should end by acknowledging that it is not just Labour who do this. The other parties are also as guilty of this sort of politicking. I did used to call for more measured debate when the Lib Dems were not in government but I recognise that my own party would sometimes play games like this. And as a result they did themselves a disservice.

We always hear how politicians are trying to engage the public more in debates. They are failing at the moment. A different approach is surely worth a try?

Isn't it?


Dr B said...


Me thinks you doth protest too much. Look what happened when the opposition failed to oppose Ed Miliband's climate change bill (income redistribution bill?).

The duty of the opposition is to oppose, oppose, oppose. Failure to do so results in very poor legislation.

Tom Mein said...

I shall be very interested to read your comments after the next election, when what is left of the libdems have jumped into bed with labour.

Mark Thompson said...

@Tom: I suspect what would happen is that suddenly Labour would be amenable to compromise and that the Tories would oppose pretty much everything the new government did no matter how similar they were to what is being done at the moment.

I'm not really sure what your point is.

Nick said...


I agree with some of your points, but I think you're being a bit unfair in just singling out the Opposition in this. The Government are just as bad, with the justification for many policies seeming to be nothing more than 'but Labour did X' as though that's a clinching argument.

I think opposition does need to have reasons not just the chant of 'this is wrong, because the Tories are doing it' but it doesn't have to come with an alternative policy. There's a clear difference between falsifying an existing hypothesis and coming up with a working one.