Oppositioning in a Crisis

Glenn Armstrong discusses the fine balancing act needed for effective opposition to the Government during the Covid-19 crisis. 

After May 13’s Prime Minister’s Questions, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer was headline news. Starmer’s approval rating was at 23%, a point above the Prime Minister’s, and his calm, lawyerly style in the Commons had made things difficult for Mr Johnson. The Prime Minister failed to answer questions about the policy of discharging hospital patients to care homes without adequate testing and without ensuring these patients could be cared for safely in the homes. The exchange between the two dominated the media with the left-leaning press excited by Starmer’s success and right-leaning outlets concerned about the Prime Minister’s command (or lack thereof) of the detail.

One contributor on ConservativeHome suggested Mr Johnson should fear the Labour leader who is, ‘trailing him like a submarine’ and Sebastian Payne of the FT reported that the Prime Minister was, ‘rattled’ by his two encounters with Starmer. Indeed, it’s this worry which the FT says is the reason behind Jacob Rees-Mogg’s desperation to have MPs return to the chamber; the Tory frontbench allegedly hopes this will help Johnson play to the galleries and make the Commons less like a court room. 

However, the leaders’ exchanges at PMQs also offers a physical representation of the dynamic between government and opposition. This was never truly the case when Corbyn and May met in the Commons as both led divided parties. Now, both leaders head seemingly united parties meaning their clashes are far more instructive. 

The Tightrope of Opposition

What churns under the surface for the Labour frontbench is the perpetual balancing act of British Opposition parties; how far does the opposition seek to improve the government of the day and how far does the opposition seek to replace it? This dilemma only becomes more treacherous during a national crisis as the path to success becomes narrower and the consequences for failure more extreme. 

Currently it seems clear that, through his, ‘constructive opposition’, Starmer is placing greater weight on the first question saying his Labour Party, ‘will have the courage to support the government when that’s the right thing to do, and the courage to challenge the government where it’s getting it wrong.’ In the national address from which these words are taken, Starmer introduced himself to the 44% of people who replied, ‘don’t know’ to a YouGov survey regarding how well or badly the Labour leader was performing. 

From this, it is evident that he does not just want to be a, ‘constructive opposition’, he wants to be seen as a, ‘constructive opposition’. This is important because it reveals that Starmer’s diagnosis of Labour’s electoral challenges places a huge amount of weight on the party’s lack of credibility. His prescription for this ailment is a, ‘new type of opposition’ based on reasoned, precise criticism of government policy. 

Undoubtedly, this style has been shaped by the national crisis and the need for unity. However, from this stylistic change it is clear Starmer is seeking to satisfy both the perennial questions of opposition in the hope that appearing more constructive to encourage good governance will also aid Labour electorally by rebuilding the party’s credibility. 

The Dangers of ‘Constructive’ Opposition 

To a large extent, this is a savvy strategy that is obviously paying dividends at the moment. There is a danger in this, however, and it not the simple criticism levelled at Starmer by Momentum activists saying he is a closet Tory opposed to properly opposing the government. No, the danger is depoliticising the huge decisions the government are making and will make and thereby failing to draw the dividing lines between Labour and the Conservatives. 

An illustrative example of this was the government’s, ‘active encouragement’ of those who could not work from home to return to work which began on Sunday 10th of May. Labour’s, ‘constructive opposition’, public confusion and media pressure forced a number of, what the government would call, ‘clarifications’ but what were really, policy U-turns. First, employees were told to start returning to work on Wednesday not Monday, then the government acknowledged employers would have to be flexible due to the, ‘obvious barrier’ of the lack of childcare for employees and finally the Prime Minister had to adjust the government message from employees should immediately return to work to employees should, ‘begin contacting their employers’ about when it would be safe to return to work. 

These were important concessions in part enabled by Starmer’s style of opposition and they helped the floundering government. However, what was largely lost due to this style was the recognition that the government had made a political choice to decide blue collar workers should return to work first, a number of whom in the, ‘gig economy’ lack the basic, ‘employee’ protections under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. 

This entire phased reopening is wrought with political choices. Some are economic regarding what sort of and how much support the state should give businesses and citizens. Some are societal regarding how the risk of infection is balanced across different social groups as we enter this, ‘new normal’. 

In Isabel Hardman’s excellent book, ‘Why we get the Wrong Politicians’ she criticises the idea of, ‘taking the politics out’ of inherently political issues arguing that this has just become a way of politicians avoiding the responsibility that comes with being elected to make key choices for the country. Whilst, in a national crisis, unity is undoubtedly of greater importance than usual, removing ‘the politics’ cannot mean the country is made to believe that there is only one inevitable direction in which events can go. 

This is where the Opposition must step in and highlight not only the competence failures of the government, but its flawed political decisions as well. It is the dogmatic partisanship that should be, ‘taken out’ of decisions during a crisis not the politics. Otherwise, as with austerity after 2008, the country is at risk of being led down the road of, ‘no alternative’.

Keir Starmer has proved himself an effective Parliamentary performer and his, ‘new style’ seems to be an intelligent way of balancing the two constantly competing questions given Labour’s electoral predicament. As the huge political decisions come down the track, I trust that Keir will be able to challenge the principles of government policy as well as their efficacy. It is vital that he does this to prevent the Conservatives becoming the sole architects of post-pandemic politics and Labour just their legal advisors. 

Glenn Armstrong is 18 years old and has just finished school. He intends to study History and Politics at Oxford University. More of his writing can be found at  https://humanifestogroup.wordpress.com/‘.

He tweets @gpsarmstrong 


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