The “bad thing” theory of opposition politics


9:15 am - June 14th 2011

by Adam Lent    


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Anybody who has been involved in party politics at the national level will know that many, many hours are spent discussing the minutiae of political strategy, tactics and policy.

The very great part of this is probably generated by nothing more than nervous energy and has a negligible impact on votes.

The truth that few professional politicians and their advisers rarely admit, usually until they have been out of office for some years, is that there really are only three rules in the game of opposition party politics.

1. Voters only begin to notice an opposition party when a bad thing (nearly always economic) happens in the real world that discredits the Government.

2. The opposition party has no control over when and how this bad thing will happen.

3. The key goal for an opposition party is therefore to look credible and trustworthy so that voters see them as a worthy recipient of their trust when the bad thing happens.

A brief example from recent history highlights the veracity of this “bad thing” theory. In 1990 the UK went into recession as inflation spiked, interest rates spiralled and house prices collapsed. And yet, the Labour Opposition still managed to lose the 1992 General Election with the voters clearly unwilling to trust Kinnock and his Shadow Cabinet with government.

A few months later, the UK was booted out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism and the economic credibility of Major and co. took a huge dent. Labour spent much of the next four and half years doing everything it could to prove to the voters that it was a highly trustworthy, economic manager ready to govern.

Labour not only looked increasingly credible but also got listened to on a wide range of other subjects including ‘sleaze’ and public services. And we all know what happened in 1997.

Interestingly, Labour supported UK membership of the ERM (just as Cameron and Osborne supported Labour’s spending plans until 2009) but this did not seem to weigh on voters’ minds at all. It could be that supporting key planks of Government policy is an important way an opposition secures the sheen of credibility and it seems this sheen is more important to winning votes than being consistent.

If the theory is correct, it throws the current conniptions in the Labour Party into a different light.

From a strictly electoral point of view, it means Ed Miliband should probably not be judged too closely on whether he is ‘landing blows’, ‘cutting through’ or enshrining the right values but on whether he is doing enough to be a suitable recipient of voters’ trust when that unpredictable but inevitable bad thing happens.

In short, opposition is ultimately always a combination of saintly patience and the painstaking rebuilding of credibility.

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About the author
Adam is an occasional contributor, former Head of Economics TUC, Associate Fellow at IPPR and co-author of 'In The Black Labour'.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Labour party ,Westminster

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Reader comments


We wouldn’t even have a Labour party if we followed this Blairite formula. Labour didn’t become a national party by quietly trying to prove it was “credible” and a “trustworthy economic manager” – it became a national force by campaigning on a broad range for social change. Miliband may well follow the “sit quietly and look sensible” model, and Labour will slowly wear away all the social presence it built up since 1902. Or he could lead some kind of positive political movement, standing up for social spending, the NHS, building houses, trying to regulate the worst excesses of capitalism etc.

2. Planeshift

“And yet, the Labour Opposition still managed to lose the 1992 General Election with the voters clearly unwilling to trust Kinnock and his Shadow Cabinet with government”

It reduced the majority from 3 figures to 21, so it was a reasonable set of gains. Similarly in 1982 labour were ahead prior to the falklands.

The thrust of the article is correct though; oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. But if that is the case, why not do the right thing anyway?

3. Luis enrique

How long will we have to wait for this bad thing?

Similarly in 1982 labour were ahead prior to the falklands.

We went through this yesterday. Labour lost their lead in March ’82, the month before the Falklands, and had peaked in October 81, as the economy started to turn around. Further, if you look at the respective leadership ratings of Thatcher and Foot, the idea that Labour could have won an election even without the Falklands is questionable.

What really screwed Labour, of course, was the split-off of the SDP.

5. Chaise Guevara

“The opposition party has no control over when and how this bad thing will happen.”

Depends how much the media likes the opposition, really. One “bad thing”, in terms of PR, was Gordon Brown calling Gillian Duffy a bigot. Don’t tell me that Sky would have reported that if they’d preferred a Labour victory to a Tory one. And then there was that paper – was it the Telegraph? – that sent out a load of undercover reporters with the intention of embarrassing or compromising MPs, but only targeted Lib Dems.

Labour failed to win in 1992 because of some last minute tactical mistakes. Some of the people who made those mistakes went on to be leading lights in post-1997 Labour. Coincidence?

Labour failed to win in 1992 because of some last minute tactical mistakes.

Again, I think this is a bit of a false memory. Labour got thumped in 1992, and it was only the vagaries of the electoral system that made it so close. Major got 42% of the vote, Kinnock 34%. That is an absolute kicking, and not one to be explained away by the Sheffield Rally.

8. ex-Labour voter

Comment no 2:

“It reduced the majority from 3 figures to 21, so it was a reasonable set of gains”

I think I read in one of the General Election series of books that the Conservative majority was so small because there was a shortage of Conservative activists caused by the loss of many small businesses in the recession.

This does sound plausible. 21 is a tiny majority for such a large lead of 7.5%.
One very significant statistic is that Labour’s share of the vote was still lower than in 1979.

wherent Labour in 3rd place in the opinion polls during 1981, with the Lib/SDP at one point commanding 50% of the ‘vote’…as for 1992, the sheffield rally didn’t help, but neither did the media really help either, cause weren’t it the sun wot won it for the Tories?

10. Mr S. Pill

@3

I suspect it’s one of Rumsfeld’s “unknown knowns”…or whatever way round is was. Not sure what the OP is trying to say here other than the truism that government’s lose elections & Labour needs to be in a position where it can jump on anti-gov feeling.
But I mostly agree with @1 – Labour at its best sets the agenda, it doesn’t follow it. The best things about ’97 – ’10 were the minimum wage, Sure Start, making the NHS world class, stuff that if it was simply following the mainstream “narrative” (ugh) it wouldn’t have done. Labour & Ed Miliband need to be bold and do more bold moves with proper policy announcements.

But don’t we have a succession of Bad Things at the moment? If not now, when…?


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    The "bad thing" theory of opposition politics http://bit.ly/ikMhDn

  2. Adam Lent

    Why opposition party success always comes down to building economic credibility and trust with voters. http://t.co/kSv5qDe

  3. Sanjay Samani

    “@libcon: The "bad thing" theory of opposition politics http://t.co/5BLAUvO” << an outstanding bit of analysis #fb

  4. sunny hundal

    "If the theory is correct, it throws the current conniptions in the Labour Party into a different light" http://bit.ly/ikMhDn

  5. Rooftop Jaxx

    "…it throws the current conniptions in the Labour Party into a different light" http://bit.ly/ikMhDn << heads deep into the sand then

  6. David Burling

    "..opposition is ultimately always a combination of saintly patience and the painstaking rebuilding of credibility." http://t.co/kIyjl4Y

  7. Neill Harvey-Smith

    @Jessica_Asato @libcon Here: http://t.co/pmmNx52

  8. paulstpancras

    "If the theory is correct, it throws the current conniptions in the Labour Party into a different light" http://bit.ly/ikMhDn





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