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John Glen MP: How to avoid becoming a fast food opposition

John Glen is MP for Salisbury and a member of the Defence Select Committee.

Screen shot 2011-11-14 at 18.49.22Having sat through the debate called by the opposition on youth unemployment and jobs last week, I had plenty of time to reflect again on the business of Opposition. What a grim business it is. The Opposition spent the time shouting and pointing as they randomly plucked unrecognisable statistics to make a political point; gratuitously avoiding any attempt to project a costed alternative, yet desperate to win the “war” of the sound-bites.

I have three observations about what Labour need to do if they are to avoid prolonged exile from the Government benches and avoid becoming purveyors of fast food politics – i.e. put together in a hurry, looks good when you grab it, tastes good when you first eat it but leaves you hungry a few hours later and needs to be offset by sustained counter-measures for a long time afterwards:

1. Economic policy has to add up before the sound-bites will be heard.

In proposing delays in public spending cuts, Labour offer a tempting choice but leave too many questions unanswered for it to be a viable option.

Labour proposed a temporary reversal of the VAT increase – which itself had to be brought in by this government to avoid a disastrous increase in National Insurance. Labour backbenchers made ad hoc calls for temporary measures – but, again, without a solid timescale for these measures to apply and no assessment of the negative impact these costs would have on the credibility of the UK’s finances. Predictably, the old line that we are cutting “too far and too fast” was bandied about liberally - yet retaining economic credibility internationally and establishing stable public finances was never mentioned. Stability must remain central to any macroeconomic policy – this is what businesses and families need most, and there will be no hope of macroeconomic stability with an unsustainable deficit and debt. It is easy to write the line, as Labour do, which boils down to “we have to speculate to accumulate” – but the unwillingness to attend to the implications for the country’s financial credibility makes it a desperately unrealistic proposition. As people are sick of the deficit – they are even more fed up with empty – uncosted - posturing from Opposition politicians (for example, Ed Miliband’s empty words attacking big business in his recent party conference speech).

2. Opposition built on debating jibes rather than sound policy will be flawed

Playing off the dynamics of the coalition rather than talking about policy seems clever, it sounds good – but it will be substantive policy development that will lead to electoral success.

It was great fun helping William Hague to prepare for PMQs in 2000-2001 and despite his unrivalled linguistic dexterity in the chamber we all remember the outcome at the 2001 general election! When we do hear from the current Opposition, their words are often based on combing through recent – or often ancient - statements and speeches to try to catch the government out. They seem happier to play off the inevitable challenges of coalition dynamics rather than addressing the underlying issue that a policy is seeking to address. Miliband often asks “who speaks for the Government?” when most people understand that the Liberal Democrats will always see sentencing, Europe, and immigration differently to the Conservative Party. Equally, Labour's “Drop the Bill” campaign, though at least focussing upon a piece of government legislation (criticising the Health and Social Care Bill), makes no attempt to present a reasoned alternative for long-term pressures facing the NHS. Labour’s empty rhetoric will not persuade the electorate.

3. A clear link needs to exist between core beliefs, an agreed narrative, and a credible alternative plan for government.

An impactful critique of government policy only happens when the Opposition move beyond offering hurriedly-prepared titbits to an agenda for an alternative government.

Eighteen months in, Labour is yet to articulate a clear policy framework and compelling narrative for the country. Liam Byrne’s performance at the despatch box last week was combative but really boiled down to cheap and superficial politics. He would do better to use his ongoing to policy review to deliver a vision for the Labour leadership. One still has the sense that Labour could move in any number of ideological directions – recognising the empty shell that New Labour was and the inherent tensions in finding credible alternative policies when for many there remains confusion over what Labour really believes in today.

Serving up more and more political equivalents of insubstantial “happy meals” will fail to satisfy. As we found, short-term appeals to sentiments without ideological underpinnings will win through at the ballot box. Bandwagon opposition politics may amuse and distract but ultimately it won’t mask the contradictions that exist in the post Blair-Brown Labour party where conventional ideological foundations have been undermined so far that no coherent reason for being now exists.


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