The politics of opposition: A modern-day survival guide

Ed Miliband will do well to heed a new book warning politicians to stay positive to claw their way out of the wilderness
Click to follow
Indy Politics

Ed Miliband is to recast his leadership around a more upbeat message to avoid Labour being seen as wholly negative in opposing government cuts. Aides are anxious to avoid the pitfalls of other leaders of the opposition, who always start out promising a "new way of doing things" but slip into an easy comfort zone of opportunistic attacks.

A new book, How to Be in Opposition: Life in the Political Shadows, warns that Labour must stick to its strategy if it is to succeed. "The most successful leaders are those who have adopted a systematic formula for repositioning their party to reconnect with the electorate," writes its author Nigel Fletcher, who worked in opposition for the Tories and founded the Centre for Opposition Studies.

After Labour's defeat by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, it took four leaders and four elections before the party returned to government under Tony Blair in 1997. Of the 17 leaders of the opposition since the Second World War, only six have gone on to win an election. It can lead to frustrations. Francis Maude, now a Conservative cabinet minister after 13 years out of power, said being in government "beats the crap out of opposition".

While taking coalition ministers to task for their spending cuts, Labour frontbenchers are urged to become "positive campaigners" in grass-roots movements. Oppositions face a constant balancing act between criticising the Government while also not unveiling a detailed policy programme years before an election. Mr Miliband is to stress that his leadership mission statement can be summed up in six words: "equal chances, strong communities, new politics". Policy reviews seeking to reconnect with voters have recruited external advisers, including the Mumsnet co-founder Justine Roberts and Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of the Children's Society.

A Labour source said: "We are determined to do things differently. People are cynical when we talk about a new politics, but we really mean it."

Mr Fletcher's book is a collection of essays by politicians and backroom staff from Labour and the Conservatives. In it, he sets out the five top tips for a successful opposition:

* Get a decent, organised team.

* It's David against Goliath, so use resources wisely.

* Abandoning your strategy will end in failure.

* Be a government-in-waiting.

* Do not wallow in despair.

The advice is likely to be seized upon by many in Labour's ranks who have served in government but have never sat on the opposition benches before. Senior figures acknowledge that they are in opposition for "the long haul" and that the policy review process will take time.

'How to Be in Opposition' is available now, published by Biteback

David Blunkett

Labour Shadow Cabinet member 1992-97. Cabinet minister 1997-2004, 2005

There are parliamentarians who just like being in Parliament. There are those who like politics and are happy, even in opposition, doing their politicking. And there are those, and I fall into this category, who came into politics in order to make a difference – to be in government. I know there is little I can do to protect the people of Sheffield. Articulating their hurt and giving them a voice is something, but it is not enough. When your party's in government you are constantly thinking what's good about this particular measure and we have to readjust to thinking what's wrong with it.

When we lost in 1979, there was a whole generation lost. That must be in the back of the minds of many of the people arriving now. We have got to do in the next two years what the Tories did in 10.

Tessa Jowell

Labour cabinet minister 2001-10. Shadow Cabinet member 2010-present

The thing about opposition is you hope it's not going to last too long. The good opposition challenges government decisions in a ruthless, disciplined way but also campaigns in a way that allows fires of protest to be lit. That's happened with school sports and now forests. I think the Big Society will be overwhelmed by the consequences of cuts to charities. The early mornings don't stop in opposition but it means doing the kind of emails someone else did for you in government. Opposition is an opportunity to develop new skills.

I am doing London Citizens training and volunteering in India in March. The worst thing in opposition is to stand back and go to sleep.

Sir Menzies Campbell

Liberal Democrat leader 2006-07

In 1987 there were 18 of us pretending that we could cover everything. A lot of it was smoke and mirrors. In 1997 we went up to 42 MPs. We were helped by Question Time and Any Questions? but colleagues who didn't get on them were quite jealous.

The so-called official opposition don't want anyone or anything getting in their way, and the third party could be an obstacle.

In debates we didn't get called until sixth or eighth. It wouldn't be reported. As an opposition leader you need two things - a double-thickness of skin and if you get a chance, take it. You lay a wreath at the Cenotaph but you are not at the top table.

Lord Kinnock

Labour leader in opposition 1983-92

Leading the opposition is certainly a challenging experience, and in my case one that ended in disappointment.

I still regard myself to be a personal and political failure, because if you lose two elections you'd be a bloody idiot or appallingly arrogant not to think that. In between elections you can, by dint of persistent organisation and force of argument, get the Government to shift its position in a positive direction that shows your opposition is working. I coined a phrase once about the different between Tony Blair and myself - I made the party electable; he got the party elected. And there's a hell of a difference.

Gillian Shephard

Conservative cabinet minister 1994-97. Shadow Cabinet member 1997-99

Some politicians see opposition merely as a period of impotence to be endured until the next election victory.

All the support systems vanished [in 1997]. It was as if the Conservative Party had lost all the skills and experience that we possessed. We had suddenly become invisible. Journalists who for years had besieged our offices to talk to us no longer quite recognised us in the street. Through Parliament, and the media, an opposition must restore the confidence of the public in its ability to represent their views, and hold the Government to account.

John Healey

Labour minister 2002-10. Shadow Health Secretary 2010-present

In government you wake up each morning and say "what am I going to do today?" In opposition you say "what am I going to say today?" We have got to do a lot on very little.

Effective opposition requires intelligent challenge, especially in health, where the political pressure is longer term and a slower burn.

Nigel Fletcher

Conservative research department 2004-08

The big problem with William Hague's strategy was he went from one idea to another. You have to define what you stand for and stick to a message. It's what Cameron did very effectively. You can be the best opposition in the world, but if the Government is more popular they'll win.

George Eustice

Conservative head of press at the 2005 election. Press secretary to David Cameron 2005-07

If we had a decent story, we would have a speech on a Monday trailed in the Sunday papers. It would get three days' coverage.

If you go too far into just listening mode, the public only hears negative attacks, which is where Ed Miliband is now.