Labour and Lib Dems must get their act together quickly and become a decent opposition again

The parties should not spend their time looking inward in despair at their own party upheaval, but plot how they can form a robust opposition to the Tories

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The Independent Online

What a difference a year makes

Picture the scene in Westminster a year ago this week: the “mainstream” parties, as we used to call them, were united in their support for holding the Union together after a poll suggested the people of Scotland could vote for independence. Dividing lines were clear to see last September. Labour was ahead in the polls and on course to win the election, or at least be the largest party. The Lib Dems were luxuriating in their coalition status: Nick Clegg was happy for another five years in government with David Cameron, but he also grandly and catastrophically assumed he would be able to choose a coalition partner. At the start of the 2014 conference season, Labour and the Lib Dems (and polling companies) seemed indestructible.

A year on, these two parties are in a battle for existence, let alone struggling to form a robust opposition to the Conservative government. George Osborne, in a clear attempt to sound statesmanlike, says he would have rather had a strong opposition than political “wilderness” under Jeremy Corbyn’s new leadership. But no matter what the Chancellor says, many Tories are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of a Corbyn leadership and that the Lib Dems are barely registering on Westminster’s seismographs. These Conservatives think they have a clear run ahead of them until 2020 to enact a radical programme. As it stands, on the eve of this conference season, they would be right.

But the opposition parties need to get their act together quickly. To echo what SNP MP Mhairi Black said in her fine maiden speech in July, Labour has to rediscover its ability to oppose. He may enjoy a honeymoon now, but Corbyn will struggle to command unity in the Parliamentary Labour Party on issues such as Trident and military action in Syria. Yet he also has an opportunity to form an alliance with the SNP and the Lib Dems to modify, scrutinise or block a whole raft of Conservative legislation coming this autumn. Drastic cuts to public services coming in the Spending Review and the scrapping of the Human Rights Act, with all the unintended consequences that that will bring, are just two areas where opposition parties need to focus. Then there are the promises that the Conservatives made during the election that are already broken: the shelving of funding for social care costs, one of the greatest challenges facing our society; and reportedly scrapping free school meals for young children. Will the Prime Minister honour his ambitious promise to spend £8bn more a year on the NHS? And where does Britain stand as a pillar of global society in the run-up to the Paris climate talks in December when the Government has plunged itself into indolence on the issue of the environment?

With gobsmacking hubris, ministers are behaving like they won a landslide with a majority large enough to give the Tory whips a holiday until May 2020. Yet, as they discovered late on 7 September when they were defeated on EU referendum plans, the Government has a majority of 12 which can be obliterated at any time. I am not saying that Labour, under its new leader, needs to go into full wrecking-ball mode on every Bill and government policy. But Corbyn’s response to Mhairi Black’s admonishment back in July should be – and is likely to be – to offer the hand of partnership to the SNP, a party whose power in the Commons is still not fully realised, and hold the Government to account. And the Lib Dems in Bournemouth next week, followed by Labour in Brighton the week after, should not spend their time looking inward in despair at their own party upheaval, but plot how they become a decent opposition again.

Zombies no more

The late-night votes on the EU Referendum Bill made me nostalgic for the period, about a decade ago, when Tony Blair’s government was given a torrid time in the chamber and voting lobbies over everything from tuition fees to anti-terrorism powers. So I was taken aback last Monday night when I noticed some new MPs complaining about voting so late. But Parliament’s hours are much more family-friendly than they used to be; such nocturnal votes are pretty rare now. Do these MPs not realise that this is the crux of their job, to vote on legislation? Do they not sense the history bearing down on them as they walk through the lobbies where Gladstone, Churchill and Attlee once voted? The last term was dubbed the “zombie parliament” because MPs ran out of things to debate more than a year before the election. Isn’t it exciting that the Commons has been brought back to life?

Leader of the household chores

Cherie Blair voted for Liz Kendall in the Labour leadership contest, she has revealed in an interview, in which she also complained about her husband leaving her with all the chores around the house. Mrs Blair, who these days is busier with her legal work than the former prime minister is with his unorthodox portfolio as a global adviser, complains that Tony helped out with child care but didn’t pull his weight in the kitchen. When they were in Downing Street, the 10-year period when their children will have made the most demands on their time, I am sure the Blairs could have afforded a cleaner – or at the very least had a dishwasher installed in the kitchen they used above No 11. But Mrs Blair is happy to promulgate the idea that only women are good at housework, something that, in our house, is quite demonstrably untrue.

All girls being equal, my Lord

Speaking of women knowing their place, Julian Fellowes, a Conservative peer as well as being the genius behind Downton Abbey – which, devastatingly, will end this year – spoke with great force in the House of Lords on Friday in favour of the Bill to allow the daughters of earls and dukes to have equal rights to their brothers to inherit titles. This right, which is now ensured for the Royal Family but still does not apply to the wider aristocracy, helped inspire his award-winning series – thanks to his wife, who should have been in line for an earldom. He told peers that this rule was “absurd and outdated” and that “women born into titled families are non-persons”.

Twitter: @janemerrick23