Britain needs intelligent opposition

The contrast between the lifeless Labour leadership contest and the liveliness of anti-austerity demonstrations is striking

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It is alarming how quickly the losers of last month’s general election have started to come apart at the seams. As we report today, the leadership contest between two Liberal Democrat MPs, who constitute one quarter of what is left of the parliamentary party, has descended into allegations of sharp practice.

We also report today that another losing party, Ukip, has run out of money and is moving out of its expensive HQ. This is after last week’s well-advertised sacking and unsacking of Suzanne Evans, the party’s spokesperson and its most prominent female politician.

Both parties have tiny representation in the Commons, thanks to our electoral system, yet they represent important strands of opinion. Since it was founded in 1990, this newspaper has been closer to the ideas of the Liberal Democrats. We share their commitment to civil liberties, to the European ideal and to the environment. And we disagree with most of what Ukip stands for. However, we recognise that 13 per cent of votes were cast for Ukip – rather more than the Lib Dems’ 8 per cent – and that Nigel Farage (and Ms Evans) express a view that ought to be heard. Indeed, as there is going to be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, it is essential to the democratic health of our polity that it be heard.

Instead, Ukip seems to have turned on itself to such an extent that the Prime Minister was able to joke that, although it has only one MP, the party has suffered a backbench rebellion. It has achieved the unlikely feat of making the Green Party look more credible.

This is before we come to the official opposition. As Joan Smith observes, the Labour Party seems to be having some kind of breakdown, showing signs of “anxiety, irritability and self-doubt, punctuated by bursts of absurd optimism”. It has rushed into a leadership contest before any of the candidates were ready.

So far, we think it fair to say that none of the nominated candidates has offered anything resembling a credible challenge to a prime minister who seems to be carrying all before him. Only Harriet Harman, the party’s experienced acting leader, briefly checked David Cameron’s triumphalism by telling him off for “gloating” the other day. Meanwhile, the Labour leadership contest seems to be devoted mostly to small and backward-looking questions.

The contrast between the lifeless Labour contest and the liveliness of the street demonstrations against austerity is striking. The demonstrators may not have had a clear alternative to the Government’s policies, but they have a passionate sense that Conservative plans for public spending have yet to show how £12bn a year could be cut from welfare spending without causing unacceptable suffering.

Of course, the election backed the broad direction of Mr Cameron’s policy, but that only makes it more important that an intelligent opposition should subject those plans to rigorous scrutiny. There is so much of his programme that seems to have been written on the back of a dry cleaning ticket: where will those welfare savings come from? How will he pay for higher NHS spending? What changes does he seek in Europe?

Only the Scottish National Party seems to show the sense of purpose needed to hold the Government to account – although this seems to come at the price of not facing a credible opposition as the government of Scotland.

There are great questions of the economy, tax and spending, our place in Europe and climate change to be debated. The election gave Mr Cameron a limited mandate on some of these, but his avoidance of detail means that there is much still to be argued over. For that, we need vibrant and confident opposition parties. For the health of our democracy, could they please pull themselves together?