The Opposition just can't win: If Labour criticises, it is 'carping'. Yet if it puts up alternatives the media ignore them, argues David Blunkett

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The Independent Online
THE LATEST twist in the Government's handling of the Maastricht treaty has challenged the role of Parliament and calls into question the relevance of Her Majesty's Opposition. It is, of course, the Government's prerogative to take legal advice and solicit a second opinion when it dislikes the first, but it makes life for the Opposition even harder than it already is.

The Labour Party faces a dilemma. It needs to be seen by the public and the pundits as a vigorous opposition, attacking the Tories at every opportunity and fully engaged in the day-to-day combat of party politics. If it does this, however, it is derided by the same public and the same pundits for spending too much of its time on criticism, and too little on setting its own agenda. Too much carping criticism also puts voters off.

The difficulty is that anyone thinking of voting Labour has little chance of seeing Labour politicians at all except in the 20-second sound bites that constitute appearances by frontbench spokesmen on television news broadcasts. It is such high-profile and negative criticism of government failings that seems to guarantee an appearance on television or space in newspapers.

According to one national newspaper, a 'gentle' politician is judged somehow less effective in Parliament than the more abrasive mudslinger. So, in order to be elected to the Shadow Cabinet and considered a good 'parliamentarian' you have to be an abrasive and combative political critic. To win over the public, in contrast, you have to be a much more reasonable, forward-looking and agenda-setting politician. This is the tightrope that those of us with responsibility must rapidly learn to walk in the next two or three years.

In this respect, the government of the day is always at an advantage. It invariably holds the initiative in responding to events and announcing new programmes and new funding. Televising the House of Commons has increased the number of statements made by ministers at times when coverage can be assured. This follows days of preparation for them - but only minimal notice for the opposition spokesmen, who often get the text of a statement less than an hour before it is made (and even then not the detail, when back-up figures and schedules are involved). While a secretary of state outlines what the Tories intend to do, his or her Labour opposite number is expected to ask questions, not to make an equivalent statement of opposition policy or alternative proposals.

Apart from the minimal number of days each year when Labour can choose a topic for debate, the Government not only decides whether to have a debate on an issue of controversy, but whether there should be a vote at the end of it.

An incumbent secretary of state can also guarantee that a press conference he calls will gain widespread media coverage, and his offer of an interview to a newspaper is unlikely to be refused. The Opposition is not so fortunate. Without the policy and research capacity of a government department, or the easier access that government has to academic and other expertise, it is little short of a miracle that prolonged opposition is sustainable in the way it is.

Opposition complaints about the number of appearances by government ministers on the Radio 4 Today programme, or on BBC television news, are met with a response all too reminiscent of the attitude of the Church of England of old: 'Government is government, but opposition is political.'

The consequence is that the incumbent party of government gets far more coverage, particularly at key times and through influential news outlets. The Opposition has no equivalent opportunity to put forward its own ideas on future policy. This inevitably means that the Opposition comes to be seen as in essence negative, while the Government is perceived as having a positive agenda.

The picture is always much worse immediately after a general election, when journalists and commentators announce that Labour is unseen and unheard, and demand to know why it is not doing more. Having failed to report what the Opposition is doing, they criticise it for not doing enough - unless, of course, there happens to be an internal party dispute, in which case air time and column inches are immediately made available.

Many journalists will say that this view is no more than whingeing, or an excuse for not doing better. In a pluralistic democracy, however, access through the media is crucial if we are to avoid a one-party state developing. The renewal of Labour's fortunes and the ability to beat an incumbent government, after what will probably be 17 years in office, requires more than personal vitriol or expert sound bites.

At present we have no choice but to face the Conservatives on territory that suits them best, but it is by returning to the bottom-up approach to politics that Labour will have a real chance of taking its place in government.

David Blunkett is Labour's health spokesman and the MP for Sheffield Brightside.

Hamish McRae returns next week.