Us Tories are in the unique position that we can publicly (and honestly) lament the loss of Labour as a British institution. Hilary Benn’s closing speech on Wednesday night gave us a taste of what Labour once was; clear, electable and in touch with the public. I could share with a Labour friend who commented that Benn’s speech made him feel ‘simultaneously proud that he’s in my party, and disappointed that he’s not its leader’. Never before could I have imagined a day when I genuinely desired a stronger leader for Labour.
Yet as I watched Benn’s speech, like my friend, I was simultaneously proud of British politics, and disappointed that the two party system, on which Britain’s democracy was founded, was toppling. This was not just the loss of the Labour Party, but the loss of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
A paper dug up from parliaments online maze of legacy publications explains a little of the history of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Quoted in this document is Nevil Johnson, a constitutional commentator, who writes:
In 1826 there occurred the first recorded use of the term ‘His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’, a phrase that quickly caught on. But it was the Tory opposition under Sir Robert Peel which in 1841 provided the first example of a party taking power after winning an election as the ‘alternative government’.
By 1968, after some messy political years, the idea of a two party political system was set in stone. But it is the 170 year old concept of “winning an election as the ‘alternative government’” that I want to focus on.
Jeremy Corbyn received nearly 60% of the votes in the Labour leadership election, a huge mandate to serve as leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. But Corbyn’s voters, supporters, Corbynistas, Momentum – call them what you will – and their ‘New Politics’ are undermining our democracy. 71% of those who voted for Corbyn would rather he preserve the purity of their political and ideological thought than win elections as the ‘alternative government’. We are losing the Opposition because the Opposition does not care to be the alternative government needed for Britain’s democracy to flourish.
Corbyn has done nothing to build trust with the electorate. As Yvette Cooper said this summer, Corbyn is pushing ‘old solutions to old problems’. Labour are serving a rather niche group of Leftwing activist-type party members over and above those who put their tick next to Labour in May. Civil war is breaking out – calls for resignations from both sides, Corbyn is trapped as leader by the membership and Livingstone flirts with deselections.
And this does no favours for the Tories. Even after 5 years of austerity they were voted in again to finish the job. But with no sign of a legitimate Opposition, laziness has crept in. The absent ‘alternative government’ means George Osborne didn’t attempt to convince anyone about his tax credits cuts – and what happened? Backbenchers and lobbyists won the day. If there was a formidable Opposition, perhaps in the form of a united Labour under Hilary Benn, Tory MPs would have banded together and fought the case for these cuts (a good case for ‘smashing’ the welfare system does exist…). ‘Long Term Economic Plan’ would have made a comeback, or perhaps the unused catchline of ‘low tax, low welfare, high pay’ would have resounded through Westminster. But instead, not a whisper. The Lords intervened – perhaps they felt a duty to act as the Opposition whilst none existed, or perhaps they hadn’t been convinced by the case for cuts. Either way, had there been a strong Opposition, there would have been no U-turn.
But there may be more U-turns ahead. To borrow some language from economics, we need competition. Parliament needs competition. The current monopoly in Westminster is bad news for the Tories, the electorate and British politics. Renew Her Majesty’s Opposition and we have a recipe for great governance, with two sides battling it out to win over the British people with their political vision. The ideal – a strong Labour pushing the Tories to define themselves by their actions (and state size), rather than allowing them to soften and hoover up those left behind by Corbyn and co.’s lurch to the Left.
However, the Labour Party is not strong. Corbyn’s leadership, once something to cheer about for the Tory, is now a source of despair. The Tories’ involuntary coup d’état needs to end. Corbyn must pack his bags and hand Britain its democracy back.