An expectant opposition

It’s been a busy few days, with many a Commons and Twitter spat.

With the backlash to the Budget, the resignation of IDS, and the complete disintegration of the welfare agenda, the Tories’ modernisation process, and Osborne himself, this should be a joyous occasion whereupon we bask in the realisation of the 92′-97′ folklore that many of us young ‘uns were promised would happen again.

I admitted that I was wrong on a few grounds; I thought we’d have to be careful navigating welfare, though never did I agree to agreeing with welfare cuts. I now think we should go full throttle against welfare cuts; and that we should ensure that we build our anti-austerity case and hammer this home. Maya Goodfellow wrote a great article today in LabourList about using this opportunity to build a narrative; and a competent party definitely could. I’d be really excited about this, and I’ve waited for years for an opportunity to arise that could dismantle the IDS welfare agenda.

I dug in myself on this, writing an Open Labour piece on how Iain Duncan Smith’s letter ought to be exploited, should the Leadership ever want the ostentatious advice of a twenty-something undergrad. Waving the letter across the despatch box as efficiently as the Tories did for Liam Byrne’s feels like common sense to me. This opportunity should be ours to exploit; we should give ourselves no excuses for tripping up. In fairness, a lot of the shadow frontbench have done very well; and for once the PLP forged a united front – for a while.

Nevertheless, to be joyous without reflection or critical thinking is something we should never do. Any veteran of Omnishambles will tell you as such. So I committed the unfortunate crime of questioning our triumphalism; our insistence upon patting ourselves on the back: I tweeted that Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation was not down to Jeremy Corbyn’s Commons speech. Que the horror; que the shock.

So, needless to say, there was backlash on Twitter.

This time, it was quite exceptional. I was accused of being a traitor and placating to the Tories because I was hesitant to praise the Leader on high for single-handedly bringing down the Tory empire. I have no intent to name/link the tweeter, considering said tweeter wrote a blog about it that made me uncomfortable and I intend not to pay back such a ridiculous favour, or revel in hypocrisy. Nevertheless, the logic is astounding enough that it helps build a case for something that’s been very noticeable for a while, beyond any one Twitter spat – a curious phenomena that haunts the Labour Party:

The idea that parliamentary Opposition is merely disagreement.

It’s a phenomena which made itself known during the Summer of Discontent. Undoubtedly, Andy, Yvette and Liz made a very poor choice over the welfare vote, and that added fuel to the fire. The membership demanded ‘strong opposition’, which is entirely fair and barely disagreeable. I became perplexed, then, now that the leadership fails to land any blows, why people still believed then and now that this is what we are. We make excuses, time and time again, for easy slip-ups and bad Commons performances.

I believe the reason many of us still believe we offer ‘strong opposition’ is because we as a membership seem to define opposition as ‘not in our name’ rather than actually committing to change. It is an act for feeling good about disagreeing with Toryism, which we all love to do, but not making any impact, while claiming any impact is ours alone. In fairness, placating past leaders and contenders have infuriated members and fueled a fair demand for us to be principled and oppose austerity; so of course we would be happy with a leader like Jeremy who is unequivocally and without hesitation willing to stand and fight. I get that mentality. I facepalmed plenty of times when we gave in to welfare cuts last Parliament, shouting at my TV. But, still, disagreement simply does not equate to a strong Opposition on its own.

That isn’t an Opposition. Disagreeing is a part of it: I disagree with the Tories on most things; I’m sure you do, too. The need to express that disagreement is powerful. But that’s not all that Parliament is about. Sure, a good Commons speech can change a debate. But what is more important is that the person making that speech could one day sit on a government bench. Opposition is primarily about being an alternative to the government; not just in terms of ideology but in terms of actually looking like they could one day be a government. This is not just for the goal of eventual power -far from it: it’s about scaring the government, with just a majority of 12, into acting with hesitancy should public opinion turn away from them and toward us. It prevents the excesses of Toryism. In order to make Osborne think twice, beyond his Tory rebels, you have to make him fear us as a government-in-waiting, with the ability to unseat him and his Party.

And why would he? We lost PMQs today over that ruddy list, for Christ’s sake. It managed to overshadow the torment faced by over 600,000 disabled people. We shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back any time soon; we should be banging our heads on a brick wall.

Okay, I hear you chanting, “that one-point lead on YouGov tho”, a lead that could well extend for sure. But, as always, it does not cover our butts on the deficits we have with leadership and the economy; far greater indicators of impending electoral victory. We can cheer and cheer -as I did in 2010-15- that the Tories are losing their lead, but that isn’t the same as us gaining on them, as George Eaton has written. We expect victory to fall into our hands by default, and so become idle. Instead we become a repository of protest that is inherently weak and will fall when voters are given a ballot. We may think we are strong, but we are not. Osborne knows that; so while he may fear his chances of becoming Tory leader have depleted, he does not have to fear us. He is free, at least from Labour, to do as he pleases. As his successor will be.

We have had numerous successes: Tax Credit cuts, this budget. We should aim to build on them. But the extent to which those victories can be claimed by our side rather than the Lords or Tory rebels is highly questionable, and it seems odd that questioning those claims would be controversial.

The truth is, I cannot bask in the 92′-97′ folklore coming true. I thought I’d enjoy it. I’ve been waiting for it for six torturous years. Hoping, expecting, as anyone suffering at the hands of Tories would be. But now, as Osborne and the Tories and the general public all know; there is no Labour victory at the end of it, at least not as things stand. We are not a government-in-waiting just because we disagree. So the hopeful and joyous occasion of a Tory civil war cannot be enjoyed by those of us who have waited for it for so long. By many of us that so need it.

You can blame this on disunity, fine. That’s a factor. I think the PLP and party should very much unite around an anti-austerity agenda. But there is an incompetence to this party and a devout commitment to the philosophy of disagreement rather than true parliamentary Opposition. That won’t be erased with unity. We cheer because we disagree, because our names are not tainted, but we only let Tory rebels do our job for us; to bring down legislation that wouldn’t exist in the first place if Tories weren’t so comfortable in their throne.

We won’t dethrone them with self-congratulation. This shouldn’t be a controversial thing to say if we care at all about helping people I, and we, care about.

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