Opposition is the oldest function of the British parliament. When power was still vested in the monarch, it was parliament where opposition to his measures – and his spending – originated. And, in modern times, the concept of an opposition bench, which is every bit as important to the functioning of the British constitution as the government, has been present since the time of the Great Reform Act. Where is that opposition now? The Liberal Democrats are reduced to what Alistair Carmichael, the MP for Orkney and Shetland, jokingly described as an “elite cadre” of eight members of parliament, down from 57 in 2010. A wholly Conservative government now occupies office, unrestrained from within by Lib Dem MPs.
In his first intervention since losing his Twickenham seat, Vince Cable, the former business secretary, concludes on page 30 that after years of benefiting personally from anti-Conservative tactical voting, it was anti-Labour tactical voting that felled him. The fear of an Ed Miliband-led government propped up by the SNP was, he writes, “just too much for a lot of my voters”. The result was that Mr Cable’s seemingly impregnable majority of 12,140 was, like so many others, wiped out. The Lib Dems now have no seats in their former fortress of the south-west and it is now possible to drive from Land’s End to Scotland without leaving Tory territory.
Unlike Labour, the Lib Dems, and their associated ideology of liberalism, face a genuinely existential crisis. The principles of pluralism and reason are being squeezed from two directions by the nationalism of the Scottish National Party and the English nationalism of Ukip. It was two decades ago, in a pamphlet on the “politics of identity”, that Mr Cable first suggested that “our politics could be moving from the old certainties of class and left-right debate to new divisions based on national identity, race, religion and language”. That thesis has been vindicated.
For decades, the centre left espoused the notion of a “progressive majority”. But the combined vote share of Labour and the Lib Dems on 7 May was just 38.3 per cent, the first time since 1959 that it has fallen below 50 per cent. In these baleful circumstances, some advocate a formal merger between the two parties or at least an electoral partnership. But while the centre left will need to rediscover the virtues of tactical voting if it is to defeat the Conservatives, the best interests of Labour and the Lib Dems lie in remaining independent parties. In the south-west, the latter remain the only viable opposition to the Tories. Whoever becomes Labour leader, there will be distinctive space for the Lib Dems to occupy on immigration, civil liberties, the environment and constitutional reform.
The successors to Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband will be announced on 16 July and 12 September, respectively. But the task of opposing the Conservatives cannot be put on hold until the new leaders take office. Mr Cameron’s plans for his first 100 days in office include the repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the extension of government surveillance, coupled with even greater fiscal austerity, including £12bn worth of unspecified reductions to welfare spending. We still do not know where the axe will fall and what consequences this will have for Britain’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. What we do know is that workers’ rights will face their most sustained assault since Margaret Thatcher was in her pomp. The unemployed will be denied housing benefit while the very richest are handed a cut in inheritance tax.
It is therefore vital that Labour’s necessary period of self-examination does not slip into self-destruction. At the outset of the last parliament, Labour allowed the struggle between the two Milibands to take precedence over defending its record in government, allowing the creation of the Conservative canard that Gordon Brown and Tony Blair had wrecked the economy, notwithstanding the reality of a global financial crisis.
For now, as the first incumbent prime minister since 1900 to increase his party’s vote share after serving a full term, David Cameron stands pre-eminent in Westminster. But the experience of John Major, who achieved a small overall victory in 1992, shows how quickly the balance of political forces can change. The Prime Minister faces an epic struggle to keep two unions – that between the UK and Europe and that between England and Scotland – together. To take advantage of his weakness, the centre left will need to be at its most nimble and its most principled.