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29 March 2017updated 03 Apr 2017 9:42am

What do you want from an opposition?

We asked politicians, cultural figures and activists the burning question for our special issue. 

By New Statesman

In this week’s New Statesman, we asked writers, artists, party grandees and other public figures a simple question. What do you want from an opposition? The shorter responses are collected here. For the full collection, buy the magazine.

John Witherow

Nature abhors a vacuum, and Labour has become a giant vacuum machine, sucking the air out of opposition politics and leaving the government to roam the centre ground at will. One obvious consequence is that the Conservatives are not being constantly challenged and made to justify their decisions at such a crucial time for the future of the United Kingdom.

Another consequence is that it sows discord elsewhere, whether in the Tory party, because it is not forced to unite against an effective opposition, or within the Union, as the Scottish nationalists see yet another chance of breaking free.

Labour’s weakness leaves the airwaves clear for the Lib Dems as the only party with a clear alternative to Brexit, which is to campaign for a second referendum on the outcome of the treaty negotiations. It further means the Great Reform Bill will not get adequate scrutiny from Labour in the Commons, and the Lords will emerge as the unelected, de facto opposition.

The solution should be simple: remove Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters and replace him with a moderate, left-of-centre leader who can speak for the vast number of people disenfranchised by the party’s lurch to the left and its sheer incompetence.

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That, however, looks unattainable in the near future and could stay that way for years if Momentum consolidates its hold by deselecting moderate MPs or forcing them to abandon the party. At some point the moderates will have to stand and fight, and join the party in large numbers. But as in the 1980s, it will probably require a resounding general election defeat to make Labour come to its senses, root out Momentum and retake the territory that Tony Blair so successfully occupied.

John Witherow is the editor of the Times


Germaine Greer

Our democracy was born out of opposition, opposition to the power of the crown. The opponents were the landholders, represented in the Commons by the gentry who did not claim and in many cases would not accept nobility, and in the Lords by noblemen, many of whom were nominees or descendants of nominees of the crown. Issues were decided as they had been in medieval universities, by debate, pro v con and vice versa. Government was exercised by both sides, by the party in power together with the loyal opposition. It is the duty of an opposition to do its best to see that the actions of the government are in the best interests of the country, not simply the party or the crown.

The opposition’s job is to improve legislation by forcing the government to explain itself more clearly, to consider the consequences of its enactments, and also to expose the role of vested interests and conflicts of interest. The opposition has to be content to oppose until such time as it may find itself in office, when it can expect to be opposed in its turn. An opposition that spends its entire time and resources on dreaming and scheming how to win the next election is worse than useless. A government that does not have to answer the hard questions of the opposition will take what is open to it, that is, the line of least resistance. The result is plain to see in the utter unimpressiveness of the current administration, faced as it is with a debacle of its own making. Fudge and flounder though it will, it can get away with replacing the present unimpressive incumbents with more of the same, as long as the opposition shirks its duty of holding their feet to the fire. A skilled, determined, eloquent opposition could result in the emergence of a gifted leader; destitute of gifted leadership as we are, we are unlikely to find a way out of the current shambles, which could drag on for years.

When the combatants could be described as either Whig or Tory, when they were all of the same religion pretty much, with the same education and the same vested interests, the two-party system worked well enough. As more and more citizens were accorded the vote, from all adult men of property to all adult men and a few older, property-owning women, to all citizens over 21 years of age, to all over 18 years of age, the lines of division multiplied and the binary system became less and less relevant. The Whig tradition came to an end in the ignominious rout of the Lib Dems, its role having long before been taken by the Labour Party, which undertook to defend workers against the forces of capital. Those forces eventually triumphed as labour was co-opted by capital, which process was completed by the late and nowadays lamented Baroness Thatcher.

When Thatcher said that “there’s no such thing as society”, she can be understood to have meant that there is no such thing as the common good; there is no course of action any government can take that will be in the interest of all citizens. Voters no longer vote “for” (if indeed they ever did): they vote against. Such a vote is necessarily destructive rather than constructive. The two-party system, whether in Europe or the US or Australia, is staggering towards collapse. Most frightening is the possibility that xenophobic demagoguery will fill the breach. We need a committed, principled, charismatic opposition. We need it now.

Germaine Greer is an author and critic

Kathleen Jamie

Who will speak for liberal Britain?

Ah, I’m being daft. By “Britain” you mean “England”. Again.

Sorry folks, but you blew it. There is in Westminster a unified, capably led, liberal-minded team you could have worked with, and maybe still could. But remember Ed Miliband saying he’d rather have no Labour government at all, than one working with the SNP? Well, now you have it. What exactly were you so scared of? Could it be worse than this?

I’m not an SNP member, and I would rather things weren’t so binary as they are now, but the SNP would make an excellent official opposition. The trouble is, Scotland sends south too few MPs to make any difference to anything in a UK context, and there you have our problem in a nutshell.

And Scotland is increasingly thinking as Scotland, not as a northern, Labour-voting nation-in-union with the UK. Here, the paradigm has changed completely. The SNP has achieved that. Here, it is the opposition that is unionist – a word that has become ubiquitous. We need nuance, not just opposition, everywhere.

Labour is gone. England needs a new political party to speak for its deep tolerance and decency. That would be so good. Perhaps we’re all a bit jaded. Maybe we all need new political parties.

Kathleen Jamie is a poet and essayist


Emma Rees

Labour has forced government retreats on several of their most regressive policies such as welfare cuts and tax rises on the self-employed, and a meaningful vote on the Brexit deal, but, in the face of a government that operates an iron-fisted approach to discipline when it comes to Commons votes, defeating their policies is a difficult task.

But opposition doesn’t just happen within the four walls of Parliament, nor is it a matter only for politicians. That’s where Momentum comes in. Momentum evolved out of Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership campaign, as a grassroots network to empower people to build a movement that can get Labour elected on a transformative, socialist platform.

Our activists are on the front line of fighting Tory austerity in communities, resisting cutbacks in hospitals, schools, domestic violence, youth and mental health services. In addition to campaigning against these devastating cuts, they are also providing real support to those most affected by them, through local food banks, and by forming credit unions and housing advice surgeries. By filling the void created by the Tories and providing real solidarity in communities across the country, Momentum activists and local Labour parties are putting our socialist politics into practice, while exposing the vandalism of this heartless government.

Momentum are also organising cultural events to open up political discussion in communities where many have felt disengaged with politics and ignored by Westminster, for example organising free screenings of I, Daniel Blake on council estates. A series of upcoming events called Take Back Control, which brings together Leave and Remain voters in communities including Sunderland, Plymouth and Barnsley, for a day of discussion, music, food and sport that will question what it would really mean to take back control from the economic elite.

So, while defeating a majority government on legislation is a somewhat herculean task, Labour’s half a million members have the people power to mount the momentous country-wide opposition needed to get Labour into government.

Emma Rees is the national organiser of Momentum. Momentum is a grassroots campaigning network of over 20,000 members which evolved out of Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign


Roy Hattersley

The opposition is toothless at the moment. Labour, as a party, as opposition, is in far worse condition now than it was in, say, ’81, ’82. In the Michael Foot era, it was still hanging together as an opposition, still doing the job. Now it isn’t.

The very reasonable people on the Labour back benches need to speak out more. I think there are ten or 12 people on the back benches who would make good Labour Party leaders. We ought to hear more from them, saying, “We’re still here. Corbyn doesn’t represent the party, we represent the party.” And working out ideas – I see nobody doing that. They’re too quiet. They’re not fighting the fight. They’re not speaking out.

Some of them are worried about their own seats; some of them find their job congenial. It’s very much easier to be a parliamentarian asking questions at appropriate times and speaking during debates than it is taking your case to the country. They should be fighting. They should be working on ideas.

I think the idea of the split is wrong-headed. Look what happened last time.

Roy Hattersley is a Labour peer and a former deputy leader of the Labour Party. As told to Anoosh Chakelian


David Owen

We don’t have an effective opposition. The question is how to make it effective. I think they should start to discuss with a view to deciding at a conference this summer on its policies. It’s just got to stop for a moment, have a pause on personalities. They’re going to have to return to personalities, they have to have a new leader. But at the moment, the issue should be: let’s get the policies right. I’m sure there are areas in which people want to see changes, but they’re obviously completely incoherent over Europe, so just let that incoherence lie.

If Labour party MPs can’t start to talk about why young people were attracted to Jeremy Corbyn, they won’t find the solution. Corbyn – you can trash him like the right-wing press do every day, but they’ve always done that with every form of Labour leader we’ve ever had. I’m not defending Corbyn, I don’t think he is the right person to be leader of the Labour party and become Prime Minister.

They’ve got to widen their base, and they’ve got to widen it in an election. That doesn’t stop the party having more values. The Labour party instinctively, like the country, needs to move a bit more to the left. I’m not afraid of talking more about socialism and social values. I think that would be matching the mood of the country.

Clement Attlee and the Labour party came in in 1945, and shocked everybody, including all the pundits and newspapers – they responded to a mood in the country that wanted a difference. I believe there is a mood in the country that wants a difference. They don’t want recycled Blairism.

You’ve just got to face up to reality. The fundamental thing is, where we slipped up in [the last] election, is that we were not able to answer the question – when they were ravaged and savaged about the SNP – Ed Miliband should’ve lost his cool. All he said during the attack about working with the SNP was that it ain’t going to happen. Well, it obviously was going to happen.

What they needed to say is proudly and completely coherently: if the electorate send a Parliament back which has the SNP in substantial numbers, it is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them. Health policy – a pretty good step would be to take what’s happening in Scotland and more or less mirror it.

That is the nature of the beast, which is democracy. Even without changing the system of voting, we now have multi-parties, whether we like it or not. We were told the route through was not to create a Social Democratic Party alongside the Liberals, you had to merge with them and that there was no room for more than three political parties in Britain. Well, it’s absolute nonsense. We now have seven, you could argue. We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.

I think it’s asking a hell of a lot to be leader of a party, asking to be Prime Minister, when you’ve never performed yourself in government, you’ve never held a serious job anywhere else. It’s a very, very big thing. He didn’t want to be leader of the party, he didn’t expect to be leader of the party, he stood on the basis that he was the person they all turned to on the left, and he did it, and he surprised us all. The fact that he won should be a serious message to us. The reason he won is because everybody was totally sick and fed up with the other people. We’ve got to face up to the fact that this has happened now twice. Is the Labour party going to go on churning out a sort of Blairism?

David Owen is an independent social democratic peer and co-founder of the SDP


Timberlake Wertenbaker

It seems to me all great movements begin with language. “Liberty, equality, fraternity”. “All men are created equal and independent . . . from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence, different from the final one). “Workers of the world, unite”: calling for an international sense of community. “The personal is political,” one of the great, obvious and disregarded truths, not just for women. Ideas, of course, have no borders and Britain absorbed them.

You might call these slogans but they have cadence and real thought behind them. Unfortunately, since the beginning of the 21st century, the language has been seized by the right. And if the language, then so, too, the thinking. The Brexiteers’ “Take back control” is much more attractive than “ Britain stronger in Europe” or George Osborne’s warnings, summed up by “Be very afraid”. And yet, Europe is a beautiful concept, a large family, with all its squabbles, those who look after the parents better than others, those who never cook the Christmas meal, but still a family where the young are all cousins meeting across the continent. And yet, almost no one in the opposition, and certainly not the leader, spoke for Europe, gave it an image, gave it language. Surely something could have been made of 60 (59 then) years of peace? Of the family, of the historical beauty of nation states once at war coming together for common purposes – whatever the failings? Europe is a romantic concept. Where was the romance of the language? I remember only Shirley Williams expressing it.

And so I find myself looking for the language of the opposition: the narrative, as it’s called, the story we all want to follow. We all want stories: it’s apparently an evolutionary drive and I believe it’s a political need. We need something we can all understand, what Plato would call a myth (please – not an Ignoble Lie – there’s a difference), something that captures our emotions. I would define myth – with some free borrowing from Plato – as the simplified expression of a longing that is too complex for dry reason.

It now seems we’re in a world where the only ideas are retrograde (Take back control, Make America Great Again, the medieval caliphate). Beware, however: they resonate, they indicate a longing, they make people feel they can come together in that longing. No opposition has come up with something stronger and better. “Resist” is a great word but it contains within itself an admission of being on the back foot. Resist the aggressive forces overwhelming us, resist the power of someone else’s language. Yes. But when will an opposition find its own image, desire and longing and put it into new and powerful language?

Timberlake Wertenbaker is a playwright and translator

Bonnie Greer

I’m writing now from an immigrant’s point of view. Because I am one. And since the vote for Brexit last June, I’ve come to embrace being an immigrant.

From that point of view I know this: the United Kingdom operates in silos, categories, clubs, behind closed doors.

It struck me very quickly soon after my arrival that there’s a proliferation of a kind of chumocracy: birth, schooling, wealth, ethnicity, gender, etc. Have the right tag, and you become part of a ready-made “Universe of Us” a 21st-century version of Nancy Mitford’s “U and non-U”. This ranking is prolific, unconscious and very strong.

So any leader of the opposition, most especially one on the left, must work within this universe and against it. And has to be seen to be doing so coherently and robustly. The present leader is a well-meaning person with strong values. But he’s one of nature’s backbenchers. The times call for more than that. Immediately.

Brexit cultists are trying to talk down rational debate and dissent. It suits them because they sense they’re on shaky ground. This may sound pessimistic, but I’m not. We’ll reach a critical mass quickly, then nuance and subtlety will emerge. It’s there. Just slightly out of reach. But there.

Bonnie Greer is a writer and broadcaster


Chris Mullin

In a parliamentary system it was always a high risk strategy to elect a leader who has the support of only about ten per cent of the parliamentary party.

One-party states are not conducive to democracy. The only way forward that I can envisage is an eventual pact between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens not to oppose each other in marginal seats.  No doubt tribalists on both sides will find this upsetting.  It may take three or four election defeats for the penny to drop. There is a precedent, incidentally.  In 1906 Labour and the Liberals signed up to a pact and the result was the election of the first 29 labour MPs.

Obviously it would be better if Labour had a more credible leader, but I would not support any attempt to overthrow him. I am sure Jeremy doesn’t wish to lead us to annihilation, so it is entirely possible he will stand down of his own volition between now and the election. I guess that’s why Momentum are attempting to lower the nomination threshold for his successor. That’s the only way John McDonnell, who is much more competent than Jeremy but not so popular with party members, could hope to succeed Jeremy. In the medium term, however, that would only dig the pit deeper.

To quote Noel Coward, “nothing is ever as bad as it seems at the time”. In the 1980s, I often heard people say that there would never be another Labour government, and ten years later Labour won the biggest majority of any government for 200 years. After 1997, I heard people say that there would never be another Tory government and I didn’t believe that either. However, given the loss of Scotland, it will be difficult for any party that is not the Conservative party to form a government on its own in the foreseeable future.

Chris Mullin was the MP for Sunderland South from 1987-2010.  He recently published his autobiography, “Hinterland – a memoir”.


Tessa Jowell

We’ve all got to accept that voting to leave Europe was a proxy . . . representing discontent, alienation, disappointment, apprehension about change, anger, [more] than it was anything to do specifically with the European Union.

I’m very wary of reaching out for what is too easily defined as an elite metropolitan solution, which can also be seen as simply another power-grab: “We’re going to have a new party: here’s the board, here’s the doorplate, and now you’re invited to join.” You know, talk of a new party is for the birds without reach and without groundedness, and we have no evidence of that at the moment.

Tessa Jowell is a Labour peer


Marina Warner

What we have now is an extremely autocratic line of government. I was enraged that the opposition did not argue against – even though they were frightened for their seats – the so-called hard Brexit, and it seemed to me extraordinary that they didn’t try to engage the government in a discussion of what the plans were until it was too late. Labour was hopelessly incoherent in the referendum campaign: it failed to produce a philosophical argument for solidarity.

And, with the election of Corbyn, I cannot understand why the Labour Party front bench just melted away instead of thinking: “We now have a popular leader – let’s try to forge an alliance.” If Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley could talk to each other, why couldn’t people work with this man? I hear he’s impossible and doesn’t listen, but he’s popular, and that’s an asset. There’s an extraordinary lack of risk-taking. The MPs are so scared – I don’t know why they think public opinion is so fixed and static.

Part of the problem is that the press does not represent new ideas, and because politicians are always second-guessing what the public will say, they follow the press too closely. The non-tabloid press has not been helpful, either. The Guardian is terribly stuck, in a state of constant decrying. I would like to hear more about what the possibilities are.

There has been a very profound and unpleasant shift away from parliament and the institutions such as the judiciary. And we are stuck with the idea that you have to obey this very narrow majority: it was crazy to have a referendum that didn’t demand a two-thirds majority. Those who voted for Brexit are so much older that by the time the vote takes effect the majority will have voted against leaving the union.

One of the things I truly feel angry about is that I’m no longer “the people”. I know people think we’re a metropolitan elite. But when I look back on it I haven’t had a government that represents my opinions since Harold Wilson, and that didn’t last very long. I know that we have influence, I know I’m lucky; but it’s not correct that we’ve been in power.

I have become part of various protest groups that are asking for some opposition. People think it’s an anti-Brexit attitude, but it isn’t: it’s a vision of a social democracy that involves many people – not just in Europe – in a kind of attempt to continue to think about tolerance, about problems of ecology, about what the actual conflicts and dangers in the world represent and how we need to pull together.

I would like to see the Lib Dems more active, because, though I have never voted for them before, they have at least stuck to their argument and haven’t shilly-shallied chasing popular opinion.

The solutions seem much more moderate than I ever would have expected. It’s “middle people” like Emmanuel Macron who seem to offer hope.

Marina Warner is a novelist and academic. As told to Tom Gatti

Margaret Hodge

I am not a natural opposition politician. I’m in politics to change the world. I want to work for positive outcomes, not simply rail against the wrongs that confront us.  I don’t enjoy the pompous, artificial and contrived exchanges that take place in the Chamber of the House of Commons because all too often they serve little purpose. Labour’s purpose in opposition must be to win.

Select Committees do give us a forum to practice our politics in a different way when we are in opposition. On the Public Accounts Committee we left our tribal politics at the door of the Committee room and worked across the political divides, building on our shared principles around value for money to challenge and change things. Nobody talks about it  – but through cross-party collaboration we were able to achieve real change. From exposing tax avoidance and forcing the Government to act on this issue both internationally and domestically, to getting rid of premium phone numbers for public facing services, we got things done.

I despair at Labour’s failure to provide an effective opposition to the most ideological, right wing Government we have seen in my long political lifetime. Brexit is clearly the most important issue confronting us. We have allowed ourselves to be boxed into supporting the destruction of the single market and an exit from Europe which can only damage growth and prosperity.  

But we are hopeless across the piece, from failing to expose the destructive impact of a Tory education policy based on building new grammar schools, to being ineffectual while the NHS implodes through lack of money and  a failure to reform. These failures cannot simply be attributed to disunity in the party – it’s bigger than that.

There is enormous talent among the new generation of Labour MPs and they are quickly learning the art of opposition on the backbenches. In the 1980s and 1990s we were spoilt for talent, with the brilliant intellect and strong performance of people like Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Mo Mowlam, Robin Cook and Clare Short. The new generation grew up under a Labour Government and are having to learn to move from managing in Government to fighting in opposition. That takes time.

And times are much tougher for all traditional political parties, but particularly for parties on the left. Labour’s traditional base has eroded through structural changes in the economy. Our beliefs are being challenged – from an open immigration policy to a generous benefit system that redistributes wealth to high public spending – all these Labour policies no longer command popular support. And people have had enough of traditional politicians and traditional parties, so from Trump to Macron – and even to Jeremy.

Dame Margaret Hodge is a Labour MP and former chair of the Commons public accounts committee. As told to Caroline Crampton


Simon Jenkins

We all need an “official” opposition. It saves us thinking for ourselves. We need a drawer into which we can shove the “yes, buts”, the “surely nots”, the boos, the heckles and the cries of “nonsense”. We need someone else to speak truth to power. If not, we feel a strange burden on our shoulders, the emptiness of what de Tocqueville called deinstitutionalised, atomised democracy.

This psychosis was exaggerated by Brexit. When both government and opposition agree on something, it is almost certainly wrong. This was true from the Iraq War to HS2. Dissent is stripped of its champion. There seems no outlet for an alternative voice, no institutional life raft to which dissenters can cling.

There have been many moments in the past when “Her Majesty’s Most Loyal opposition” has seemed to collapse, notably under Labour’s Michael Foot in the 1980s and various Tory leaders during the Blair years. There is frequent talk of Labour or Tory splits and Liberal revivals. SDPs and Ukips rise and fall. They never get anywhere. That said, when formal opposition is in disarray, other avenues naturally open up. Think tanks become more boisterous. Academic books challenge conventional wisdom. Lobbyists gain currency for their cause. But the chief critique comes from the media. There is little or no evidence to support the thesis that the media, however biased, influence elections. What they do is influence policy. Especially the daily press undoubtedly wields power over debate, for the simple reason that politicians let it do so. It is a power both of advocacy and of offering a platform to certain opinions.

Even in the age of digital media, British newspapers of left and right are bastions of a traditional certainty. The Mirror and the Guardian can be relied on to adopt a “loyalist” stance on the left, as can the Sun, Mail, Telegraph and usually the Times on the right. In a turbulent world, these daily fixities are welcome to those who need a sheet-anchor for their views. Clearly it is vital for the health of political debate that the balance of this media opinion is in some sense fair. The attention paid to perceived bias on the state broadcasting channel, the BBC, reflects this importance. The left-right balance of the press, tilted towards the right, would clearly be of concern were it to tilt further. There was a brief period in the 1970s when the Mirror was for sale and the Guardian was mooted as merging with the Times, which could have eliminated the two chief organs of left-wing opinion. But even the tilt of the press towards the right has not stopped Labour winning elections.

Political debate in a democracy relies not just on institutions of opposition but on a climate of openness and access to news and comment. This has become stifled in local government, as one regional and local paper after another has closed. Whether digital media can adequately replace this conduit of news and opinion remains to be seen. But as for national debate – witness Brexit to the point of tedium – I cannot think of a time when the media more actively participated in debate. We may not like the cacophony, or, in this case the outcome, but that is not the point.

Simon Jenkins is a columnist and author


Carmen Callil

Until the Iraq War I had voted Labour all my life. I voted Liberal or Green after that. Yet some of the policies of a centrist New Labour brought good things to the people of this country. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn the first time round. Like Blair, another gross disappointment. Why be a leader if you do not have the capacities the job requires? Where is any care for the welfare of the people of this country in not facing up to that? True, if we had a parliamentary democracy and a House of Commons in which rational manners and habits ruled the day, the requirements of a leader might be different, and Corbyn might have done well. But our Houses of Parliament are like the scrum in a rugger match. You need persons of bulk to deal with the way we are governed NOW; to deal with the media and the troubled world we have NOW.

Radicals, liberals and socialists in these islands need to call, again, upon that radical aspect of British thought, always there, often defeated, trailing back in time through revolutions, civil wars, Enlightenment philosophers and scientists, nonconformist preachers, writers and artists, rebels and revolutionaries. These ideas and emotions are not the personal bailiwick of Corbyn and his colleagues. He and they have a contribution to make, but that’s it. It is not just his incapacity as a leader, or Labour’s inability to take on the forces opposing an enlightened view of the world – and this includes, in this country, a most ferocious combination of press, City and politicians. We need justice and change: we need a progressive alliance NOW, a new formation that includes the SNP, Labour, Liberals, Greens and more.

How disgraceful is it to be told that Labour hates the Liberals more than any other party? Could we please have a new party that considers us the people? What I am saying here is that our political arrangements must cease their glacial divisions. And yes, I am complaining about Brexit, and I am complaining about Trump, and about Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, and I am complaining that I am now probably too old to see a new political grouping of all of us who care for justice, for tolerance, plurality, openness, our civilisation such as it is, the north, south, east and west of the British isles, and for an economics that defends the poor, the badly educated, the socially excluded, of whom there are 17 million in this country alone.

Carmen Callil is a critic and founder of Virago Press

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Michael Heseltine

I believe that this is the worst peacetime decision that parliament has been asked to make. It is very possible, as the negotiations unfold, that members of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons who believe as strongly as I do in the Remain argument will feel that their commitment to our national self-interest is being stretched unacceptably.

I don’t believe any of the arguments that there’s a two-year timescale, and the guillotine comes down. If there’s a will to change within the community of European leaders, change will happen regardless of the letter of the law.

I believe that there needs to be a second referendum or a mandate of a general election. I believe the sovereignty of this country is enshrined in the House of Commons, and that MPs must be involved in the final decision, with absolute power to determine the outcome. It took Nicola Sturgeon a matter of months to be back on the trail of a second referendum and Nigel Farage would have been doing exactly the same if he had lost. So what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I cast myself in the unlikely role of gander.

Michael Heseltine is a Conservative peer


Jacqui Smith

In the Nineties, there was a fashion in the party to trot off to the US and talk to the New Democrats. It might be interesting for a few people to trot off to Europe and talk to some of the new centrists in Europe about what’s happening there in terms of the battle against the populist right – and the populist left, in fact.

Jacqui Smith is a former Labour cabinet minister


David Lodge

The most pressing political issue at present is how to handle Brexit with maximum benefit and minimum damage to the UK’s economy and social cohesion. Since both the main parliamentary parties are internally divided on this issue it may be possible at some point to form a new centre-left party from disaffected members of both, plus Lib Dems, Greens and others, committed to the best elements of New and Old Labour and One Nation Conservatism, which would be more broadly based and command more public support than the SDP of yore. But it all depends on how Brexit plays out, and whether in the long term the majority of those who voted Leave in the referendum feel satisfied and vindicated by the outcome, or dismayed and disillusioned. Theresa May has honourably, but from a pragmatic point of view imprudently, rejected calling an early election which would have given the Conservatives a huge working majority till 2020, and she will have to preside over the Brexit negotiations with a very small and vulnerable one. If, as seems increasingly likely, the quality of life for most citizens in the UK gets significantly worse rather than better in the coming years, it could provide the conditions for a radical realignment of political groups and their policies in Parliament and the nation as a whole.  

Alternatively John Lewis could be encouraged to turn itself into a political party and try to form a government, since it seems to enjoy more widespread support and esteem than any of the existing ones.

David Lodge is an author and critic


Frank Cottrell Boyce

Opposition is meaningless if it only opposes. It has to offer something better. If the current political landscape looks like a teenage dystopian fantasy, well, the exit from Dystopia lies along Utopia Road. I hear a great deal about what is wrong. I hear very little about what a better society – a good society – might look like.

I’ve always taken that phrase of Larkin’s, a “frail travelling coincidence”, as a great definition of a nation. But it needs to know the direction of travel. Everyone wants to belong, to be part of a story. When some cultural grandee announces that “the air in my country is very foul” he’s really saying: “You people are not part of the story. You’re the mob, not the people.” In that atmosphere it’s hardly surprising that people who bother to offer a story – whether it’s drain the swamp, or the West is Satan – gain ground.

Frank Cottrell Boyce is a children’s author and screenwriter

Anthony Seldon

The air in my country is not foul. I don’t know what country Ian McEwan was referring to when he said that, but it was certainly not the Britain I know and love.

Look at the reaction to the death of Jo Cox, or to the murders near parliament on 22 March. We can choose to focus on the far-right, hate-filled mindset of the crazed apology for a human being who killed a remarkable politician, leader and mother. We can be free to demonise Muslims and immigrants for the parliament attack. Or we can choose to see the inspirational and magnificent way that Brendan Cox, Jo’s husband, has responded, as have many millions in the country in reaction to both atrocities, who focus on what is best in human nature, rather than what is worst.

Yes, the leadership of Labour is utterly feeble. Liberal values are being assaulted on all sides – including, oddly, in my own world of universities. But focusing endlessly on what is wrong puts us in danger of diminishing all the freedoms of expression, liberalism and diversity that we enjoy in this country.

Sir Anthony Seldon is the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and a co-founder of Action for Happiness


David Goodhart

No, of course our democracy is not in crisis just because one of the main political parties is in a parlous state. That is to take a naively Westminster village and over-politicised view of the world. 

We are a rich and stable country with a pretty big consensus about the broad outlines of our society: a market economy flanked by a large state (40 per cent-plus of GDP), and with a public space dominated by an egalitarian and permissive ethos. 

None of that is going to change if Labour disappears down the plughole. The fourth estate will continue to provide scrutiny of government action and there will still be plenty of individuals in parliament who will be able to keep an eye on badly drafted or controversial legislation.

The reason why some liberals think there is a crisis of democracy is that they have, for once, lost an argument. They are used to winning things. For the past generation at least British life has been dominated by the “double liberalism” – both economic and social/cultural.

The people I have called in my new book (The Road to Somewhere) the Anywheres, the highly educated and mobile people who value autonomy and openness, have benefitted from the double liberalism and have completely dominated the policy agenda.

Most social trends either favour them or have been designed by them (well, us): just consider the huge expansion of higher education (and relative sidelining, at least until recently, of technical and vocational education), the knowledge economy and disappearance of middle status jobs, the historically unprecedented openness of the economy and levels of mass immigration, an anti-domesticity family policy that makes it hard to be a stay at home mother even when your children are young (unless you are rich), the loss of national sovereignty either to international institutions or technocrats (at the Bank of England for example) and judges who invariably give priority to Anywhere interests. 

It is the gap between Anywheres and the rest of society, particularly the people I call Somewheres—who are generally more rooted and less well educated and value security, familiarity and group identities—that has created the instability in our politics that has led to Brexit and the “foul air” that Ian McEwan believes he can smell.

But Anywheres, who dominate all the mainstream political parties, have confused their own interests for the national interest and have not had the emotional intelligence to see how discomforting rapid change can be to many people. Brexit was a legitimate Somewhere reaction against liberal overreach and a form of openness that has not been working well for them. 

The reaction can take ugly populist forms in the Geert Wilders party or even the brief spike in so-called hate crime after 23 June. But most Somewheres are decent populists just reminding the Anywheres that their priorities and interests are not the only ones that matter. Although I voted Remain, that seems to me a sign of our democracy working not failing. 

David Goodhart is the author of “The Road to Somewhere” (Hurst)


Caroline Lucas

Picture this: it’s 2025 and the Tories have just won another election – by a landslide. The country has changed, a lot. The NHS is, just about, still free at the point of use, but chronic underfunding and the inefficiencies of marketisation mean that anyone who can afford private health care uses that instead, to avoid waiting hours to be seen by overstretched staff. Many public services have vanished. There are hardly any youth centres left and park gates remain closed during the week, as councils can’t afford wardens. Child poverty has hit five million and it’s still going up. Britain is out of the EU and still finalising trade talks that started years ago. We’re a poorer, more isolated country with stronger borders and weaker communities.

This nightmare scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem; indeed, I’d argue it’s likely to be the country’s destiny unless the left gets its act together. For a start, that means we need to get serious about opposing hardline policies. Just look at some of the biggest votes in parliament in recent times: Article 50, Trident, Heathrow, Hinkley, HS2 – on each of them, huge numbers of Labour MPs walked through the lobbies with the Tories. And the Lib Dems’ record in government with the Tories doesn’t do them any favours, either, shackling them in the minds of many to a party that has inflicted deep cuts on our public services and the trebling of tuition fees. The Conservatives simply haven’t been facing the serious challenge to bad policymaking that they deserve.

But even a better-functioning set of opposition parties will struggle to beat the Tories, because the voting system is so heavily stacked against us. That’s why anyone serious about challenging the Tories must commit to electoral reform.

Caroline Lucas is a joint leader of the Green Party and the MP for Brighton Pavilion

Elif Shafak

As a Turkish novelist, I watch the rise of populist tides across Europe and the US with an odd sense of déjà vu. The patterns start to feel familiar: sharp polarisation across societies that separate people into imaginary categories of “us” against “them”; the blurring of the line between “fact” and “fiction”; the spread of a jingoistic, nationalistic rhetoric; the reinvention of the past as an “age of grandeur”, which now needs to be revived “to make our country great again”; the fetishisation of “strong leadership” at the expense of “pluralistic civil society”; the fragility of liberal democracy in the hands of populist demagogues . . .

There are three elements to take into consideration. First, populist movements have a disproportionate impact on mainstream politics. Once they gain confidence as significant players, they will pressure mainstream parties into adopting a more nationalistic tone. Second, populist movements, if and when they come to power, usually benefit hugely from occupying various state apparatuses, thus consolidating their legitimacy and power. Third, unlike the populisms of previous eras – and despite their isolationist rhetoric – today’s populist movements are globally interconnected.

Ours is the Age of Angst. Many people have worries – about the future of their children or their communities, about the possibility of a terrorist attack, about the prospects of the job market, and about cultural clashes or a possible refugee influx. We might not agree, but berating each other about such anxieties will not make them go away. It will only make anxious people inch closer to the far right.

Those who benefited from globalisation have not paid enough attention to the worries of those who did not. Some of these worries were triggered by economic inequalities and financial instability. Many others, however, were triggered by emotions and perceptions. As a result, the gap widened. Let us start by bridging those gaps.

It is understandable to have worries in a liquid world where everything in changing. What is not OK is when national politics is guided by fear. Nation states have made the worst mistakes in their history when they have allowed themselves to be guided by fear.

It is a failure on the part of the liberal left that populist demagogues have thus far done a better job in terms of connecting with people at an emotional, visceral level. Progressives in Britain need to reach out to people they have failed to connect with before. We also need to cover areas that we have hitherto ignored. Faith is too important to leave to the religious. Patriotism is too important to leave to the nationalists. Emotions are too important to leave to populist demagogues.

Elif Shafak is a novelist and commentator


David Blunkett

I lived through, worked through, the early 1980s. And people were in despair after the 1983 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don’t want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour Party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party? That’s the challenge of the next two years. A lot depends on what the trade unions do.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour Party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer. As told to Anoosh Chakelian


Dale Vince

How did the Tories win the last election? What on Earth made Britain vote to leave the EU or America elect Trump? Three shock events of the past year, are they all symptoms of a shift in public sentiment? I think they may be. My feeling is that there’s something of a kick-back against the agenda that has held sway for so long. A kick-back against “political correctness”, that progressive force of nature that made it socially unacceptable to express, let alone act on, racism, sexism and all the other isms of years gone by.

What to do? Forget Trump, he’s not our immediate problem. Brexit and an almost unopposed Tory government, led by an unelected prime minister, hell-bent on excluding parliament from any meaningful role, aided and abetted by a right-wing media owned, ironically, by rich foreigners: that’s our problem.

Some things just have to run their course. Brexit may well have to happen, may be unavoidable now anyway and may in the long run have a silver lining at least, if it exposes the fallacy of the whole project, the nonsense and lies of the Brexiteers. And if they carry the can for that, in the decades to come. We can hope.

But before that, there’s a case to be made for a second referendum. The first was fought between two competing versions of the future – apocalypse or utopia. Neither was right: we were essentially asked to vote for a step into the unknown. It’s not like anyone ever left the EU before.

Two years from now we’ll know exactly what the future holds, what leaving the EU really looks like versus staying in. It will be right then to ask ourselves once more: do we want to do this? We voted to leave without knowing what that really meant. That was a vote for the principle of leaving. It’s right to get to the bottom of that, so let’s see what Theresa May’s “best deal for Britain” really looks like – and then ask ourselves again, before we press the button, like all good software does: are you sure you want to delete your EU membership?

Dale Vince is the founder of Ecotricity

Menzies Campbell

There are some very interesting developments on the Conservative side of the House, because we’ve had a revolt in relation to the NICs, we have a potential one in relation to education spending, and we did have a partial revolt, but one that ran out of the steam, on the issue of Brexit. And the more often people revolt, or the more often revolts appear to be successful, the more likely they are to occur in the future.

So the pity is, from an opposition’s point-of-view, is that the opposition isn’t together and on a rising tide. Because if that were to be the case, then the Prime Minister would be under a great deal of pressure. And it’s interesting of course, the only serious pressure she’s been under, is that exerted by the Scottish Nationalists.

The Lib Dems have got to strain every sinew, deliver every leaflet, fight every council by-election. Will we move back in this Parliament to where we were in 2010? No, I’ve always said it would take ten years. But let me put it this way, there’s every opportunity for us to get halfway there by 2020.

We have done in the past. In 1992 and 1997, we did have a lot of cooperation [with Labour]. But that of course was a rather different agenda – some of the extreme positions being adopted by Corbyn and McDonnell do not make cooperation easy. In the case of Blair, there was a very close relationship with Ashdown in that period from ‘92 to ‘97. And it’s very hard to see similar circumstances arising in the near future between the Lib Dems and Labour.

I don’t think there’s any possibility of SDP Mk II. But if the Conservatives win in the next election in spite of poor performance, there’s a real sense among the left and the centre left that the only way Conservative hegemony is going to be undermined is by a far higher degree of co-operation.

If Labour gets a drubbing in 2020, I doubt very much if he [Jeremy Corbyn] will survive it. Mark you, you have to say he’s like the India Rubber Man – you knock him over and he just bounces straight back. He’s a bit like Trump in one sense: anything adverse is simply hosed away. It just bounces off him. Even if it rains heavily, he doesn’t believe he’s got wet.

One of the principal qualities of political leadership is to know when you are no longer being an advantage to your party, and to have the courage to recognise that – and to take the obvious course of resignation.

Sir Menzies (“Ming”) Campbell is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats. As told to Anoosh Chakelian


Paddy Ashdown

How do we provide Britain with an alternative to the Tories? How do we provide something that can hold the Tories to account, given that Labour has completely failed to do so and is likely to continue to do that? The growth of the Lib Dems is welcome and necessary but not sufficient. If we were to leap from nine to – let’s go to the wilder shores of speculation – 40, all we are doing is robbing the Tories of their majority, or getting us back into coalition territory. I’m not saying we’d ever do a coalition with the Tories again, particularly not these ones.

There are massively more people who are deeply worried, who are very angry about what’s going on, who desperately want to have their voice heard and make a difference but at the moment don’t want to do it through a political party. I wish they did. We have to do something quite similar to what Tony Blair and I did: we have to create the mood, a sort of space, where people of an intelligent focus can gather.

We created the climate of an expectation of co-operation. We mapped out what would be the constitutional agenda of a new government if the Tories were defeated. We had the Scottish Convention, which acted as a harbinger to Scottish devolution. We secretly – and less secretly later on – co-ordinated our approach to Prime Minister’s Questions. We encouraged tactical voting in by-elections: in the run-up to the [1997] election we used the Daily Mirror to publish a list of 50 seats – 25 in which Labour voters were encouraged to vote Lib Dem, 25 in which Lib Dems were encouraged to vote Labour. We created a climate where people found it possible to be non-tribal.

If the progressive centre remains voiceless, this country cannot succeed. If the progressive centre and those who support it inside and outside politics cannot come together, then we are condemned to an eternity of Tory party governments moving further and further to the right – and God knows, I can’t bear the thought of that.

Paddy Ashdown is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats and a co-founder of More United


John Mills, Labour donor

As far as the EU is concerned, the Labour party needs to unite now behind trying to get the best deal we can, not try to roll the clock back. Otherwise it will just go on losing support amongst blue collar supporters. It needs to unite behind a more positive campaign.

There is a danger of a Conservative government that is dominant for quite a long time. It’s going to be very difficult to hold them to account.

John Mills is a Labour donor and chair of Labour Leave

Leanne Wood

Since the vote in Wales to leave the EU, some have typecast people here as narrow-minded. I’ve read more think-pieces about former coalfield communities in the aftermath of the referendum than I ever saw before it. People in the former industrial regions of Wales are used to not being noticed.

But there are new choices to be made following that vote. Plaid Cymru supports our continued participation in the European single market. Unlike the UK as a whole, Wales has a trade surplus with the EU. Some 67 per cent of our exports went to the European single market in the most recent years. The surplus is most acute in manufacturing and agriculture. If Brexit harms those industries in any way, our existing economic problems will get worse, and we won’t be able to fulfil our huge economic potential.

But it’s not just about trade. Many people in Wales are concerned that “Brexit” is a code word for a revamped British nationalism, conjuring up visions of empire and leaving no space for the Welsh. We intend to counter the divisive nature of this politics with our civic Welshness.

Leanne Wood is the leader of Plaid Cymru


Brendan Chilcot

The unfortunate thing is that since Jeremy Corbyn was elected, the Labour party has been occupied primarily with internal battles. Whenever our leaders are on the news, they are not discussing what the government is up to, they are discussing what Momentum said or what Progress thinks on this and what constituencies passed that motion. No one out there gives a monkey’s. They want the Labour party to come up with sound alternatives to challenge the government and to get on with being an opposition.

After 2015, when we lost, there was a Progress conference I went to, and [the political analyst] Peter Kelner stood up and said: “Before the Labour party can form a government again, it’s got to answer this question. If the Labour party didn’t exist now, why would it need to be invented?”

Brendan Chilcot is general secretary of Labour Leave and the director of Labour Future


Dan Wilson Craw, Generation Rent

The government has moved on letting fees, and they recognised in a white paper that private renting is not equipped to house people for the long term.

But what they have proposed so far on this is really feeble – the planned new build-to-rent schemes will only help 2 per cent of the renting population – so they really need to be pushed further.

One thing the government could be doing is spending the £1.2bn they have hauled in from higher taxes on landlords. That sum could build 6,000 council homes if you’re being conservative. They could triple the number of council houses built in a year. These are two things the government doesn’t do enough on and the opposition could be pushing on.  


Charles Clarke

The single most important thing is for the main body of people within the Labour party and Parliament to develop a coherent approach, particularly on our approach to Brexit, and to articulate it strongly. I have massive criticisms of course of Jeremy Corbyn, I don’t think he’s capable of leading us to win an election, I have massive criticisms of John McDonnell and the leadership of the party, Diane Abbott – I think they’re hopeless, and Labour can’t possibly win if they’re in office.

I think the key is for the centre body of the party to work together to develop in policy terms and vision terms a picture of what Labour should be offering to the country in 2020. I don’t see anything that I’d call a coherent presentation of a view for Britain, and I don’t see a leader or leaders emerging from within that group who are articulating that. I think that’s our biggest weakness and failing.

Jeremy was elected because he appeared to be a voice for change, and his opponents weren’t able to do that. And it’s that centre Labour position that hasn’t gelled itself into a picture of the future of the country which is the most depressing thing about it at the moment.

My strong advice is to ignore Corbyn. If you focus entirely simply on getting rid of Corbyn, then you’re missing the main issue which is what is the Labour offer to the people of the country is in 2020 and that is the main issue – not the person who is the leader. I don’t myself think that Jeremy has the physical or mental strength to keep going for another three years, and I think he’ll fall over during that period. He’s likely to fall over and I don’t think people should particularly devote energy to it.

We completely failed to deal with how we relate to the SNP prior to the 2015 election – Ed Miliband completely messed that up. There’s an opportunity that’s just opened – if we were to be much more aggressive on saying we only go along with Brexit in the event that we stayed in the single market – to open up an alliance with the SNP in that position, which I could imagine being a possibly more stable position, which wouldn’t lead to an independence referendum. The SNP will still be a big factor after the 2020 general election, and therefore we have to find a way to deal with them if we’re interested in being in power after the election.

As far as the Lib Dems are concerned, I think that the great success in the Tory 2015 election was sweeping the Lib Dem seats from the southwest of England right up to the edge of London – there is something in saying we should help the Lib Dems to win some of those seats, a dozen of those seats back from the Tories. I think a seat-by-seat examination in certain seats which would weaken the Tory position is worth thinking about. There are a few seats where us not running, or being broadly supportive of the Lib Dems, might reduce the number of Tory seats.

Charles Clarke is a former home secretary and was Labour MP for Norwich South in 1997-2010. As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

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