What we can learn from the Tories in opposition (and how there's an opportunity for the new Labour leader to remold the party)

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OK, so I’m no analyst, academic, journalist, politician or philosopher and, if you’re interested, you will have heard or read 1001 opinions on who and what Labour should choose in the forthcoming leadership election. However, I am a Labour party member and I have thought hard about this. Here’s my twopenneth…


It’s worth looking at how the Tories fared in opposition. In 1997, they lost big – Labour won a 179(!) seat majority. The first post–Major leader was William Hague, who proceeded to lose big again, after which Ian Duncan Smith(!!) took the Tory helm. After that debacle the Tories selected Michael Howard – a relatively safe pair of hands – then finally settled on David Cameron after Howard lost the 2005 election.

As someone once asked: what really went on there? And what can we learn from it?

1. The leader is all important

The first thing that strikes me is I don’t remember a single Tory policy during the Blair and Brown years. Even Osborne and Cameron were quite happy to support Labour’s spending plans. I do, however, recall how shit Ian Duncan Smith was:

Maybe first leader after an election loss is a particularly difficult gig. However, Ed Miliband was a bad choice in the same way as Ian Duncan Smith, something the party sensed by backing his more rightwing but experienced brother. Like IDS Ed’s main battle was against his fundamental lack of credibility, which meant he spent most his time pulling the good leader levers rather than expressing a narrative. There were lots of good policies, but Ed always looked desperate and untrustworthy.

2. The government holds all the cards, opposition is about opposing well

We should remember Labour enjoyed a remarkably long honeymoon period, governing in a relative sea of calm. In 2001 their majority was reduced by a measly 12 seats. David Cameron became Tory leader post–Iraq, when the cracks were beginning to appear in the New Labour project. If he was a few years older his story would have probably been a lot different.

Opposition is just that. If the governing party appears to be doing a decent, competent job it’s unlikely the electorate will boot them out. All you can do is make life as difficult as possible.

It was absurd for Labour not to vote against the recent welfare bill, a complete failure in their duty to the country and the party. If it does have some sort of problem with appearing ‘soft on welfare’ who cares 5 years out from the next election? Unlike the 1997 Labour government, the Tories have a tiny majority of 12. They are vulnerable and should be attacked at every opportunity.

3. It’s not the policies

Do you remember a single policy put forward by David Cameron in opposition? Themes, yes: the big society, hug a hoodie etc. All these told the story of a new, nicer Conservative party.

This will sound strange, but I’m sure it’s true. Policies in opposition are largely unimportant. Come election time that changes. Before then it’s mood, themes and, most of all, narrative. All of which serve to make you more credible and electable.

Of course, you can drop the narrative once you’re in power. The big society was buried quickly.

The reason Jeremy Corbyn appears to be so popular is that he doesn’t care how his policies play out in the electorate’s mind. He does, however, offer a simple, powerful story that resonates strongly with party members. Like Nigel Farage, you can believe he believes what he’s saying.

Liz Kendall is fairly clear about the Labour party’s purpose and problems; namely, that it’s shit and should give up on all that socialist stuff altogether. That’s easy to understand – the only problem is there wouldn’t be a Labour party left if she became leader.

What of Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham? Could you name one thing they believe in? What’s their narrative?

There is time and space to actually express an opinion about something rather than react to things. This isn’t a time for tactics but belief.

Yvette Cooper’s opportunity

The Labour party is dead on its knees, enervated by years of defensiveness and tortuous tactical thinking.

The one good thing about opposition is that it gives you time to think things through, to establish a new narrative.

Yvette Cooper could be a good leader. Although Corbyn has the best narrative he has an IDS credibility problem – the public won’t take him seriously as a leader. Liz Kendall is beginning to form a narrative, although she’s not particularly inspiring. More importantly, that narrative will destroy the party from the inside.

Of the two ‘sane’ choices, Cooper ticks a lot of boxes. She’s talented, politically experienced and has lived in what politicians refer to as the real world. And, not to be too blunt, she is a woman. Electing a female leader would signal a clear change, and David Cameron has a woman problem:

It would be great if Cooper could establish a new narrative that appealed to the party. In my opinion, a traditional centre offering based around a theme of compassion would do well.

It would re–energise party members in these far right times, while providing a clear challenge to the Conservatives. Although policy detail isn’t important, a grand gesture wouldn’t go amiss. Something along the lines of scrapping tuition fees.

Is she capable? Or have years of tactical manouvering made it impossible? I fear the latter.