How to Be in Opposition

Edward Pearce

'If Ed Miliband doesn't provide more direction for his party and more definition for himself,’ Mary Ann Sieghart writes in today’s Independent, ‘he is in danger of ending up like William Hague.' She doesn’t mean he’ll be foreign secretary one day; rather that he stands no chance of being prime minister unless he manages to ‘project a political personality that engages voters’ imagination’. ‘People want to know what type of person he is and what motivates him,’ she says. Newspaper columnists have been complaining about Miliband along these lines since before he was elected Labour leader. And they couldn’t be more wrong.

Hague’s problem was that he was too well defined: as a Euro-basher, as a Thatcherite zealot, and as not Kenneth Clarke (the most popular Conservative nationally). Blair’s merits in opposition – his only merits, as it turned out – lay in nice manners and a shimmering anonymity. The mighty shift to the right was layered over with vagueness and TV charm: from the point of view of gaining power, exactly the right thing to do. Miliband is not as clever as Mary Ann Sieghart, but he’s clever enough to know that tedious clichés got that way by being right: governments lose elections; oppositions simply have to keep their noses clean, make no unnecessary enemies and let the follies and misfortunes of their opponents carry them across the Commons floor – work on which the coalition is well ahead of schedule.


  • 4 April 2011 at 3:40pm
    aureliozen says:
    Few people at the last election thought that the government had done a particularly good job. The Conservatives had pretty convincingly imitated Blair's shimmering anonymity. I should have thought that the result might have led some to question the truth of the tedious cliche about clean noses being sufficient for electoral success against an unpopular government.

  • 4 April 2011 at 7:30pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    If you want a lesson in how to get into power and then blow it, big time, it's worth taking a look at the fate of the Liberals in Germany. Elected two years ago with one policy objective:a tax reform that would benefit everybody who paid taxes. They got 14% of the national vote. Now they are down to 5% and struggling. The electoral ground has fallen away as people have realised that it was all sound and fury. Foreign Minister Westerwelle is stepping down as chairman of the party but wants to stay on as fm. The conservative-liberal coalition has managed more political pierouttes in the last four weks than Blair in ten years. But it won't save them from oblivion. The Merkel effect is dead and gone.

  • 4 April 2011 at 10:42pm
    alex says:
    "Hague’s problem was that he was too well defined." You miss an important point here. OK, Hague was too straight-up to the media. But as a result, there are some who actually like him. Not me, I hasten to add - but his boyish-plonker image strikes a chord. By contrast, Miliband - cerebral, never coming out with anything despite obvious crapness of those in power: this doesn't endear anyone to him.

  • 5 April 2011 at 9:47am
    Joe Morison says:
    I'm with Edward Pearce on this one, it's a long long time till the next election - softly softly catchee monkey.

    (And is anyone as clever as Mary Ann Sieghart?)

    • 6 April 2011 at 7:56am
      Phil Edwards says: @ Joe Morison
      Ask Mary Ann Sieghart. She'll know.

    • 6 April 2011 at 11:18am
      outofdate says: @ Joe Morison
      Says here no, though for my money that Friedman fellow is awfully clever, been everywhere. A bit like Colin Forbes, whose blurbs used to say he'd visited 'over 16 countries.'

      Re cliche, what Nietzsche said is that some truths are so banal that they deserve to become cliches the moment they're first expressed, which doesn't make them less true but slam-dunks them on value. To conclude, therefore, that a cliche may tell us 'all' we need to know about a subject is to jettison the sole faculty that separates human beings from Stanley Fish, which isn't reason but discrimination.

  • 6 April 2011 at 11:56am
    semitone says:
    The Australian Labor Party tried this against John Howard in 1998. They called it the "small target strategy". Howard had had a disastrous first term, and was just a couple of well-argued big ideas would have won it for Beazley. But he bottled it, as he bottled everything else.

    Beazley's next plan was to ape the government, playing "I can be more rightwing than you" - this is just another brand of shimmering anonymity, I think, and it didn't work either. Labor lost the next one because its leader was a loon, but it finally won in 2007 with a candidate brimming with ideas, policies and character. Within a week of becoming PM he had morphed into a featureless robot with no personality to speak of and no courage of his convictions beyond soundbites and cliches. So his party rolled him.

    The moral of the story is: have some ideas, communicate them effectively, and don't wait for the other guy to make a mistake. This goes for Ed too, which is why he is disappointing so many people.

    • 10 April 2011 at 7:42am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ semitone
      l like your moral, it makes sense, so why do so few politicians take that route? The answer is, I think, that they always squint sideways at their ratings, and ask themselves what will happen if the score drops. No longer the voters' darling, they fear oblivion . No headlines? Disaster strikes! They should act accordng to Kant's categorical imperative but they never do.

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