By David Alton
This week’s Queen’s Speech in Parliament opened a new parliamentary session. Yet, as the Government looked forward to its legislative programme the more intriguing question was what kind of year it will be for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
There is no doubt in my mind that any democracy needs a strong and effective opposition – especially in a Parliament where the government party has such a substantial majority. Ministers need to be held to account, polices and performance dissected. When this doesn’t happen governments become arrogant and contemptuous of opinions other than their own.
It is no exaggeration to insist that democracies are ultimately only as effective as their opposition: and when opposition is neutered we are all the losers.
Think back to the early 1980s and the collapse of the Labour Party as a credible source of opposition and you will see what I mean.
The parallel with that period is quite striking. Both Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock led a party riven with internal factionalism and incapable of unity. They both faced a hostile press that questioned whether they were up to the job and endless speculation about who would succeed them. Agonised editorials would appear questioning whether the Labour Party would survive or whether it would be eclipsed by the new Liberal/SDP Alliance.
As he seeks to stamp his authority on an equally fractious Conservative Party Iain Duncan Smith must surely ponder on the parallels and wonder what he can do to make his party into an effective opposition, and to make it electable.
There are three ways in which that task will become easier.
For the first time in several years the Conservative Party has the beginning of an idea: a coherent set of policies being marshalled around the banner of “compassionate conservatism.” We used to call this “one nation” but, no matter, it is the right place for them to be. People do not want interminable debate about the Euro. A deep commitment to the improvement and fundamental reform of health services and education are the central platform on which the Conservatives must fight.
Secondly, they are right to identify with the widespread concern about the disintegration of marriage and family life and to name it as a key Conservative issue. The devastating effects of divorce and fatherlessness on both children and society are well documented. The Pope has described family breakdown as “a festering wound” whose consequences “spread in society like the plague.” By seriously addressing this issue the Conservatives will distance themselves from their rivals and attract considerable approval.
Thirdly, the Conservatives must re-engage in cities and urban areas where they have been absent for as much as two decades. A national party must organise everywhere and rebuild a credible local government base. That requires a long slog and a willingness by MPs to spend time encouraging their Party’s growth in these wilderness areas.
And what else might Iain Duncan Smith do?
Harold MacMillan always said that more than anything else politics is determined by “events, dear boy, events.” Iain Duncan-Smith is a former soldier; he has a clear grasp of defence issues. The events that will unfold in Iraq will eclipse the domestic legislative agenda unveiled in the Queen’s Speech and the country may come to see qualities in the Leader of the Opposition that have as yet we have not had the chance to properly appreciate.