In my talk at the seminar at the French National Assembly last week, I spoke on the nature of parliamentary opposition. I addressed the nature of opposition and the differing configurations it may take within a legislature: the Opposition, a combination of opposition parties, intra-party opposition (dissent by government backbenchers) and inter-party opposition (opposition from a party or parties within a coalition). In recent years, the UK Parliament has become more used to intra-party opposition and, since May of last year, has had to adapt to inter-party opposition. However, we are best known for what Anthony King identified as the opposition mode of executive-legislative relations.
Having the second largest party designated as the official Opposition is well understood in the context of Westminster parliaments. (The term Leader of the Opposition, for example, originates in Canada.) The rules proceed largely on the basis of a Government and an Opposition and, as Erskine May notes, the growth of third parties does not destroy this basic approach. In my talk, I addressed the problems, and the benefits, associated with having an official Opposition.
The problems associated with Opposition are that is essentially negative (the duty of the Opposition is to oppose) and, as long as the Government has a parliamentary majority, does not affect outcomes. Attacks by the Opposition tend to unite Government MPs. However, there are clear benefits in that it provides for scrutiny (not necessarily unthinking opposition) that is structured, consistent, and transparent. It is structured in that the parliamentary rules ensure Opposition can respond to whatever Government brings forward; it is consistent in that whatever ministers propose will be subject to scrutiny by the shadow ministerial team; and it is transparent in that the debate between the two sides takes place in a public forum that is covered by the media. The Opposition is entitled to be heard and relies on the oxygen of publicity.
I did end on a postscript on the House of Lords where, it strikes me, we tend to get benefits without all the problems.