The nature of opposition

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.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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18 Responses to The nature of opposition

  1. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Lord Norton,
    It would be interesting to see if Russia will develop a style of its own and if it does to what degree it will borrow from Westminster and other models. In my youth when the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) held almost all seats and most offices throughout the Mexican States I knew many in the Party but also those in the PAN (Partido Autentico Nacional) who did succeed in becoming the majority party and Presidential Party eventually and remeber their struggles to work with a diversity of opposition parties against a super party then had its own well organized factional sysytem (intra-party opposition). I contrast that to the Philippines which when it drove the Marcos machine from power (I knew people across that spectrum as well) did so under the banner of LABAN UNIDO (United Opposition) which meant that all opposition parties became factions in a super party for a single election cycle. It was remarkable because they were easily as diverse in position as all British parties or those elsewhere would be. I think the newer Mexican regimes aspire to a more complex power sharing similar to the US and a number of other polities but are currently in the path of hugely disruptive international forces.

    I would not underestimate how much more workable the Bristish sytem in Commons and COuncils has been because of the stabilizing and mitigating influnce of “Politics” as it is practiced not only in Lords but also true Crown institutions. The worst sorts of jolts are simply smoothed over by these other parts of the UK process.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Frank W. Summers III: I confined my comments to opposition configurations within a legislature. Once one goes beyond the legislature, one can identify other types of opposition, not least where one party is in control of the legislature but another in control of the presidency, or where one party controls a regional or state assembly and another the national legislature. All these, though, are within constitutional opposition. One can, of course, have opposition to the state itself.

      • Frank W. Summers III says:

        Lord Norton.
        Your last comment is of course difficult to avoid considering today.In my view there are many movements today which are radical in the sense you mention. This includes nihilistic anarchists who include some motivayed by a desire to see a posthuman Earth survive when they do not think Earth can survive with us. Then varied foreign sponsored anarchists in many states as well as those favouring transformations which are extrra constitutional. Then one reaches those who favour radical change within the processes of the constituion and how much the constitution itself will be transformed varies my time and place. Yet, certainly in the cases of Russia, Mexico and the Philippines all other opposition has been lead as much from the legislature as anywhere. All these radical elemets can comingle in the many mass street movements of our exact time. The President of Iran has stated that the drone he is displaying in pristine condition is being reverse engineered and is a gift from his friends in North America. US and Allied supply lines are being cut in Pakistan and the US will leave Iraq without a fortified foothold. Millions run across the US border and a handful are armed foreign belligerents. Our credit rating has been downgraded and we have many protests and a Congress seemingly out of touch. This sort of environment creates a sensibility which feeds not only typical radicals but mainstreamed radical libertarians like Ron Paul in our country. But most of these people here and elsewhere hope fo find a voice in the legislative concialiar structures as well.

        Whatever may happen I think Europe will find itself with an America across the Atlantic which is very different in 2020 than was the America of 2000. I myself advocate radical change and in an honest assessment am promoting one of the least likely constitutionalist radical programs in our society. Meanwhile, the list of challenges inadequately addressed by the world as a whole keeps getting longer. It is a time to think hard about opposition and your own anlysis is surely part of that process.

        When one thinks of relatively radical changes they certainly have had varied relations with the seated legislature and its structures but certainly in the West they have tended to seek a certain legislative legitimacy and to have precursors of some kind in the legislature itself.

  2. ladytizzy says:

    Many thanks, a typically concise and lucid account.

    A couple of questions:

    Is a shadow cabinet strictly necessary or is it a convention?

    Theoretically, there may not be a single party with a majority in opposition although if FPTP was replaced with a form of PR ‘theory’ would become ‘probable’. Would the Opposition also have to concoct a formal coalition?

    • Croft says:

      “Is a shadow cabinet strictly necessary or is it a convention?”

      No and perhaps! It is certainly custom but there is no requirement. Westminster business is adversarial and needs an opposition spokesman to reply to/scrutinise the governments programme but that doesn’t in an off itself necessitate a shadow cabinet. Even when oppositions win it pretty common to see many shadow cabinets members take up wholly different ministerial posts.

      “Would the Opposition also have to concoct a formal coalition?”

      No – As you can’t have any certainty that the next election will make the numbers add up and it limits parties options.

      • ladytizzy says:

        Thanks, Croft. The terms ‘official Opposition’ and ‘Leader of the Opposition’ made me wonder, “What if?”, along with how current parliamentary paraphernalia such as (and in particular) Short Money could present immediate problems. I accept your points, of course, on numbers and actual positions if the opposition succeeds.

        If I understand correctly, all MPs not belonging to the governing party, or parties, are in opposition but the official opposition is represented by the party with the second largest majority. Today, all Cabinet posts are mirrored exclusively by Labour MPs, while the gvt rubs along with MPs from two parties.

        Let’s assume the next election will again not deliver an overall majority. Nearer the time, and with every poll suggesting a formal coalition is necessary , would it be sensible for the opposition to approach likely partners (as the gvt would surely do) and in a very public way appoint them to shadow posts? Further, would it be beneficial to the Lib Dems (things can’t get worse for them) if they staged a walk-out and accepted key posts within the opposition? And if that happened I assume the Lib Dems would be entitled to Short Money again.

        Moving to the HoL, if pigs fly and the Reform Bill is enacted with all the trimmings such as STV, it would be tricky to allot spokesmen from the party that represents the official opposition in the HoC if that did not match with make-up of elected reps from the HoL, as would be almost inevitable with STV and a limit of 300 members.

      • Croft says:

        I assume that Short money is pro rata (or the opportunity for abuse could be absurd) so leaving just before an election would seem financially pointless. I’m not sure politically it would look good – hard to make it look a matter of principle. Supporters of the coalition would likely think worse of them and by leaving only at the last minute opponents of the coalition would likely not reward them. They would likely look either weak/indecisive or if they created an artificial excuse to walk out just disingenuous.

        “likely partners (as the gvt would surely do) and in a very public way appoint them to shadow posts? Further”

        How would that help; the public might not like a pre-agreed coalition – the LDs were desperate at the last GE not to pick side because of who it would alienate. Your assuming the opp-coalition could agree a platform which is a big if and that members chosen will win their seats. They could well spent the campaign season defending or fighting over their compromises which seems a hostage to fortune.

      • ladytizzy says:

        I don’t altogether disagree though the dismal image of the Lib Dems – eg naive, woeful, disingenuous – is already set whether one supports the coalition or not, and unlikely to improve between now and whenever. Your comments are perfectly reasonable but the same criticisms can be levelled at the the Lib Dems because they are part of the governing coalition.

        Something extraordinary has to happen for the Lib Dem party to survive the next election especially if the proposed boundary changes go through as is, with the Lib Dems expected to lose 25% of their seats (another big if, since this is not in the coalition agreement). Also, one has to ask if Labour and Tories would want to be associated with damaged goods.

      • Croft says:

        “the proposed boundary changes go through as is, with the Lib Dems expected to lose 25% of their seats”

        They will certainly lose seats though probably not as many as 25% on the boundaries. The public analysis of the changes is at present pretty crude and it’s on as yet provisional boundaries.

  3. Dave H says:

    As a general rule, any legislation rushed through with the full support of all sides tends to be of poorer quality than that which has been fought over in committee.

    Perhaps there should be a convention that anything with all-party support needs to have an automatic sunset clause requiring review after a fixed time or it lapses.

  4. maude elwes says:

    It would be good for our democracy of we had anything close to an Opposition. So those from Vietnam are not going to get much of an example to take home with them.

    The one we have is a complete shambles. And this is the mother of Parliaments.

    • Frank W. Summers III says:

      Maude Elwes,

      Perhaps England is the Mother of Parliaments but London can be Neo Philadelphia. The “New City of Brotherly Love” is a nickname we could gin up to honor the affectionate Milibands…

  5. maude elwes says:


    Have you developed a festish for me?

  6. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Maude Elwes,
    However often you may or may not give naughty boys credit for tenacity I will receive this in a festive holiday spirit…

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