Whilst we await the first round voting results from the Conservative leadership I feel I should give readers the opportunity to think about the role and performance of the Opposition in Parliament.
I have always regarded the Opposition as an important part of the UK constitution. Any government needs the challenge and arguments good Opposition brings. It leads to better decision taking, to second thoughts when the first proposal is ill thought through, and to the exposure of failings and worse in government management. In recent years the Opposition has in effect been part of the government. Since 2010 much of the big programme of European measures, spending plans and EU laws have been voted through thanks to Opposition support or abstention, at a time when the Conservative governing party has had many rebels on EU matters. I have talked before about the emergence of a grand coalition to keep the EU plans alive. This presumably is no longer needed as we head to the exit.
It takes a lot of MPs to run a good opposition. There needs to be a full team of shadow Ministers, following the detail of each Minister’s actions, and keeping up with the wider work of the departments of state. There need to be enough people to man the Select Committees and the Bill Committees of the House, often working at the same time as other MPs need to be in the main Commons chamber keeping the debate going. There are also the debates in Westminster Hall which require an official Opposition presence.
Mr Corbyn has a large mandate from his own party members. His election win was remarkable for modern politics, winning an outright majority on the first round instead of having to face a run off against the most popular opponent. Most of his MPs were always sceptical about his views and talents. Now the big majority of them refuse to serve in his shadow government, making it extremely difficult for him to lead a credible opposition staffing all the tasks they need to fulfil in Parliament.
The irony is that his rebellious MPs seem to want to move policy and attitudes further away from those of many members and voters. Mr Corbyn himself seemed to compromise his Eurosceptic views in order to accommodate his former Shadow Cabinet. This drove him apart from millions of Labour voters who voted Brexit in the referendum, whilst not protecting him from accusations of insufficient commitment to the Remain cause amongst his MPs. They claim most Labour voters did vote Remain nonetheless, yet the figures for the Leave vote were very high in many once safe Labour areas.
Mr Corbyn understands the disillusion with elite politics felt by many voters in those Labour areas, but is finding it difficult to concentrate the conversations in ways that will help them thanks to the antagonism of many of his MPs.
What should he and they do next? Can Labour elect a new more moderate leader, given its membership? Would such a leader anyway be able to reconnect with the voters that seem to be drifting away from their old allegiances?