It goes without saying that most of the attention paid to parliament tends to be concentrated on the party (or coalition) in power because they are the ones capable of getting things done, changing laws, changing lives and in theory representing the majority of the nation’s voters.
However, like many things which are not appreciated until they are gone, the value of a functional opposition in a parliamentary democracy is often overlooked.
Parliament is not supposed to merely rubber stamp government policies but to dynamically debate, refine and reform them before being enacted into legislation by a vote.
A strong opposition can pressure a government into changing or at least mitigating their policy, they can press the government on details which expose unwelcome facets of their legislation and they can offer a genuine alternative to the populace, making elections a vital process by which the general public can choose between distinct political ideologies.
On the other hand, a weak opposition effectively leaves the government with free reign to do whatever they like, fails to pick holes in dubious legislation and reduces elections to a formality which results in voter disengagement, low turnout and a degradation of the whole concept of representative democracy.
In both the UK and Scottish parliaments, Labour are the second largest party and thus form the backbone of what should be the opposition* but the party’s inability to process the reasons for their fall from government over the last eight years, their ongoing leadership turmoil and seeming loss of identity has left them unable to perform that task.
* Indeed in Westminster, the Labour leader is the formal Leader of the Opposition, while Holyrood’s less adversarial format means that no such official analogue exists in the Scottish lexicon.
In both parliaments, Labour stand too close to the party in government, not wanting to seem too different lest they be deemed ‘unelectable’ while attempting to distinguish themselves from their opponents on evidently disingenuous ideological terms.
In Westminster, Labour feel they cannot oppose the right wing austerity agenda lest they be seen as economically irresponsible – effectively accepting the Conservative narrative rather than challenging it and offering an alternative. Since long before the recent general election they have repeatedly voted with the government or abstained on major votes, effectively negating their worth as an opposition – and in my eyes, making themselves unelectable in the process. After all, if you want a neoliberal, corporate sponsored government, why would you vote for the equivocating, vanilla version when the full throated Conservative version was right there?
In Holyrood, Labour suffer from being diametrically opposed to the SNP on one issue (independence), at odds on a few issues (notably how to deal with the ongoing financial crisis & austerity) and on most others, their manifestos could be copied and pasted from one another. This leaves them unable to tackle the SNP on most policy areas as they would not suggest wildly different approaches, they cannot wholeheartedly campaign for austerity knowing the mood of the Scottish electorate and are left picking at the edges and harping on about the SNP’s obsession with independence.
This leaves the SNP, with only 56 MPs to the Conservatives 330 as the main functional opposition in Westminster and they have set about doing their best despite the 6-1 odds (which are even worse when you consider that Labour, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the DUP are as likely to vote with the Conservatives as oppose them.)
What makes this even more frustrating is that the majorities enjoyed by the governing parties in the both parliaments are laughably small, meaning that a strong opposition would be ideally placed to affect government policy and take advantage of any dissension in the government ranks.
It is necessary in the name of democracy that the Conservatives and SNP are confronted by a strong opposition in both parliaments, either by Labour rediscovering their principles or by increased representation at the next election for parties who are actually willing to provide that opposition.