Wednesday, 13 April 2011

A Credible Opposition

I think that most of my readers will be familiar with Jersey politics. If you aren't, it has a dominant clique with real power and some backbenchers, who get a modest salary for achieving more or less nothing, however hard they work. This inability of the backbenchers to achieve useful input is a fairly new problem, arising from the “reform” of introducing ministerial government. Previously, almost everybody sat in on the committees that formerly controlled departments.

This removal of any effective check or influence on ministerial power is a matter of concern to those who follow local politics, other than supporters of incumbent ministers, of course. Soon there will be a campaign launching, to call for the creation of a credible opposition.

I wonder, though, what the promoters of this campaign foresee as the fruit of the project. I presume that the first step is to find more high-calibre candidates with left-wing or centre-left views. However, that particular talent pool may well prove rather shallow. It would not surprise me if the best are not either already backbench States members, or well-known activists, whom everyone expects to stand in due course. Then there is the matter of forming a coherent opposition, unlike the current situation, where the same third of the House usually vote against the ministerial line, but are united more by their rejection of the other side than any shared vision.

All over the world, coherence is the product of parties. I think, therefore that the way forward will have to be yet another attempt to found a party, building on the ruins of past failures such as the fast-fading JDA and the long gone and forgotten Rainbow Alliance. But, it is hard to sell to good candidates the discipline of party politics, when they know they are facing an electorate with a proven track records for liking colourful mavericks.

Suppose we do get Jersey's Next Party established though. Unless the JNP have enough members and allies in office, that they need only persuade a handful of ministerial acolytes to change sides on a particular vote, they can still do no more than talk. And even the talking is being reined in, as there has been a reaction to the habit one particularly intellectual backbencher has, of speaking over the bony heads of the less clever but more powerful members for literally hours on end.

The only time an opposition can be strong, is when it is a government-in-waiting. If all it does is to get on with the job of opposing, it is reduced to protest and gesture. Those may garner support, as they articulate public dissatisfaction, but they do not in themselves give any very reassuring answer to the question “So, can you do any better, then?”. Thus, a credible opposition must focus its effort not on opposition itself, but on developing alternative policies that will inherently be in opposition to the ministerial ones. And, the trick that Labour and Conservative in Westminster, and Democrat and Republican in Washington so often miss, is to give principled and ungrudging support to the incumbent government when they do what their opposition wanted to do, too. Nothing, apart from bribery and corruption, makes politicians look sleazier than objecting to a good thing for selfish tactical reasons: The public want good government, not petty point-scoring.

While having a Plan B for being the opposition is prudent, it should not be the prime objective of the JNP anyway. Those alternative policies must be blueprints for government, not just pie-in-the-sky dreams to blame the establishment for not adopting. If the JNP is going to develop sound and attractive policies, and field enough electable candidates to carry some weight in the next House, then it becomes at least possible, although not odds-on, that it could end up being or dominating the government. Then we could look forward to a very credible opposition with the likes of Messrs Ozouf, Gorst and Routier. I quite like the idea of that kind of talent packing the opposition benches, and would be happy to see them as a government-in-waiting that waits a very long time indeed.

Good Article

The economist and thinker, Richard Murphy has a very interesting piece that would appeal to the kind of people who read this blog at here