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.


Tom Gruchy said...

My political ancestor headed one opposition group in 1769 to achieve reforms that are still important today. The separation of the Royal Court from an elected States assembly really started then.
Unfortunately, very few of our current crop of progressive prima donnas could even be bothered to stir from their armchairs to participate in the recent Carswell inquiry into the Crown Officers.

That inquiry was initiated by a sole maverick Deputy Bob Hill and the vaguely organised left was nowhere to be seen. In 1769 there was no pretence of Trade Union support and the few hundred rebels then risked their lives and property to protest.

We are a pathetic bunch by comparison today. The removal of the Bailiff from the States is just a continuation of the same necessary reform process but our so called progressives don't know they are alive. They are mostly dead so far as leading the electorate on important political issues is concerned.

If there are people who still think that a "political party" might be of some use in this Island then let me see a manifesto that lays down some basic policies plus a membership that chooses those who stand for election.
Not a bunch of people with diverse political views who make it up as they go along or think that engaging the public is just using supporters to knock on doors or post leaflets.

Cart and horse comes to mind.

st-ouennais said...

"Thus, a credible opposition must focus its effort not on opposition itself, but on developing alternative policies "
Quite so.

However this is also where the problems will arise. For example, how do you derive a coherent manifesto of policies when some see growth as necessary to bring is out of recession where others see growth, at least in the classical economic meaning, as the bête noire.

Of course were a credible and coherent alternative manifesto be put forward, the pressure would be for the 'establishment' to do likewise. I cannot see how that would not lead to party politics.

Ugh, It's Him! said...

Indeed, a two party system is a very imperfect vehicle for democracy, when there are usually multiple alternatives for most matters. Which is why I would like a four-party system to emerge in the long run. It is just so hard to get even one party going in a place where the democratic will of the people is to be politically apathetic.

Anonymous said...

That there are no political parties already in existence is a reflection of the weakness of the labour movement and the interest of the working class in general. It also indicates that leadership is absent.

The Channel Islands can be seen as particularly backward, whereas most other tax havens, as in the Carribean, have political parties, albeit they are variants of a single conservatism.

The upsurge of popular democratic political activity following the second world war, was a world wide phenomena, and in Jersey those seeking to build the “New Jerusalem”, organised in the fashion of a Communist Party and the Jersey Democratic Movement. These groups led campaigns on issues that affected the working people, such as the call for slum clearance in St Helier, and provided a focus for working class interests into the 1980’s. Without new recruits from younger generations, both organisations eventually ceased when the original membership died or stepped away from political engagement owing to age.

Party is the expression of economic and social interest based primarily on social class. There is objectively a lower middle class and a working class that are currently suffering considerable hardship in the form of expensive housing, stagnant wages, unemployment and rising living costs, that could be the basis for the formation of a political movement with policies protecting the interests of low and middle income earners. There are major obstacles to the realisation of such a project and the primary one is that few recognise its necessity or that it must be based around social interests.

Finance has come to dominate the economy leading to political capture of the state. The present government is a government of the wealthy for the wealthy.

The political prima donnas (their politics mainly centre-right and chauvinist) detest the idea of “party” and political organisation, because it means they would have to be accountable to others and follow established policies. Even the one existing political party, the JDA, currently produces literature that is so vague in its core principles, let alone “ideology”, as to be banal. Most candidates avoid statements of policy like the plague, or express the most bland of platitudes designed to give the least offence to right-wing voters.

Tom Gruchy is correct that a political party cannot be created by “a bunch of people with diverse political views who make it up as they go along or think that engaging the public is just using supporters to knock on doors or post leaflets.”

We need to start with some fundamentals and part of the vocabulary will include “discipline”, “urgency” and “solidarity”.