Opposition in focus

Lord Norton
Shadow Cabinet

Shadow Cabinet

This week has been particularly hectic – meetings from morning to night, which explains why I have not been particularly prolific with posts.  However, I thought I would do a post or two on some of the meetings.

On Wednesday evening, I attended the launch of the Opposition Studies Forum, a research group designed – as the name suggests – to study the nature of political opposition.  Founded by Nigel Fletcher (currently researching a doctorate on the subject), it has Michael Howard and Lord Kinnock as co-presidents.  I am on the advisory board.  

Though opposition is fundamental to our political life, it is remarkable how little it has been studied.  It is also far more complex than is often realised.  I recently penned the conclusion to a special issue of The Journal of Legislative Studies on opposition in parliamentary democracies.   There are different types of opposition: there is the official Opposition and there are opposition parties; there is also opposition within parties.   However, as David Cameron noted in his foreword to the launch programme: ‘Those who hold an opposition post tend of course to have one thing in common: they don’t want to hold it for much longer’.

The Forum plans meetings and a journal in order to illuminate and explain the role played by opposition in the politics of the United Kingdom and other democratic systems.  Further information is available on the group’s website.

7 comments for “Opposition in focus

  1. tobedwithatrollope
    27/03/2009 at 6:34 pm

    Lately, I’ve been dabbling in a bit of research about the Douglas-Home Rules and the concept/mechanics of the Opposition’s relationship with the Civil Service, so this is a very welcome sight. *goes to join the mailing list*

  2. ladytizzy
    27/03/2009 at 7:21 pm

    Given the recent trend of one party being in power for a substantial amount of time, the opposition within the governing party appears to have more of an impact than opposing parties.

    Also, I can’t wait to see how the blogscape will look when the Conservatives get the keys to No. 10. Will we see new worthwhile opposition blogs?

    A, quite literally, wonderful topic. *goes to join the mailing list*

  3. Thomas
    27/03/2009 at 8:25 pm

    Well, I remember a sociologist once told me that the opposition is really in the driving seat. The government may be in charge of the executive and legislative branch, but the opposition can play the media with much fewer constraints. So the opposition can determine which issue the country is debating.

    Now I am not sure whether that really applies to the UK, the government seems to have a lot of influence on the media through press releases etc (which are rarely questions, even under “BBC bias”). But I think the basic idea still holds: the role of the opposition is to bring issues to the table that need attention.

    The conclusion is therefore that the opposition does not have to strive to become the government. For the lib dems that would be pretty unlikely anyway. The real goal is to exert power, and they can do that even in the opposition.

    I have the feeling this issue has been studied more thoroughly on the continent. Most countries there have a long history of different kinds of oppositions, whether within parliament or outside.

  4. lordnorton
    28/03/2009 at 5:46 pm

    Thanks for the positive comments. tobedwithtrollope and ladytizzy: glad you have joined the mailing list.

    tobedwithtrollope: The change of the rules under the leadership of Alec Douglas-Home was, of course, highly significant. I actually have a copy of the typescript of the new rules (they were presented to me, framed, by a graduating class of my students). Despite the claims that the change owed much to then Tory MP Humphry Berkeley (anoraks will recognise that this is the correct spelling), his impact was far less than he asserted.

    Thomas: opposition can be important because of access to the media. Parliamentary representation is crucial for giving one a public, authoritative platform. It depends on parliamentary procedure as to how far the opposition can engage in agenda setting. Nowadays, there are attempts to engage in setting the agenda directly through access to a 24-hours news media. Study of opposition is not that extensive on the continent, where the concept is not as well developed as in the UK and Commonwealth countries. The existence of an official opposition – capital ‘0’ – has ensured that opposition in Westminster systems is more apparent; it also has the advantage of ensuring consistent scrutiny of government.

  5. Croft
    30/03/2009 at 12:43 pm

    tobedwithatrollope: I do wonder if the Douglas-Home ‘Rules’ need to be put on a statutory basis and/or taken out of the hands of the PM because there is still much room for obstruction and mischief with the convention.

    ladytizzy: The nature of blogs and the internet in general tends to be fairly anti-establishment so I’m sure a change of government will lead to green shoots (!) in the left of centre blogging community! However, to contradict that somewhat, in the US the right of centre blogs and talk radio seem to have mostly bucked this presumption.

  6. Thomas
    31/03/2009 at 9:47 am

    Dear Lord Norton

    First of all I completely agree that this is an interesting topic and worthy of further research. One of the problems I can imagine is that different parliamentary systems give rise to different kinds of opposition. So the concept of opposition can be quite different under a coalition government, for example.

    There is quite a lot of research available in German, although most of it is a bit dated. You could also say that they discovered the topic earlier, and then lost interest? Now I don’t have access to a relevant database, but

    http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Search/Home?lookfor=subject:”Opposition (Political science) – Germany (West)”&iknowwhatimean=1

    shows an interesting overview. I hope the link survives, and I am sure the books are not easy to find. I guess the British library may have them.

    Of course I know that language can be strong barrier for research, and often something has to be discovered again and (re)published in English before it is recognised. In my area that applies mostly to the Russian mathematicians, but I am sure it happens all the time.

    ladytizzy: Yes, I think that opposition within a party can be very effective, especially when the majority is a close one. It would be worth recognising the positives sides, instead of only seeing this as a problem (“dissidents”).

  7. 10/04/2009 at 12:25 pm

    Thank you to everyone for your interesting comments – and especially to those who have visited our website and signed up for future updates. We are currently finalising our first series of events, and will be announcing those shortly – I hope to see you there.

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