On 2 September, I watched Caroline Lucas and Jon Bartley become co-leaders of the Green Party, backed by Amelia Womack as deputy leader. Quite aside from Bartley, a privately-educated, white, middle class male talking about their appointment being “representative of modern Britain”, theirs is indicative of a wider leadership problem in those who would collectively label themselves as ‘the opposition’, official or otherwise.
Indeed, the Greens have illustrated that their leadership revolves around a couple of big names, and nothing else. Caroline Lucas is a heavyweight of the Green Party – she is their recent past, starting the shift to credibility which Natalie Bennett continued (with a 123% increase in membership in 2014). Meanwhile, Amelia Womack has been deputy leader since 2014. It is thus puzzling, but not inexplicable, that the membership would revert to the safety of the past after the disappointment of failing to pick up a second seat in the Commons last year, even if their movement is building. Where the Greens need a fresh face to re-galvanise and progress the party in the way Lucas and Bennett once did, they seem to have now moved backwards – whether this conservatism betrays a lack of new ideas at the summit of the party is another thing entirely, but not all is hopeful for a young movement.
This is a plight shared almost exactly by UKIP. Plagued by the once catalysing presence and now void-inducing absence of Nigel Farage, UKIP’s vote share in council elections is imploding in the wake of the Brexit vote. United Kingdom independence has been achieved, bringing into question the need for a United Kingdom Independence Party. With such existential questions forced upon unwilling disciples, their leadership candidates must seek to redefine the notion of ‘independence’ – perhaps also having to choose between a fully economically libertarian standpoint or the faux-leftism of their northern appeal. Their first contested leadership election since 2010 must be about iterating upon their anti-establishment trademark to become a party of Parliament. Otherwise, given Theresa May’s insistence to lead Britain out of the European Union, the lack of anything about which to protest may prove fatal.
Even the Liberal Democrats, whose leadership seems relatively stable after a post-General Election contest, are in trouble – whether they accept it or not. Tim Farron is a polished politician who has outlined a decent, if not novel, direction for the party – pro-Europe, centre-left. With only eight MPs, their political outcast perhaps allows them a certain play with which to harness anti-Brexit sentiment. If they present some fully thought out policy points over the next few years, rather than just being an opposition, they will swallow up large parts of Labour’s centrist vote which has been bereft of representation in the wake of Labour’s slide to the left. However, the Lib Dems are so tarnished by being in Government that it remains to be seen whether the Lib Dems will even want to move past opposition – with power comes compromise. It would seem that, like their peers, the Lib Dems prefer the freedom of perpetual opposition to avoid pragmatism or the political dealings which saw them abandon their pledge to vote against tuition fees – a scandal from which they are still recovering.
But in the same way that this perpetual opposition doesn’t seem to fit a party that held joint-government for five years, the SNP stubbornly broadcast their desire for a second independence referendum, despite their 56 seats rendering them a Parliamentary, and thus pragmatic, force. This is understandable, given Scotland’s democratic opposition to Brexit, but they have failed in their task of truly representing Scotland (and indeed the UK, whom Nicola Sturgeon claimed to represent last year), in neglecting to present meaningful policy at all. Labour, for all their maelstrom of interest, have at least been clear in their desire to protect workers’ rights and the rights of EU citizens after the Brexit vote, with both prospective leaders very clear about how they would achieve that. Yet the SNP have now betrayed themselves as nothing more than an opposition party, mildly threatened by Kezia Dugdale’s excellent new policies for Scottish Labour and seriously so by the increasing Tory vote in a country where the old Labour loyalties have run dry. The SNP may have unsuccessfully attempted to become the official HM Opposition, but they’ve failed where it truly counts: not in nomenclature, but in real policy terms.
It is strange to have dedicated 700 words to UK politics’ leadership crises, overt or otherwise, without mentioning the high school drama that is Labour. In the last year’s systematic regression to the electorally disastrous stance leftism of the 80s, they too have failed to convincingly present a solution to the world’s ills into which the entire British populace can buy. Hard-core socialism is a product of a by-gone era, and is seen as such by the electorate. In their respectably utopian leftism, Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters fail to recognise that people don’t care about ideology. They care about being able to get on and do well in life. They want to be able to earn money and keep that money, to employ and to employed without the state breathing down their neck via a heavy tax burden. Call it neo-liberalism or call it common electoral sense, but while Corbyn’s populism is a lovely balm to today’s very real injustices and inequality, it is not the answer. In Opposition, there must be more than plaintive slogans – there must be a government-in-waiting. Labour, like the SNP, Greens, Lib Dems and UKIP, fail to grasp this. When any of these parties realise this, they will truly be a force to be reckoned with.
Until then, there is thus a dearth of new answers to new questions in UK politics. Rather, new questions are getting old answers. No wonder the political establishment is crumbling. If there is a hope of removing the Conservatives from power, it lies in a party seizing the mantle of Opposition, with a capital O, not lower case: to oppose is critical, certainly. But to win faith and trust, they must propose a way forward, not simply look to their past.