General Election 2024

Election panel: Will a weak opposition be a problem?

Our panel of politics experts on the dangers of a landslide

June 20, 2024
Image: PA Images / Alamy
Image: PA Images / Alamy

There are only two weeks to go until Britain goes to the polls. Is Labour headed for a landslide? Are the Tories headed for disaster? Prospect has invited 11 politics experts to an election group chat. Imagine a WhatsApp group of your most politically informed friends from across the ideological spectrum on-hand to discuss the biggest and smallest issues as the parties campaign for our votes. Yesterday, we asked our panellists about the future of the Scottish National Party. 

Today, we asked a question suggested by a reader, David from Laurencekirk. Polls are indicating a massive Labour majority. If the Tories—or as some are speculating, the Liberal Democrats—form a very weak official opposition, what will that mean for scrutiny of the new Labour government?

Emily Lawford: With a Labour landslide we will get a weak opposition—what are the dangers of this?

Peter Hitchens: Quintin Hogg was quite right when he called our system an elective dictatorship. It grants immense power to the executive, which—in the first two years of government—can more or less do what it wishes. A sizeable and vocal opposition can at least put down markers against actions it believes are mistaken, and a wise prime minister will take this seriously. The problem now is that premiers are often novice politicians, chosen for presidential and telegenic qualities, who don’t much like parliament and aren’t troubled even by responsible and serious opposition. Add to that the possibility that the official opposition in July will be a decapitated and shattered Tory rump, or the Lib Dems, and that Fleet Street is historically weak, and you’ll have most of the disadvantages of a one-party state, but without the punctual trains.

Philip Collins: The prospect of political space in which the new government can do what it wants raises the question of whether this Labour party really knows what it wants. I suspect it doesn’t, in any great detail.

Frances Ryan: Democracies clearly need an opposition to scrutinise the government and ideally, this would be a competent and principled force. But that does not describe the modern Conservative party. I won’t mourn the wipeout of the Tories or pretend that the country will be somehow worse off for not having their significant presence in parliament. We will surely have to find a way to cope without Esther McVey, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lee Anderson. From a left-wing Labour perspective, my greater concern is that Starmer’s majority will not have the broad church that tends to benefit the party and society, particularly when it comes to issues such as immigration and social security. By purging left-wing candidates, Starmer has guaranteed a “yes, man” majority and a considerably more shallow intellectual pool. One of the ironies (and indeed, tragedies) of Labour’s overly cautious approach—both in selection of MPs and policies—is that with such a large poll lead, they really could have the room to make some waves. Starmer may end up being the first prime minister in British history to have a majority of 200 and act like he’s got a majority of two.

Marie Le Conte: To answer the question slightly differently, Labour ought to be concerned about opposition coming from its own benches if it does end up winning a huge majority; large parliamentary parties will always end up fracturing, often in unpredictable ways, and it isn’t clear to me that the leadership team and the whips’ office are ready for the constant low level infighting which is likely to begin within weeks of the party getting into power. Labour has been unusually united for the past few years, but it’s unlikely to last, especially as the Tories will no longer be a credible threat. You could argue that this is what happened to the Conservatives when the opposition was run by Jeremy Corbyn; they felt unthreatened and so got complacent, and we all know where that ended up leading them.

Moya Lothian-McLean: We get a weak opposition only if you consider the sole opposition to be the Tories. Nigel Farage has already stated he wants Reform—or whatever his next project is—to be the next opposition and hard-right ideas have really seeded into the psyche of voters who might not even consider themselves right-wing. Farage and co’s ideas on immigration have captured mainstream opinion, for example. Being from the left, I worry if there is not organisation and alliances between parties proposing more ambitious agendas than Starmer’s Labour (Greens, SNP, Lib Dems at the moment, shock!), then there won’t be a left position that Labour is pressed from. Instead pressure will continue to come from a hard right and this is the last thing the country needs if it truly is to recover from concerted years of punishment and decline.

Tim Bale: To be honest, opposition in this country is always weak—that’s how our constitution works. Under first-past-the-post, and with parliamentary norms and procedures that favour the executive over the legislature, we sacrifice representation for (supposedly) “strong and stable” (sorry Theresa!) government and clear lines of electoral accountability. As long as an administration has a comfortable majority, ministers tend to spend more time looking over their shoulders (and watching and reading the media and the polls) than worrying about who’s facing them across the despatch box. That’s pretty much the way it’s always been and will always be—unless and until a government comes along prepared to give up its parliamentary privileges and concede electoral reform. And given Labour looks like it’s on course for a massive majority, good luck, as they say, with that.

Philip Collins: I think Tim is right. We do trade a better conversation for executive power. I would rather we had a weaker government but the two main parties have never been liberal in that sense.

Matthew d’Ancona: It really is amazing that this looks like being the Tories’ closing argument: OK, Labour is going to win but if its majority is too big the country will fall prey to Marxist dictatorship, compulsory yoga and vegan tyranny. This is pitiful stuff. The best way for the Tories to form a decent sized opposition would be for them to stop being so reliably and imaginatively rubbish. Gambling on the election date, for example, is suboptimal if this is what you want to achieve as a party.

Matthew Lesh: Tim is entirely correct in a formal institutional sense, there are very limited restraints on a government with a clear parliamentary majority. It will also be easier for a Labour government to operate, with a civil service that is naturally more sympathetic to their politics. But there’s clearly still a role for the opposition in setting the narrative. Their decisions about what to oppose and scrutinise, along with bringing media attention, can impact ministerial decision making. It opens up and limits options. This will become more important when Labour’s honeymoon begins to end. The process could be made harder by a smaller opposition with respect to MP numbers, though could ultimately be more be determined on competence and focus. A small number of effective operators in opposition can have an impact.

Peter Kellner: I agree with Tim. Oppositions in Britain are generally weak because of the nature of our constitution. However, I’m not sure I agree with Marie. It has become a bit of a cliché in this election to say that Labour will find it hard to manage a large majority. What a landslide will mean—along with the carefully managed process for selecting candidates—is that Starmer need have no fear of rebellions derailing him. In their hunt for drama, the media will always find disgruntled backbenchers who are happy to sound off in print or on air. But this will be inconsequential noise, nothing more. The larger truth is that the task of uncovering mistakes, untruths and abuse of power will remain with diligent journalists and the better thinktanks. Thank goodness we still have them.

Philip Collins: Do we? The coverage of politics in the newspapers has never been as stupid, narrow, trivial and inconsequential as it is today. I have given up on them.

Nadine Batchelor-Hunt: The dangers of any one party having too big a majority is always a lack of accountability and an inability of being held to account effectively.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Tomorrow, our panel will be back to answer yet more burning questions about the general election. Got something to ask our experts? Submit your questions!