Does Her Majesty's Opposition have an important role?
The Opposition wants to present itself as a Government in waiting. It does this mostly through the media and by campaigning in the constituencies but Parliament is also an important forum for this. The role of the Opposition in Parliament is:-
- The largest party is designated as the Official Opposition and its frontbench MPs have the right to speak first in reply to Government ministers. It therefore play a role in criticising Government policy when there are disagreements between Labour and the Coalition parties, for example in reply to Ministerial statements and in debates on legislation. It proposes motions and amendments to legislation and is able to get these debated. Other opposition parties are also able to criticise the government and move amendments. In their work in Parliament the opposition parties receive public funding (called Short money after the Leader of the House who introduced it in the 1970s) to support research on topics and provide some balance in resources as against the Government that has the whole of the civil service to help it. The problem for the Opposition is that it will never win any of these votes and get any of its amendments to legislation agreed unless there is a serious revolt by Government backbenchers.
- There are some instances where Government and Opposition broadly agree on a policy such as air strikes on ISIS in Iraq and so the Opposition helps to create a national consensus and legitimise a policy.
- The Opposition could, if it wanted to, disrupt the Government’s business by procedural devices such as raising points of order. It doesn’t do this because it accepts that the Government won the last election and has the right to rule and also because it doesn’t want this to happen if it returns to power. In order to ensure the smooth running of Parliament though, Government may make minor concessions such as slight changes to legislation and more time to discuss amendments.
- Parliament is part of the general debate between Government and Opposition that takes place between general elections and helps to establish the credibility of the Opposition. The Opposition is allowed a few days on which it chooses the topic for debate and will select topics on which it thinks the Government is weak or on which it has developed new policies with the hope of getting publicity in the media. The main media outlets have Westminster correspondents who appear regularly on television and write in the newspapers, although their concern is often on party splits and challenges to the media and mistakes by ministers rather than what the debate between the Government and Opposition is actually about. Prime Ministers’ Questions is the only part of the Parliamentary debate that is regularly shown on the media, with extracts later on new bulletins and so helps to profile the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the public mind.
- Opposition frontbench spokespersons gain experience through Parliamentary debate and are more likely to be interviews by the media because of their position.