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How to be an opposition 

The only startling thing I read today was Josh Marshall’s explanation of what being a real opposition party should mean for the Democrats. The crucial passage:

  Just as you can’t prevent barnacles from fixing themselves to the hulls of ships that doesn’t mean that you don’t periodically scrape them off when they become wildly overgrown.
  Right now the hull of the ship of state is horribly overgrown with barnacles and all manner of other moneyed and interested crustaceans. And just as it makes no sense to let positive change be stymied by a too fastidious concern with clean political process, we’re now at the point where the dirtiness of politics — or rather the institutional corruption, no, the legalized prostitution that our politics now is — makes progressive legislation in the public interest close to impossible. All the more reason for Democrats to yoke together their values and their political interest and become a genuine party of reform.

There aren’t many occasions where British political experience can help inform American politics. But this is certainly one. Of course the parliamentary system both institutionalises the role of the opposition and makes it much easier than in the US. The weekly set piece of prime minister’s questions allows the opposition leader (and the party out of power in the US will never have a leader in that sense) to appear on an equal footing with the PM. Other ministers, too, face regular peer-to-peer debate.

And unlike in Congress, the debates are considered to matter. If a prime minister can’t perform in the House of Commons, he or she won’t last long as prime minister.

So the Democrats lack these advantages (not that the Conservatives have figured out how to use them against Tony Blair). But an examination of the record of successful oppositions in Britain will reveal some valuable lessons. Have an overriding purpose, keep hammering away at the same themes, tenaciously pursue every slip and flop, keep chipping away, even if you think you’re not getting anywhere.

I arrived in Britain in the autumn of 1978, not long before Jim Callaghan lost to Margaret Thatcher. It was nearly 20 years before Labour got back into power. There were plenty of times when it seemed as though it would never return to power, but from the Neil Kinnock days as leader I think the party put itself on something like the right track. Kinnock, of course, wasn’t sufficient (but his loss to John Major was very painful). John Smith took up the cudgels. And Tony Blair finally devastated the Conservatives.

The Conservatives haven’t yet had their Kinnock, to say nothing of Smith or Blair. I wish I had more confidence that the Democrats had the leaders in the House or the Senate to put them on the right track. Tough times sometimes make for great men. Let’s hope.

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