“Government is a hard enough task for a politician. But the most difficult one, partly because it is much less rewarding, is to be in opposition.” This is how my first boss, a London Assembly Member (who later became a Member of Parliament) introduced me to the way political opposition in a democracy is perceived by politicians themselves.
For any politician who has exercised power and fundamentally believes that his or her policies are best for the country, losing elections is a tragedy. Cynics would say that this sense of perdition is mostly due to the loss of the perks associated with government. Gone are the chauffeurs; the invitations to exclusive galas; the constant requests for TV interviews. Yet for politicians who genuinely care about the fate of their country—not quite as rare a commodity as one might think— the opportunity to implement one’s vision for the betterment of the country is the pinnacle of their ambition. Once all this goes away, many politicians feel completely lost.
I began my career working for the British Conservative Party at the height of their unpopularity, when there was no clear path back to power. I witnessed first-hand the challenges of being in opposition: lacking the megaphone of government office, the opposition party must set the agenda that restores public confidence in their ability to govern and makes them competitive once again.
Problems almost inevitably arise in balancing the need to appeal to different segments within the party. When a party only assumes stances to appeal to their base but estranges the general electorate, opposition becomes an exercise in posturing. This impulse makes the opposition party less competitive and thereby reduces the choice for citizens in the next elections, ultimately weakening democracy.
As we have grown accustomed to democratic stability in Europe, we have sometimes forgotten how important it is to have a strong, responsible opposition – one that uses its time out of power not only to oppose the government, but to strengthen itself, reclaim its link with the electorate, offer a revitalized program of government and thus put itself in a more competitive position for the next election. As much of the European continent experiences what we at IRI call “democratic distress”, the need for a revitalized, responsible and effective opposition has rarely been more important.
That is why we have invited more than twenty leaders from Europe’s main opposition parties to take part in our upcoming Opposition Summit in Vienna. During the two days of the summit, party leaders and Members of Parliament (primarily hailing from Central and Southern Europe) and our LEAP Team volunteer trainers and consultants will exchange best practices in political communication and policymaking.
The parties represented at the summit will hail from a diverse ideological pool that includes parties belonging to the Conservative (ACRE), Christian Democratic (EPP), Liberal (ALDE) and Social Democratic (PES) families. This “bipartisan” setup facilitates thoughtful, constructive debate and discussion of technical issues as well as regional and ideological trends. In my opinion, this is the best way to advance democracy in the long term: by making divisions, but also convergence apparent. Democracy is about making choices, but it also underscores that the end-goal of truly democratic parties is the same: the betterment of one’s country through peaceful means.
As opposition parties gather in Vienna this weekend, I will no doubt recall the words of my mentor about the pitfalls of being in opposition. But I will also remember periods in opposition are a necessary part of democratic government, and a crucial component in keeping parties fresh, relevant and responsive. How long and how productive that situation can be is up to the parties themselves—but we are proud to walk with them as they make that journey.Top