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When the opposition does not oppose…

..the democratic deficit widens - so argues Tom Robinson

February 8, 2012
3 min read

What does it mean when a Shadow Chancellor admits that he won’t reverse the spending cuts he claims to oppose? Does it show that there are no alternatives? Does it legitimise the social destruction of government’s policies? No. As the cover of the latest Red Pepper suggests, the cross-party consensus of our political elite is exacerbating something ultimately far more dangerous than the fiscal deficit we so often hear warnings about: the ‘democratic deficit’.

The gap between what the public demands and what the political class act on is growing.Constitutional commentator Nevil Johnson describes the role of opposition to ‘oppose the government, to criticise it and to seek to replace it’. If Labour and the Conservatives are becoming increasingly indistinguishable on economic policy, it raises an important question: how can the opposition outside parliament find effective expression?

We might begin by asking who has the real ‘credibility’ on how the coalition’s plans are impacting on our public services? Surely it’s those who have direct experience of working day in and day out on the frontline of service delivery – those who care for our families, teach our children, drive our buses, and all the rest of the public sector workforce? Far from out of touch, trade unions are the organised expression of these workers who possess the knowledge, skills and commitment to improving the fabric of our lives. From this bedrock we can build a movement with the capacity to move our economy towards the more equitable, democratic and ecological road.

The first radical step would be the hardest: union disaffiliation from Labour and union backing of a party better able to put forward an alternative vision of the economy – an alternative for which thousands of disenfranchised activists currently ache. Whether this party already exists (in the form of the Greens perhaps) or still needs to be built, we need to provoke a rethink about the whole nature of parliamentary representation and opposition.

But we can’t just wait around for people to speak on our behalf. We need to keep talking, debating, educating and innovating about ways we can articulate the arguments. The mantra that ‘There is no alternative’ (Tina) is not an objective economic truth, but part of a rigid ideology that serves the interests of finance, big business and wealthy individuals.

In other words, if the opposition do not oppose, the responsibility to get an airing for the alternative falls to us.

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