Opposition as vital as Government in a democracy

April 28, 2015 11:32 AM
By Ron Beadle in The Journal

Honesty is often in short supply in politics; however there are times when politicians surprise us with their candour.

It is with this in mind that this column praises the courage of Newcastle's Labour Leader Nick Forbes. For on the front page of The Journal on April 17 he announced an ambition to wipe out the only party political opposition on the council - 'We'll make the city a Lib Dem-free zone, says leader' proclaimed the headline.

We should pause for a moment to consider just how much this reveals of Coun Forbes' political philosophy. After a century in which the record of corruption (in the past), incompetence and sheer malevolence of unfettered one party rule is clear for all to see; Coun Forbes was willing to proclaim this as his ideal.

The desire to have local or national assemblies exclusively comprised of members of one's own party can only be held by those who believe they could never have anything to learn from anyone else.

Coun Forbes is not completely alone in this view.

On Gateshead Council, Labour members regularly predict the disappearance of the Lib Dem opposition with glee.

By contrast liberals have consistently promoted proportional systems of representation precisely because we are committed to a politics that is truly representative, a politics in which we have to listen to those with whom we disagree.

And on those (albeit rare) occasions when Lib Dems have held every seat, our council leaders have bemoaned this as evidence of the weakness of our electoral system, not of its strength.

A second example illustrates the distinction between the liberal and the socialist mind-set. Elected Liberal Democrats (at all levels) have an absolute right to vote against their own party positions without formal sanction; Labour representatives have no such protection and may be expelled for similar independence.

In what other domains would such centralised control be tolerated? For when we think about good and bad companies, good and bad families, good and bad schools, good and bad sports teams; one of the marks of the good is precisely that these are places where people are free to express their opinion; where more than one voice is heard.

Indeed the history of great human advances is marked by contexts in which people have come together to exchange views, to challenge one another, to experiment, to invent, to create. From the scientific, literary and philosophical communities, such as our own Lit and Phil that accompanied the industrial revolution, to the Makers Spaces' sprouting up in Newcastle and elsewhere today; it is networks of open debate and experimentation that foster progress.

The institutions that liberals hold dear - trial by jury, freedom of association, freedom of the press and the rule of law; are designed both to create different sources of power and to encourage debate.

Within organisations, especially public organisations such as schools and hospitals, governors are required to act as critical friends, required to challenge, to ask questions, to offer alternatives.

Such checks and balances are important in part because we know that those in power don't always get things right. But another reason is this - that human capacity to develop requires us to learn to govern ourselves.

Whilst the socialist ideal is government, the liberal ideal is self-government. Many socialist values are shared by liberals - greater equality (nationally and internationally), common goods that require effective public institutions, intervention where markets fail or private power is used to abuse.

However the abiding difference, the reason why these radical traditions remain divided, is due to a dispute over power. For liberals the power of the state is itself always a danger and state intervention must be tempered by this. It was on this logic that the Liberal Democrats were right to oppose Labour's rush into the war in Iraq; to oppose both Labour's identity cards and the Tories' snoopers' charter.

So the liberal response to Coun Forbes' ambition to destroy his opposition is simply this. Liberalism, here in the North East as elsewhere, will not be eliminated. We may suffer setbacks and defeats; we may, and indeed have, got things wrong.

But unlike socialists we know that no one is ever permanently right and this is one more reason why opposition is as vital to democracy as government.

Ron Beadle is a Liberal Democrat councillor for Low Fell. This article was first published in The Journal on 28th April 2014