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'From Opposition to Government in waiting'

Angela Smith's lecture to Thompsons Solicitors. Tuesday 11th July, London











Thank you for the invitation. It is an honour to be asked to give this lecture.  

I’m delighted to be the first non-lawyer to be invited and it’s a double first for me as I’ve not been asked to give a lecture before. 

Seriously, given the pioneering role of Thompsons, it is such a fitting tribute to David Thompson, the Thompson family and the Foundation to have an annual lecture like this, to promote serious thought about the big issues of the day.  

Particularly, as it is now an essential political skill to be able to comment on any matter arising, at any time and to even develop policy – in just 140 characters. So the opportunity to explore some deeper thoughts is both welcome and a challenge. 

The theme of my comments tonight stems from us wanting to be ready and waiting to be the Government of this country. 

And I want to look at four areas:

  • the Role of Opposition
  • how we’ve tackled this in the House of Lords with a couple of case studies
  • the Government’s reaction and the implications
  • and some thoughts about meeting that challenge to really be a Government in waiting.


However effective an opposition you are, unless you eventually achieve power you can’t possibly make the difference that’s needed. Since 2010, Conservative-led governments have embarked on a systematic attack on incomes, services and quality of life for working people, their families and communities.

In politics, second place is no consolation prize

So I was stunned when having made a comment about being a Government in waiting, a Commons colleague was critical and said that such an approach would lose us the power of insurgency and that’s how we win votes, in taking on vested interests.

That, to me, is old thinking. 

I totally accept that we shouldn’t be overcautious, and that preparing for Government is about far more than having a transition plan and meeting with civil servants. You also need to show what kind of Government you will be.

You have to use Opposition to show why you want to be in Government.  But as well as the why, you need to show how you will provide Government. So, when I refer to a Government in waiting – I see the challenge and the journey for the Labour Party in 2017.

Being a Government in waiting isn’t just a factual observation because we’re doing well in the opinion polls

Before this year’s general election, few treated Labour as if we were ready to take office.  That has now changed.  Theresa May leads a minority Government and journalists, commentators and the public alike no longer think that a Labour Government and Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister is fanciful.

A Government in waiting should always examine and question whether it is ready to take power. Failing to do so means they don’t examine and stress test policies, processes and personnel with that hard-forensic look to see if they are truly ready for what lies ahead. 

Being a Government in waiting is about more than rising in the polls and getting votes – and it’s not just about having political courage and confidence.

Thomas Edison famously described genius as being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, and he added that a genius was just a “talented person who had done their homework”.

The same could be said about being a serious politician, and being ready to govern.

That was reinforced for me when talking to civil servants following the 2010 election, I heard more than once how some new ministers just didn’t get what was expected of them in terms of the volume and complexity of the work.

Government is hard work.

And being in Government is about more than holding office.  It’s about making that fundamental gear shift from speaking out on issues, holding Ministers to account, analysing policies and campaigning for votes – the normal day to day job of opposition – to making it happen on the ground.

It’s also about being able to respond to events and crises, and the electorate having the confidence that you’ll be able to do so. Being competent, skilled, committed and effective will be as important as policy and political direction.


So, how have we approached the role of Opposition in the Lords?

I became Leader of Labour Lords shortly after the 2015 election. It’s hard to believe that it’s just over two years ago given the political turmoil we’ve witnessed since.

Following that election defeat for Labour, we had the first ever Conservative Government that didn’t have an automatic, guaranteed majority in the Second Chamber.  David Cameron’s short-term approach to Government saw a record breaking run of appointments to the Lords and ensured so many new Lib Dem Peers, that a party that now has just 7.4% of the popular vote – with only 12 MPs – has 101 members of the Lords. And it was always highly predictable that once the Coalition was over they would re-cross the floor back to opposition.

We decided early on to take a wholly strategic approach. 

We didn’t want to stack up loads of successful votes just to be overturned by Conservative MPs, so instead sought to take on issues where we could gain wider support and effect real change. Our strategy has been not to embark on conflict for conflict’s sake with the Government or purely to make a party-political point.  If our sole objective was merely to win votes we could do so far more often, but achieve little of substance in amending bad bills. 

Our guiding principle has been to try to make a difference.  When we can, we seek as much consensus as possible around the House on issues where there is public support and interest, as it is then more likely to hold when the legislation returns to the Commons.

At first, I don’t think we were really aware of the impact on the Conservative psyche of not having a Lords majority and occasionally losing votes. After all, no Labour Government had ever had a majority in the Lords – or anything approaching it. And whilst never welcoming Lords defeats, we’d governed well without the numbers and from 1945 onwards, brought forward significant and major social and economic policies. 

In 2015 however, we misread the Tory high command’s reaction to challenge and scrutiny.

We should have been warned by signs under the Coalition Government.  The so-called Lobbying Bill – or Gagging Bill – made it significantly harder for charities and campaigning organisations to get their message across, especially during elections. We saw at this year’s general election how so many organisations kept their heads down – fearing the reaction if they didn’t.

We’d seen the Coalition’s review of constituency boundaries – where for the first time ever, the Government set the number of parliamentary seats to cut Commons representation by 50 from the existing 650. When challenged in the Lords, the then Tory Leader, the comfortably rotund Lord Strathclyde told Peers the justification for 600 was that it was “a nice round figure”.

The Government clearly calculated that a reduction in seats would provide them with an electoral advantage.

So already the seeds of intolerance to Opposition were visible.


Following a few skirmishes, our first major challenge came with the tax credits vote in October 2015.

It is rare that the House of Lords finds itself at the centre of political attention and with the public on its side.

Tax credits were brought in by the Labour Government as a poverty reduction measure for workers on low incomes, those with children, and those with disabilities. Over 70% of the families in receipt of them are in work, as it supports the transition from benefits to work as support tapers off as income increases, rather than just stop.

Following their introduction, the number of children judged to be in poverty was cut from 35% to 19%. George Osborne’s proposals would have meant 3 million families losing around £1,000 each year.

These policy changes were so controversial and significant that it would have been entirely appropriate to introduce new primary legislation, which as a financial measure would have side-stepped the Lords as outside our remit.  But it would also have seen a substantially longer process in the Commons. 

So the Government used the swifter procedure of a Statutory Instrument with significantly less scrutiny. I’ve long suspected that the Government knew that the longer the scrutiny, the harder it would be to justify the policy.

In the Commons, Labour rightly voted outright against the changes.

In the Lords, there was some pressure to do the same, and the Lib Dems – fresh from their time in Government and probably seeking redemption – tabled what is known as a ‘Fatal Motion’. Something that – in theory – could have killed off the proposals.

As enticing as that approach sounded, we knew it would not succeed. In the previous 70 years, only six Fatal Motions ever had. Fewer than one per decade.  And even if by remote chance it did, the Government could then bring in the primary legislation that it should have introduced in the first place, and the Lords would have no say or influence.

Voting it down on principle would have satisfied our consciences – but wouldn’t actually change anything.  And we wanted – and needed – to make a difference. 

But taking a wholly strategic approach, when hardly anyone understood the boring and arcane technicalities of Lords procedures, was quite a challenge.

Our amendment, proposed by my colleague and former DWP Minister Patricia Hollis, sought significant transition measures. Basically, it sent the Government back to the drawing board to look again – and forced them to try and justify the proposed changes.

The Conservative leadership was furious and went into overdrive.

Briefings from Downing Street threatened us with 150 new Peers and even suspension.  Conservative supporting commentators and loyal Tory backbenchers got very excited in condemning us for challenging the Government – conveniently forgetting how often their Peers were whipped to defeat Labour Governments on major issues.

Ministers sought to distract from the substance and make it about the inappropriate power of the unelected Lords – to such an extent that the Government speakers opening and closing the debate were the Leader and Deputy Leader, with not a word from the relevant policy minister.

They knew they could no longer defend the policy.

I have never known the House as silent and as attentive as when Patricia Hollis made her, now award winning, speech about the impact of the proposed changes.  I then wound up the debate on both the impact of the proposals and the political implications of the Government’s actions and intolerance.

In winning the vote and focusing on the appalling human cost of this pernicious policy, we were able to draw public attention to what the Government’s plans really meant.  So when Ministers had to think again, there was only one thing they could do.

Stop it.

For a Government that fears challenge and loathes scrutiny, this was a step too far.

The response was to try and curb our already limited powers on Secondary Legislation by feigning that this was a battle between the Commons and Lords, in the Strathclyde Report. It wasn’t – it was a battle between the Lords and the Government, the Executive.

That Report, proposing more power for the Government, still stands. And with a nod to it in the Tory Manifesto it is intended to hang over our heads like the sword of Damocles. But if the Government ever try legislation on that, it is a fight I will relish.


The Conservative plan to obstruct all opposition has continued, as we saw with the Trade Union Bill which was more blatant in its intentions. In their fervour to attack both unions and the Labour Party, it was badly drafted and biased in the extreme – and, as with the boundaries review and the Lobbying Bill an unashamed attempt to load the dice ahead of future general elections.

Whilst making it harder for trade unions to collect subscriptions, use their political funds as they choose and, seeking to decimate Labour’s funding base, there were no corresponding measures to tackle any abuse or unfairness in Conservative Party funding sources.

It soon became evident how little the Conservatives knew about trade unions and how they operated.

We knew that we would never gain the support of anti-union Tories. But we also knew that across the Lords there were many fair-minded individuals who would share our concerns. Our biggest enemy however, was ignorance of how trade unions operated.

So, following discussions with Peers across the House, we proposed a select committee to consider the specific aspects of the Bill on trade union funding. This committee would run parallel to the main bill debates in the chamber, thereby avoiding any suggestion we were trying to filibuster or wreck the Government’s plans. The vote, with a stunning majority of almost 100, set up a cross-party body, with terms of reference and a respected Crossbench Peer, Lord Burns in the Chair.

The establishment of that Committee changed the mood of much of the debate.  One backbench Tory Peer, now a Minister, Lord Callanan was initially openly hostile: “Most people are not in trade unions. Most people now work in small business or are self-employed. It is surely time that the trade unions moved on, as the rest of society has done.”

The rest of his speech was in the same tone and all became clear when he acknowledged: “I am grateful for the briefing on this subject from the Tax Payers’ Alliance, an excellent organisation that does great work.”

You get the picture...

Yet, a couple of months later, having served on the Bill’s Select Committee, Lord Callanan told the House: “I freely admit that the world of trade unions was not one that I knew much about. I have never been a member of a trade union, I have no intention of ever joining a trade union and I learned a lot, particularly from [he named Jeannie Drake, Brenda Dean and Larry Whitty] and others about the operation of trade unions, the way they work and what they do.”

Perhaps not a convert, but at least admitting his own previous ignorance.

Also, former MP, Andrew, now Lord Robathan, having been one of the most enthusiastic union bashers, began to see some light and ended up openly criticising not just the purpose and content of the Bill but the way it had come about: “I wonder whether the Bill was stitched together by some special adviser who was being paid too much; some teenage scribbler who should, perhaps, have been given greater and wiser direction.”

In contrast to the prejudice and lack of understanding about trade unions on the Government side, we had so much experience and knowledge on ours. Ray Collins, Margaret Wheeler and Jon Mendelsohn on our front bench, working with a great team of colleagues that included tonight’s chair John Monks and many others, including Nicola Jayawickreme from our brilliant Lords staff team.

Obviously as an unelected House, we recognise the limitations of what we are able to do, including making a judgement on what issues are most likely to be overturned without thought or reflection in the Commons.

We didn’t get all we wanted, but succeeded in amending the Bill in a number of areas, including on opt-in to the political fund, check off, electronic balloting, facility time, and the role of the Certification Officer.


One thing this Government does not like is being challenged, held to account – or horror of horrors, losing! And that has led to greater attacks on Lords. 

Don’t be fooled that the Tories have suddenly discovered that they have principled objections to an unelected House.  Yet again, it’s pure self-interest.  They fear challenge and loathe scrutiny – but that’s what we do best.

And it clearly wasn’t to be welcomed on Brexit.

From the moment that the most enthusiastic and ardent of Brexiteers realised that Brexit legislation would, as in the normal course of legislation, also come to the Lords, we had a sustained and unrelenting attack on our role.

As far as they were concerned any discussion or debate, was undemocratic. And as for amendments, well they were doubly undemocratic.

In February 2017, a fortnight ahead of the Bill’s Second Reading in the Lords, the BBC reported an anonymous Government source saying: “If the Lords don't want to face an overwhelming public call to be abolished they must get on and protect democracy and pass this bill.”

The following day, in the Commons chamber, Tory MP Oliver Letwin asked that if the Lords sought: “…to delay the triggering of article 50 … will [the Minister] find time for a debate in Government time so that this House can discuss the possibility of either the abolition or the full-scale reform of the other place?”

And echoing a call first made by Jacob Rees-Mogg in The Telegraph a couple of months earlier, other Tories called for a thousand new government peers to get Brexit through. A bizarre suggestion in itself but one that also managed to miss the point that so many introductions would take far longer than the two-year timetable for the negotiations.

Such tactics were designed to be bullying and intimidatory.

The Government never wanted to bring Brexit legislation to Parliament at all. First it was forced by the Courts to ensure that parliamentarians, and not the Government, gave authority to start the negotiations. Then it designed a bill as short as possible, trying to avoid amendments and therefore any parliamentary input over how the Brexit negotiations might be conducted or key issues resolved early on.

Throughout the passage of the legislation, the Prime Minister, No10 officials, and the Brexit Secretary all called for ‘a Clean Bill’ – as if somehow an amendment would make it dirty!

The two Labour amendments that we in the Lords pursued the most vigorously and won with majorities of 102 and 98, with support from all corners of the House, were on unilateral guarantees for the rights of EU citizens in the UK and a proper parliamentary process that provided MPs with a vote on the final deal.

Even the Government couldn’t reject these out of hand. But through its intensive persuasion and cajoling of backbench MPs sympathetic to our amendments, plus promises that they would deal with these issues (without specifying how), they managed to stave off the promised Tory rebellion.

Looking at where things now stand, post-election – the change in parliamentary arithmetic and further evidence of the damage being done by failing to provide that commitment on EU citizens’ rights – I doubt that Mrs May and her whips could now strong arm Conservative MPs in the same way.

With little logic to the Government’s rejecting our amendments, the whole sorry episode brought further evidence of an ideological extreme approach to Brexit rather than one driven by pragmatism and common sense in the national interest.

And then, given that the Prime Minister got her Article 50 Bill through unamended, you have to ask why she squandered her Commons majority through an unnecessary election. 

Apparently, it had nothing to do with her, now vanished, 21-point lead in the opinion polls.

Theresa May presented the election as a judgement on her leadership and the need for a mandate for the so-called ‘hard Brexit’ that she had outlined.  Her pitch seemed to be that she had been questioned and challenged, specifically referencing the House of Lords, and that she should be allowed to get on with Brexit in whatever way she wanted.

It’s not unlike Andrea Leadsom criticising broadcasters as being unpatriotic for asking her questions about Brexit.

It is arrogance – and yet again an example of the Government’s resentment of any challenge or opposition.

And, as I’ve outlined tonight, they have so often sought to silence and curtail opposition through both legislation and rather unsubtle forms of intimidation.


As Labour moves into the next stage of our journey back into Government, despite the chaos within the senior ranks of the Conservative Party, we cannot rely on their collapse just because they are unfit to govern.

Those senior Tories around the Cabinet table may be fighting like ferrets in a sack now, but do not underestimate the Conservative Party’s view of its entitlement to be in office.  They exist to do so, and will do all they can to survive.

Apart from short periods – for example during Margaret Thatcher’s second and third terms as Prime Minister – they have been less a party of ideology and more framed by a pragmatic approach.

That pragmatism has meant that over time Labour has shifted the centre of mainstream political thought.

Few Tories will now publicly condemn the NHS, free education, or the national minimum wage. They may try and make changes to chip away at these institutions and laws but they cannot publicly undermine the fundamental principles.

I bet Chancellor Philip Hammond would prefer to forget the speeches he made against the minimum wage Bill.  But I was also on that Committee.

He described the minimum wage as an: “IOU to the government’s paymasters in the Trade Unions”.

And asked for the agriculture sector to be exempt and if it was a minimum wage “with teeth” as he put it, “… the consequences will be significant and the economic damage could be massive”.

This ability to take on policies they previously opposed is ultimately about ensuring their survival in office, perhaps influenced to some degree by Conservative theorist Edmund Burke: A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”

Or maybe it’s less sophisticated and closer to Michael Caine in the film The Italian Job, singing about ‘the self-preservation society’ – which could explain why Theresa May’s premiership is currently balanced precariously over the side of a cliff edge.

We now have a Conservative Government that can’t even bring forward proposals from its own election manifesto on issues like grammar schools and fox hunting – for the simple reason that there is not enough support on their own side in Parliament.

The point I’m emphasising is that they will be ruthless in their pursuit of holding onto the reins of power. Individuals may go, including at the very top, and radical policy changes will be made, or ditched, if the party’s powers that be believe it will help them cling on.

So with the Conservatives highly unlikely to allow Government to fall into our laps, Labour is going to have to wrest it from them.

We have to make it happen.

It’s a sign of our strength and their weakness that Theresa May is now calling for us to come forward with suggestions of policies that will enforce national unity.  Apparently we should “contribute and not just criticise”.  And despite her first lieutenant Damian Green’s protestations that this is the grown up way of doing government, when pressed on what it meant on the Today programme, he rejected every suggested example of co-operation, from the public sector pay cap to the rights of EU nationals.

So, let’s see that offer for what it is – evidence of that desperation to hold onto power.

It’s not a genuine approach in the national interest. As we saw with the EU referendum and with the early general election, it’s an approach in the narrow interests of the Conservative Party. 

But Labour has an offer. It’s our election manifesto.


The recent election results were impressive, and particularly gratifying given the early expectations. We had a net gain of 30 seats with a rise of almost 10% in our vote.

It is inspiring to see a new generation of voters being energised and enthusiastic. But, despite popular belief it wasn’t just thanks to a more positive turn out among young people. Interestingly, 50% of 35-44 year olds voted Labour. A key demographic, perhaps worried for their own job and housing security, and concerned about the future for their ageing parents and their children.

But there are also warning signs, as many of those voters in what we used to call our ‘core vote’ seats, like my former constituency in Basildon did not come back to us

So for what it’s worth, I don’t subscribe to the one more heave theory. 

If we really are a Government in waiting, and one that will endure, our first challenge is to understand why those former Labour voters voted for other parties or just abstained. And part of that analysis has to be what we, and they, understand and want from the relationship between the citizen and the state and how we respond.

Many people now see Brexit as the key issue facing the UK, but it’s also a symptom. When 52% of the population voted to leave the European Union, for many it was instinctive. They didn’t go into the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’. They weren’t considering whether it should be ‘soft’ or ‘hard’. And it wasn’t just anti-immigration or the lie of an extra £350m a week for the NHS.

It was as much about a lack of trust in government – all government. 

It was about decisions being taken about their lives, over which they felt they had no control – including ‘Europe’ as a decision-making body that was something being done to them, not something of which they had a stake in, were part of, or involved with.

There are some, from across the political spectrum, who have an ideological objection to being in the EU. But many of those who voted to leave shared a general sense of discontentment.

That is a powerful driver for change. For different reasons and to different ends, the election of Donald Trump and the recent brilliant campaigns by President Macron and his new party shows that they understood that.

For too many, the state is seen as something that makes their lives more complicated.  Something that doesn’t understand them or offer support when it’s most needed. And that view is far too often justified.

We’ve seen how unfairly people with disabilities are treated by the private companies assessing them for work, in order to cut costs. We’ve seen the Government redistributing funds from areas of greater need to more affluent constituencies under the guise of ‘fairer’ funding. Passengers on privatised Southern Rail facing travel misery for nearly two years and a Government that refuses to step in. The widespread closure of Sure Start centres, cutting support for families who most need it

And we’ve seen the hurt, suffering and anger that has followed the Grenfell Tower catastrophe. A shocking, all too real illustration of what happens when the state – at both local and national level is inadequate and ignores the needs of the more vulnerable in society.

Too many in our local communities never see a police officer, can’t get an appointment with their GP, or are being asked for money for their children’s schools to pay for basic supplies. The state isn’t working for them

For some, this causes inconvenience and worry. But at the other end of the scale it also causes real human misery. So, is it any wonder that many feel disengaged from society?


Since 2010, Governments have claimed cuts to public services and the massive rise in tuition fees were essential because the nation couldn’t afford them – Labour, so they said, wrecked the economy.

But what the Tories really wanted was less and smaller Government, with ‘austerity’ the Trojan horse to pave the way. Our test now is to make the counter argument that there is a case for state intervention as a force for good.

We need to have a clear strategic vision of the role and the purpose of the state in people’s lives.

For many of those alienated voters, who we need in order to win the next general election, their terms of reference about what matters to them are often very different – and not articulated in the language of politicians.

Talking to them about austerity and reversing benefits cuts just doesn’t reach them. That’s about other people, not them. 

After so many conversations throughout and since the election, I have been trying to draw a thread through the very diverse issues that came up. Health, education, pot holes, broken paving stones, travel, housing, disability issues, climate change, and personal and national security and safety.  They ranged from the individual to the global. At first, it all seemed so diverse that that it was hard to identify a common thread or link.

Yet, they were all talking about the quality of life. Too often people felt their concerns were not treated seriously, but just dismissed or ignored. The more you delve, the more you ask questions, the more evident and deeper the dissatisfaction.


A recent report identified 1957 as the happiest year of the last century. It was a time of low wages and poor housing without the benefit of the social and reforming legislation of the 1960s and 1970s, but it was a time of optimism.  The horror of the war was receding, people were rebuilding their lives and looking to the future.  People like my parents, who were then getting married and starting a family did so believing that their children would have better opportunities than they did.

Few young people today talk with such optimism, faced as they are with job and housing insecurity, a world that appears increasingly more dangerous and their concerns about the impact of Brexit on their life chances.

Few older people feel confident that the lives of their children and grandchildren will be better than theirs.

We have to counter that pessimism and harness an emerging optimism that we saw sign of during the election. We should nurture that optimism that things can different.

We can all identify specific policies that can make a difference, including investing in services.  And at all times those policies must be grounded in principle.

When the Tories outsourced services they also outsourced responsibility. When they claim to have devolved power, they again devolved responsibility. A key principle has to be the accountability and responsibility of Government.

And the real challenge of turning opposition into Government in waiting is not just to oppose Government policies or promise to reverse cuts. It is to fundamentally reset the relationship between citizen and state to rebuild trust.


In March 1968, just weeks before he was assassinated, Robert Kennedy made an inspiring speech at the University of Kansas where he spoke of how people measure economic success.

He said that GDP “measures everything except that which is worthwhile.”

And added: “….it does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom or our learning, neither our compassion or our devotion to country.

It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”

Until you hear that quote it can sound foolish to suggest that the role of Government is to make people happier.  And badging it as quality of life issues and offering hope can sound like we’re making it too theoretical and not practical enough to bring about change.

But it strikes right at the heart of the kind of society we want to be.  It’s not just our party that must be a broad church.  We need to engage with our new voters and our former voters. 

As Yvette Cooper told The Fabians conference at the weekend, it’s about our humanity.

And that provides a framework, guiding principles and reference points.

Our offer, in part set out by our recent manifesto and the ongoing work that it has prompted, starts that process for the next Labour Government.

Our challenge is to ensure that our policies, language and commitment also enable, provide and support those things that make life worthwhile – things that can’t always be measured.

And a further challenge is to embed our principles in policies that are relevant to all our communities, particularly as so often those who are the least engaged with politics and public debate have the most to gain from a Labour Government. We need to talk less and listen more, including to those with the quietest voices.

To be that Government in waiting and then the Government that will endure and truly make a difference, it’s the challenge we have to meet.


Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of the Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon

This lecture, delivered on the evening of Tuesday 11th July 2017 at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, London was the latest in an annual series hosted by Thompsons Solicitors. For more information, visit: www.thompsons.law



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