Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Creating a Shadow Government
Corriere della Sera - July 11th 2008

Robert Hughes, the great Australian art critic and essayist, called it “The shock of the new” in his justly celebrated book and television series on twentieth-century art. The phrase applies to politics too, however: in Italy, today, it might be most appropriate for the sensation Walter Veltroni and his Democratic Party are feeling about being the main opposition party in what has suddenly become almost a Westminster-style two party system. The idea of forming a “governo ombra” is both shocking and—apart from the brief experiment in the late 1980s by the old Communist Party (PCI)—new. But Mr Veltroni and the Democratic Party should stick with the idea. It works well in Britain and the few other countries that have adopted it.

            Those countries are, essentially, those with Westminster-style parliamentary systems in which there are two dominant political parties: Britain, of course, but also Canada, Australia, Ireland and, in a weaker way, France and Japan. For Japan, like Italy, the idea is rather new, but that is because only in the past two years has that country had a credible possibility of having governments alternating between the two main parties: for the past 53 years Japan has been ruled continuously by one party, except when it lost office for nine months in 1993.

The 2007 Upper House (or Senate) election in Japan suddenly gave control of that house to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, an event which has paralysed Japanese government because the Upper House is able to block the passing of many types of legislation. But it has also for the first time made it look possible that the DPJ could win a general election in the main Lower House. Hence, it has formed a shadow government.

Credibility is the main advantage of forming a shadow government. Opposition parties often struggle to convince voters that they would really be capable of running the country: government ministers dominate the media headlines, for good or bad, and generally only the opposition party leader gets the chance to grab much attention. This is especially a problem when a government survives in office for several years, which is what tends to happen in Britain, where Labour has been in office for 11 years, following 18 years of the Conservative Party; in Australia, where the new Labor government led by Kevin Rudd has followed 11 years of Liberal Party government; and now in Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy.

Having a shadow government, with individual politicians responsible for particular areas of policy, is the only way in which a party that is stuck in opposition for a long time can hope to build up any credibility as an alternative government. It is still difficult: in Britain, most voters would be unable to name more than three or four of the Conservative Party’s shadow ministers. This makes it hard to show that the opposition has a strong, experienced, well-informed team of people ready to move into government. But there is another advantage too, which also ought to commend the idea to Mr Veltroni: it is that it brings discipline.

One of the big problems of sitting in opposition, especially for long periods, is that political parties tend to contain too many energetic, ambitious, often arrogant people, all of whom have too little work to do. Those, after all, are the qualities necessary to become successful in politics. But those very qualities are what make parties hard to lead.

Britain’s Conservative Party has been fairly chaotic and divided ever since its disastrous defeat by Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 1997. So was Labour for at least a decade after its defeat by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979. The shadow cabinet system at least restrained this chaos and division, making it less bad than it might have been. By giving responsibilities to the senior party members, by setting up a clear hierarchy, and by forcing them to work at developing their own policies, the shadow cabinet system eventually turned both British opposition parties into credible, disciplined and well-informed fighting forces. That is just what the Democratic Party needs to be in today’s Italy.


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