It's all to do with the training: You can do a lot if you're properly trained.

-- Queen Elizabeth II


Commonwealth Module - Unit 7: The Role of the Opposition


Learning Objectives:
The Two Sides of Parliament

After studying this unit you should be able to:

  • Understand why an opposition in a democracy, is considered a necessary part of the legislative framework;
  • Understand the various ways which an opposition may be perceived by the government, the media and society;
  • Appreciate the manner in which even a numerically small opposition may influence parliamentary processes;
  • Understand the duties of parliamentary staff in providing the support, that an opposition needs to fulfill its role.
Introduction: What does the term “ Opposition” mean?

A democracy operates on the basis that there is room for choice all the way up to the selection of the government. This implies that the legislature, which makes the laws for the country, must itself provide an opportunity for various views to be heard throughout the term. These views should encompass not only those on the government benches (some of whom may want to suggest variations in procedure to those envisaged by the Ministers in the Cabinet), but also those who are opposed to the policies underlying the ways of operation. In other words, lawfully elected representatives of the people must be able to present and discuss alternative policy options even if they are not part of the government and do not have an immediate way of making their plans succeed.

Such a political grouping within a legislature is called the opposition and commonly refers to all those parties that do not constitute the government. The leader of the largest party in parliament becomes the Leader of the Opposition. That such opposition can be provided constructively without transgressing the constitution or being disloyal to the nation has been accepted by democracies for several centuries. In the United Kingdom, the term ‘His Majesty’s opposition’ was first used by the reformist MP, John Cam Hobhouse, in the early 19th Century and the use of the related term ‘the loyal opposition’, is now commonplace in many Commonwealth legislatures.

Far from disloyalty, voters now expect that their representative will play an active role in parliament whether as a government or as an opposition MP. The acceptance by society of a valid role for the opposition is in itself an important underpinning for the work of the legislature. It is equally important that the government accepts a role for the opposition, however small it may be in relation to the government, and that the media give space to the views of the opposition in their reports of the affairs of parliament.

It is worthwhile to note that especially in legislatures where representatives are elected on a first-past-the-post system, a numerically small opposition may well represent a very large proportion of voters. Whether this is the case or not, the opposition clearly has a very important role to play in a democratically elected legislature.


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