What Makes for an Effective Leader of the Opposition?

21st September 2015


As Jeremy Corbyn takes over, a new paper by Leeds University considers what he needs to succeed in opposition. A new report by Academics from the University of Leeds has offered an insight into the factors that make for an effective Leader of the Opposition.  The paper, by Dr Timothy Heppell, Dr David Seawright and Professor Kevin Theakston of the Centre for British Government, and produced in association with the Centre for Opposition Studies, considers examples from post-war British politics of effective (and ineffective) opposition leadership. It looks at the following in terms of Leaders' political skills: 

  • Their ability to initiate and implement policy change 
  • Their abilities at party management 
  • Their proficiency in terms of public communication
  • Personality factors, including emotional intelligence.


It also identifies that circumstances beyond their control impact upon them, such as:

  • The performance of the incumbent government
  • The length of time that the incumbent Prime Minister has been in power


On their overall findings, the academics state:'

Our report concludes that to be successful the Leader of the Opposition needs a trigger – an economic crisis, policy failure, party divisions or scandal – to exploit and that their ability to exploit this is greater if the party of government has been in power for a long time. This establishes a conducive environment but then the Leader of the Opposition needs to be able to exploit it. Effective opposition involves demonstrating that the party has changed in policy terms and repositioned itself towards the centre ground of British politics and this process is agreed within the party. Change needs to be demonstrated and this demands that the Leader of the Opposition is an effective communicator and that they can demonstrate their credibility through their performances in Parliament, in interviews and in speeches. The Leader of the Opposition will face considerable scrutiny and criticism so high levels of emotional intelligence and resilience will be required.'


With regard to the recent election of Jeremy Corbyn, the authors note:'

Jeremy Corbyn is probably the most unexpected Leader of the Opposition in the post war era. He is on the ideological outer edge of the party he leads. His strategy is based on pulling enough of the electorate to where his Labour Party will be positioned (i.e. on the outer left), rather than positioning the Labour Party towards the centre ground and the location of the median voter. It is a strategy that is questioned by the majority of his own parliamentarians. His policy change agenda assumes that the electorate can be persuaded but if the New Labour faction refuses to embrace ‘Corbyn-ism’, then the danger is that Labour become defined by two characteristics: first, being seen as extreme; and second, being seen as divided.'

You can read the report below or download a PDF copy here