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A councillor’s workbook on effective opposition in local government

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This workbook has been designed as a distance learning aid for local councillors. It is intended to provide councillors with insight and assistance with the key skills which will help you to be most effective in your role.


This workbook has been produced by the LGA with the assistance of Dr Stephanie Snape, New Leadership Foundation. 

We would like to thank all the councillors who have supplied information for this project.


This workbook examines effective opposition in local government. The intended audience for the workbook is opposition leaders and deputies and, ordinary opposition members but it would also be useful for council leaders, elected mayors, cabinet members and deputies and committee chairs. It is a learning and development aid to support opposition councillors in undertaking their key role in local democracy.

The workbook has three objectives:

  • to highlight the important roles that opposition groups and councillors play in ensuring good governance and effective local government working.
  • to identify approaches which will help opposition councillors and groups to increase their effectiveness.
  • to provide practical ideas, tips and guidance to opposition councillors and groups.

The workbook has been developed from a previous workbook and two webinars produced in 2020 on the role of the opposition during the COVID pandemic and its reset and recovery period. The 2020 workbook and webinars hold their relevance in particular for local government during periods of emergencies.

This workbook is designed to prompt reflection, insight and to identify actions to improve practice and support your work in developing effective opposition. The format will encourage you to consider your role as you work through key issues and exercises; to reflect on how the material relates to your own approach, your local situation, the officers you work with, the people you serve and the council you represent.

In practical terms, the workbook can be used as a standalone learning tool, but additional information and links are provided. You need not complete it all in one session and you may prefer to work at your own pace.

In working through the material, you will encounter a number of features designed to help you think about your role. 

These features are represented by the symbols shown below:

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- this is used to indicate guidance, research, quotations, explanations and definitions that you may find helpful.

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- these are questions or queries raised in the text which ask you to reflect on your role or approach – in essence, they are designed to be thought-provokers.

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Case studies 

- these are ‘pen pictures’ of approaches used by councils elsewhere.

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Useful links 

- these are signposts to sources of further information that may help with principles, processes, methods and approaches. A full list of useful additional information and support is also set out in the appendices to the workbook.

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Hints and tips 

- a selection of good practices that you may find useful.


Effective opposition: Background

The importance of opposition in a democracy

”Democracy can only be measured by the existence of an opposition.” 

Poul Henningsen, Danish anti-nazi

”No government can long be secure without a formidable opposition.” 

Benjamin Disraeli

”Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures.” 

Harry Truman 1950

”In a democracy, the opposition is not only tolerated as constitutional, but must be maintained because it is in fact indispensable.” 

Walter Lippman, American journalist, and political commentator

”Dissent is a symbol of a vibrant democracy.” 

DY Chandrachud, current chief justice of India

Opposition is a fundamental part of a well-functioning democracy. It is often viewed as ‘vital’ and ‘indispensable.’ Opposition provides challenge and dissent to the political voices of those in power. It acts as a safety net within democratic systems. It is part of the key checks and balances within executive systems. Robust opposition supports good governance, and it provides political choice for the electorate. 

There are varying views on the appropriateness of different types of opposition strategies and approaches. Some believe that opposition should focus on ‘constructive opposition’ and that it should not be adversarial or aggressive. There is an essential duality at the heart of opposition – a tension between a role in being competitive and vocal in opposition to ruling groups and on the other hand collaborating and finding compromise with those in power in order to achieve improved outcomes for local communities. This can be a creative tension which skilled opposition politicians can exploit.

There is a great deal of diversity in the practice of being an opposition across both central and local government. There is therefore the possibility of developing lessons from this diversity on how opposition groups can work effectively. 

The constitutional role of opposition both nationally and locally is under-developed. Few local council constitutions have a great deal to say about the role and work of the opposition. Instead, much relies on unwritten norms and practice. Understanding the role of opposition involves a knowledge of both the legal and constitutional rules and the informal, unwritten practice and culture. Generally, the work of local opposition groups is under studied and researched. 

Opposition can be a challenging role to undertake and opposition in local government often means working within a complex environment. It requires advanced political skills and can be deeply frustrating. But it can also be a lot of fun, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘I have spent many years of my life in opposition, and I rather like the role.’

Roles for opposition group/s

Opposition groups are crucial to a healthy local democracy and can make a significant contribution to ensuring effective local accountability, good governance, sound policies and finances, competitive local elections, and an effective relationship with local communities. 

The following nine roles can be identified for opposition groups to undertake:

  1. Supporting good governance in local government
  2. Holding controlling group/s to account
  3. Improving policy and decision-making
  4. Ensuring a focus on sound finances and risk management
  5. Developing alternative policies and being a ruling group-in-waiting
  6. Representative and advocacy roles
  7. Scrutinising the impact of national policy on local councils
  8. Ensuring good group management 
  9. Election campaigning and providing choice at elections

(These are set out in more detail in Table 1).

In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on the importance of ensuring ‘good governance’ in each council. High profile examples of failures in governance continue to drive this ‘good governance’ focus. The nine roles all contribute, in some way, to ensuring good governance.

Table 1: Roles for opposition groups in local government
  Key roles Further details
1. Supporting good governance in local government
  • Understanding what good governance is 
  • Seeking assurance that the governance arrangements are effective 
  • Contributing to good governance, for example, by providing robust challenge of the work of controlling group/s
2. Holding to account
  • Providing ‘checks and balance’ on executive powers 
  • Providing challenge to controlling group/s in committee systems
  • Providing challenge and contestability to the development and implementation of council policy
  • Asking powerful questions which probe the controlling group/s policies and delivery
  • Holding controlling group/s to account publicly and visibly
  • Holding individual executive members/cabinet members/committee chairs to account
  • Monitoring the effective implementation of policy
3. Improving policy and decision-making
  • Providing challenge and ensuring development of robust, evidence-based policies
  • Monitoring day to day decision-making 
  • Ensuring key strategic decisions are robust
  • Reviewing the effective delivery of policy and service changes
4. A focus on sound finances and risk management
  • Reviewing the council’s delivery of best value and value for money
  • Monitoring financial management, budget making and risk management
5. Developing alternative policies and being a ‘Ruling Group-in-Waiting’
  • Proposing amendments to council policy 
  • Proposing alternative budgets
  • Developing alternative policies
  • Being a ‘ruling group-in-waiting’
6. Representative and advocacy roles
  • Ensuring controlling group/s work in the best interests of local communities
  • Ensuring controlling group/s work across the whole authority area
  • Advocating for the communities the opposition represent
  • Amplifying voices of parts of the community not often heard
7. Scrutinising the impact of national government policy on local councils
  • Questioning the impact of key national government policy on councils
  • Identifying the implications for councils and their residents of new legislation or guidance
8. Ensuring good group management
  • Developing cohesion within the group and coherence and consistency of policy objectives
  • Developing teamworking within the group
  • Effective leadership of the group
  • Promoting and providing training and support for councillor development
9. Election campaigning and providing choice at elections
  • Campaigning at local elections
  • Providing a choice of parties and candidates at elections
  • Providing an effective local party organisation for elections and canvassing

Source: Dr Stephanie Snape, New Leadership Foundation, 2020, expanded and updated 2023. 

Not all opposition groups perform all these roles, but each role is a legitimate one for opposition groups. It is important to emphasise that some of these roles are intertwined and overlapping, for example the holding to account role and contributing to policy and decision-making.

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Challenge 1

Turn to Appendix 1 to complete a full self-reflection exercise on opposition roles and your own opposition group.

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Challenge 2: Quick review of roles

Consider the nine roles for the opposition and your own opposition group.

  • Does your group undertake all nine roles?
  • Which roles do you emphasise? Why?
  • Which roles are not undertaken? Why?
  • Which roles do you believe your group undertakes best? Why?
  • Which roles do you believe are both neglected by the group AND are important?
  • What actions might you take based on the above?

Make a note of the main points of your reflection.

As much as different opposition groups will emphasise certain of these nine roles, what can be achieved by opposition groups will also vary. An opposition group by its very nature cannot ‘command and control;’ they do not collectively or individually hold constitutional decision-making powers. They work through influence, advocacy, persuasion, networking, alliance building and political skills. A skilled opposition councillor and group can deliver change and ‘make things happen.’

Some councils have role descriptions for leading opposition members which establish the council’s formal roles for opposition. These often reflect the nine roles identified above. An example from Kirklees Council is provided below.

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Role profile of a Leader of an opposition group: Kirklees Council

  • To establish and represent the views of the group on issues of policy and priority and develop group policies that are credible and could be implemented by the council. 
  • To lead an opposition group within the council.
  • To manage the work of councillors within the group, and the overall co-ordination of opposition spokespersons and the business of the group. 
  • To shadow and scrutinise the Leader of the Council and the Cabinet in their duties. 
  • To represent the council on key local partnerships and in so doing act as an ambassador for the council. 
  • To act as the principal spokesperson for an opposition group of which he/she is leader and as a representative of the authority to external bodies and organisations as appropriate.
  • To comment on, challenge and review the council’s administration performance in the co-ordination and implementation of its policies and procedures.
  • To champion and participate in Councillor Development and manage the group Business Manager to ensure the smooth running of the group and the personal development of its councillors. 
  • To advise the Leader of the Council of the group’s position on issues relating to external relationships. 
  • To represent the group on relevant formal and informal working groups 
  • To maintain effective liaison with the Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee. 
  • To participate in the development of corporate strategies and policies. 
  • To be responsible for personal development and undergo appropriate development and continuous improvement for any role undertaken

Note: A series of role descriptions were originally set out in 2008 in Kirklees and remain in use today.

Source: Councillor Role Profiles November 2008

The Kirklees Council role description – in common with all examples of opposition role profiles – provides a reminder of the duality at the heart of the opposition’s work. There is an expectation that the opposition will both hold the controlling group to account and provide robust alternative plans and also work with the controlling group to shape corporate strategies and policies and ‘be an ambassador’ for the council on external bodies.

Diversity in opposition groups: Shaping local approaches

This graphic shows the twelve factors which councillors might come across when working with an opposition group or groups in a council.
Source: Dr Stephanie Snape, New Leadership Foundation, 2020


One of the most notable features of opposition in local government is its diversity; there is tremendous variety in almost every aspect of local opposition groups from their size, the extent to which they follow a 'party' line, access to resources, group discipline, history and culture, political geography, the relationship between groups and so on. This richness means that there is no one blueprint for how opposition groups should operate and achieve effectiveness. Local opposition groups instead shape approaches which reflect their local circumstances, their nuances, and complexities.

Over the longer term there are, however, changing trends in the structure and behaviours of opposition groups. For example, the introduction of the Widdecombe Rules led to many more individual independent councillors grouping together to take advantage of rules relating to representation on committees. There has also been a growth in the number and type of local political groups in many councils (for example, with more Green councillors, residents’ associations, and independents). Of the 317 councils operating in 2023, a third are now ‘No Overall Control’ with councils run by coalitions of political groups. This produces different challenges and opportunities for opposition.

Quick reflection exercise

  • What is the history and culture of your opposition group?
  • How has your group changed over time?
  • Is your group ‘fit for purpose’ given the current environment it operates in?
  • If you could change ONE thing, what would it be?

The ten components of effective opposition

Although opposition strategies must reflect local circumstances, it is possible to distil key lessons for developing effective opposition working. 

Ten components of effective opposition 

  • clarity on aims and policies
  • coherent opposition policy
  • to be a ruling group in waiting
  • engage outsiders and refresh ideas periodically
  • skilled use of opposition strategies and tactics
  • wise use of resources
  • understand implementation
  • a cohesive effective team
  • effective group management
  • a positive upbeat approach

Source: Dr Stephanie Snape, New Leadership Foundation

Opposition groups benefit from clear aims and priorities which derive from a persuasive political vision. Understanding your priorities - and the areas which are not a priority - is part of having a robust strategic direction. This should include a coherent suite of policies which are mutually supportive and provide clarity over the inter-connections.

All groups - even small ones - can benefit from the energy and discipline that come with acting as a 'ruling group in waiting'. Understanding the constraints and challenges of being in power can inform effective challenge. Small groups can - at times unexpectedly - be in very powerful positions in no overall control authorities where the discipline of being a ‘ruling group in waiting' will be really beneficial.

Experienced opposition groups understand how to use different strategies and tactics dependent upon the policy area, situation or individual; using political knowledge of how power is distributed inside and outside the council helps the group to select the most appropriate approach.

Resources for opposition groups are almost always limited and so using them to their greatest effect is key. Political groups can sometimes focus on the development of policy but understanding how it is implemented and the 'implementation gaps' that sometimes can occur is useful for opposition councillors. Implementation gaps occur when new policy or changes to policy are not delivered on the ground as expected. There can be many reasons for these gaps. With any group situation, understanding personalities and relationships is essential: both to shape effective leadership teams and for ensuring positive group dynamics. Lastly, an upbeat, positive style with an emphasis on identifying opportunities and making a constructive difference is a core component of effective opposition.

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Challenge 3

Turn to Appendix 2 to complete a self-reflection exercise on the Ten components on effective opposition. This provides more detail on the Ten components.

Opposition strategies: The opposition continuum

The continuum focuses on the relationship between the opposition group and the ruling group/s. It sets out four potential 'types' of opposition groups depending upon how they relate to the ruling group/s overall:

  • Incorporation: the opposition group works in partnership with the ruling group/s, to the extent that the opposition is almost indistinguishable from the ruling group.
  • Collaboration: the tone is one of co-operation over certain major policies and a constructive opposition approach over other policy areas.
  • Competition: the opposition seek 'clear water' from the ruling group/s on key policies and will pursue alternative policies.
  • Confrontation: there is vocal, adversarial, and hostile opposition to ruling group/s.

The continuum highlights the duality in the role discussed above: the enduring dilemma for opposition groups is 'collaborate or compete?'. Will a collaborative approach deliver real benefits in terms of being ‘listened to’ and having an impact on decisions? Or will it produce the criticism of being ‘no different’ from the group/s in control? Will a competitive or confrontational approach produce electoral benefits? There are many factors which will shape a group’s overall relationship with the controlling group/s: calculations of electoral gain and risk; the nature of group values; closeness or distinction between manifesto pledges and policy choices; political geography – whether collaboration will undermine your group’s vote in your wards or pose no threat; and the nature of personal relationships and networks.

It is important to emphasise that this continuum relates only to opposition groups – not to groups collaborating in partnerships within No Overall Control (NOC) authorities who are in effect in power. However, groups operating within the ‘incorporation’ type are likely to have entered into deals with a group/s in power over certain policies or issues. They may even provide informal support to a minority administration.

This graphic describes the opposition continuum. It examines whether the relationship is one of collaboration, competition, confrontation  or incorporation. The nature of the relationship between the parties helps to determine how parties can or will work together.
Source: Dr Stephanie Snape, New Leadership Foundation


Although the opposition continuum is necessarily a caricature, it is helpful in understanding how opposition groups can theoretically relate to ruling groups. Some groups will largely adhere to one of these types. Others would work within the specific types for some issues and some groups would at times have different members using different approaches. It would not be uncommon for the formal, public facing strategy to be one of competition but in private, informal relationships would exist for oppositions to work in collaborative ways. Opposition leaders with advanced political skills would not see the ‘collaborate or compete?’ dilemma as a straitjacket or simple choice but rather ‘how do we use both as a way of achieving our aims?’

Challenge 4: Quick reflection

  • What position does your opposition group take on the Opposition Continuum? Has this changed over time? 
  • If you use more than one of these types at times, in what situations can each type be effective? 

Opposition platforms

A key component of effective opposition is the skilled use of opposition strategies and tactics (number 5 on the Ten components of effective opposition). This relates closely to the political skills of the opposition councillor and group. A politically savvy councillor or group understands how councils and their partners 'tick'; they understand both the formal governance and decision-making structures and the informal influence and persuasion that shapes policy and practice. They can 'read' rooms, situations, and individuals astutely. This involves understanding the range of 'opposition platforms' - or arenas - that are available to exercise influence.

Opposition platforms include formal governance structures such as full council, and informal relationships with officers, contacts with local media, group communications and community networks. The table on opposition platforms categorises them into 'internal-formal', 'external-formal', 'internal-informal' and 'external-informal'. Effective oppositions work across these different platforms: aware that the informal can be more powerful than the formal; and that external connections can produce internal results.

The graphic describes the 4 types of relationships between controlling and opposition parties
Source: Dr Stephanie Snape, New Leadership Foundation


The nature and access for the opposition to these platforms varies over time and from authority to authority. For example, behaviour in council meetings is changed through webcasting. Some – more informal - meetings since COVID-19 have remained online, narrowing the possibilities for informal networking before and after meetings. Meetings with officers may tend towards online platforms. The move away from face to face to virtual meetings and communication can make it more difficult for the opposition to 'read the room' and assess the political implications. If there are local changes in governance arrangements (such as from a Leader/ Cabinet model to the committee system or vice versa), this too affects the shape of opposition platforms.

Challenge 5

Consider the opposition platforms identified above:

  • Which opposition platforms do you use? Which are most useful?
  • Are there any which you could be using? How?

Support from councils for opposition groups

How much effective ‘support’ and recognition of the opposition within councils is provided varies from authority to authority and over time within councils. The ‘space’ available for an opposition to undertake its roles includes both the formal mechanisms of governance and more informal channels, norms, and unwritten practice. Although the opposition is mentioned at times within council constitutions it is an ad hoc, dispersed way; there is rarely a section which seeks to provide an overview of the opposition’s constitutional position.

Two factors in particular can shape the formal and informal ‘space’ opposition groups have in individual authorities. The first is electoral history. Some councils tend to swing regularly from one administration to another or to NOC. In these authorities there often is a recognition of the need for opposition groups to have good access to briefings from officers and for regular cross-party discussions. In authorities where one party has had a large majority for many years, over time the space for support to the opposition can contract. The second is the type of governance. It could be argued that executive political management arrangements can – as they are intended to do – concentrate power in the ruling group/s and thus may limit the space for opposition. Committee systems with their decentralised form of decision-making formally at least may provide opposition with greater access. However, both factors need to be qualified as local circumstances always vary.

When considering the formal and informal mechanisms for the opposition in councils, the following are important:

  • Constitutional arrangements - What does the constitution, its articles and supporting documents state about what opposition groups can and cannot do and what support they will receive?
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Challenge 6: The council constitution and the opposition

Review your council constitution, its articles, and appendices:

  • What does the council constitution set out in terms of the opposition?
    • access to information?
    • working with officers?
    • ability to ask questions at meetings? 
    • use of motions at full council?
    • use of call-in and councillor calls for action.
  • Roles and restrictions in meetings - What do standing orders state about the roles of opposition councillors in formal meetings? Are there opportunities for opposition members specifically to ask questions in different forums, or are the opportunities for questions the same for all councillors? Are there time limits? Do questions have to be submitted in advance?
  • Access to information - What is the formal position about access to information, including sensitive information? Are there provisions for the opposition group leader to have access to some additional categories of information?
  • Access to officers - Do senior officers provide briefings for the opposition? Can they brief the private group meeting? 
  • Information on opposition wards - Are there good systems in place so that opposition councillors are fully briefed and informed on potential service or policy changes that might affect their wards? Is there an effective system for ward councillors to use to log and receive timely responses on case work? 
  • Proposing and challenging policy - Are there mechanisms where the opposition can propose policy or challenge it (for example motions in full council)?
  • Roles in full council - Can the opposition present its views and provide challenge in full council?
  • Formal opposition roles: leader of the opposition - It is often the case that the leader of the main opposition party (the party with the greatest number of councillors after the majority party) will have a particular role within a council. They may be styled the ‘Leader of the Opposition’ or the ‘Main Opposition Leader.’  They would often receive a higher special responsibility allowance than other opposition leaders and they may have specific constitutional roles.
  • Shadow cabinets and spokespeople - In some authorities there will be an official shadow cabinet, which may have good access to senior officers and regular officer briefings. Some councils also have the practice of opposition spokespeople for different cabinet roles. Spokespeople may or may not be used as the terminology in shadow cabinets. East Sussex County Council has spokespersons to mirror the cabinet portfolios in each opposition group.
  • Role profiles for opposition lead members - A number of councils have a formal role profile for opposition leaders and deputies.
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Guidance: Role descriptions for opposition lead members 

  • Kirklees Council
  • South Cambridgeshire District Council
  • South Holland District Council
  • Derbyshire County Council
  • Craven District Council
  • Somerset Council
  • Suffolk County Council
  • Welsh LGA have a series of role descriptions, including for opposition leaders and deputies.
  • Political assistants for opposition groups - Some councils fund political assistants for political groups, including opposition groups. For example, Southwark, Plymouth, and Kent have opposition group political assistants.
  • Special responsibility allowances (SRAs) for opposition lead members - It is usually the case that the main opposition group leader and deputy would receive an SRA; in some authorities so too would any smaller opposition group leaders and deputies. In other councils, opposition spokespeople may also receive an allowance.

Small can be mighty: Small opposition groups

It can seem daunting to small opposition groups to develop successful opposition tactics and to have a positive impact on a council. However, small groups can be highly effective if they operate in a smart, agile and targeted way.

Some ideas are set out below:

  • Priorities, priorities, priorities - Select a small number of priority policy areas which reflect your political values and manifesto, but also can be realistically supported by your group. Focus group energy on these priorities. Allocate 'lead' or 'champion' roles within your group to these priorities (if there are enough members).
  • Say no - Avoid spreading yourself too thin by accepting every invite to be involved in both internal council and external organisations, groups, and meetings.
  • Cultivate allies - Could you increase your impact by working with other groups on selected issues? Are there officers who might be natural allies? Are there allies in the community, voluntary, business, or other public agencies who might be useful? Are there natural allies in the media?
  • Understand the political terrain - Grow your political nous and impact by analysing and understanding the political landscape of the council; identifying the key 'political' actors, their motivations, and tactics; understand the drivers for political decision-making.
  • Be excellent community leaders in your wards or divisions - Prioritise making a visible difference in your own patch.
  • The 'team' is bigger than the group - Small groups in particular can benefit from expanding their 'team' to include the wider local political group or party (where this exists).

Opposition to power

The third component of the ten components of effective opposition is to be a ‘ruling group-in-waiting.’ It is a good discipline for opposition groups to generally ‘be prepared’ and organised for taking control. However, if the likelihood of taking control increases – and as elections come closer which might produce this change, taking steps to manage the transition to power is important.

Some of the steps an opposition group can take are set out below:

Shadow cabinets

If the council runs an executive system, then establishing a shadow cabinet can be useful. Ensure that your group has named shadow portfolio holders for each of the council’s existing portfolio remits. This can help in distributing leadership tasks and in focussing the relationship between leading opposition members and senior officers. It can also mean that post-election, your group already has a cabinet which understands its portfolio areas and the challenges and opportunities they will bring. In a committee system it would be possible to create a system of spokespeople to cover each of the main service committees.

Closer working with senior officers

When change of control is looking likely, it is not unusual for there to be more meetings with senior officers. In national government, there is a system of ‘access talks’ when control might change, giving opposition party(ies) the opportunity to meet with civil servants, to discuss manifesto pledges, ways of working etc. Typically, these occur between six months to eighteen months before a general election. These types of meetings happen in some councils too. Politically savvy chief executives and senior officers understand the need for these private and confidential meetings (which are agreed in principle with the existing ruling group/s). Prepare for these meetings and use them as a way to inspire interest in your political vision and priorities and understand any potential challenges to implementation. Use them also to start building closer working relationships with your officers and enable them to consider how they might ‘hit the ground running’ in delivering a new administration’s priorities.

Political priorities and having a ‘plan’

Ensure you have a clear political vision and a set of robust political priorities – which also includes understanding what your group is not prioritising and how you will address difficult, crunch issues. Senior officers will want to understand whether your political priorities are ‘in line’ with current corporate priorities and budget plans or will require amendments to the council’s overall strategic direction. Think this through before taking power. Consider having a robust, focused plan for the first six to 12 months. Some groups have a ‘first 100 days plan’. Identifying a list of concrete actions that are scheduled for the first year is useful; and include some ‘quick wins.

Governance changes 

If your priorities include proposed governance changes, consider these carefully in the run up to taking power, and be realistic about how quickly any fundamental changes may take to discuss and implement. Do you want to focus the energy of your first six months on changing governance arrangements?

Group away days 

It might be worth considering organising group away days and workshop sessions to ensure your group is fully prepared to transition to being in control. 

Understanding the difference between opposition and governing

If your group is likely to take power and has no recent experience of being in control, it is worth considering the difference between opposition and governing. Discuss within your group how this might impact on group behaviour and group discipline. Look at practice in comparable groups in other authorities. The shift from opposition to decision-making – especially when cabinet members might have wide individual powers of decision-making – and how the group operates is worth considering. See the table below which sets out the differences between governing and opposition.

Governing versus opposition
Governing Opposition

Decision-makers, including day to day decisions

In cabinet systems may include individualised decision-making powers

Influencers of decision-makers

Provide challenge

Accountable and answerable for decisions

Holding decision-makers to account

Providing challenge and contestability

Ruling group/s are responsible for ensuring effective governance systems Opposition groups contribute to good governance
Ruling group/s are responsible for proposing the budget and policy framework

Challenging (where appropriate) the budget and policy framework

Contributing to shaping the budget and key policies

On occasions, proposing alternative budgets and policies

Responsible for providing balanced budgets and sound finances Providing challenge
Provides leadership on performance management Holds decision-makers to account for performance
Provides leadership on risk management Providing challenge
Leading governing councillors will have close working relationships with senior officers Officers serve the whole council and senior officers should brief opposition councillors but likely to be less contact overall
Leading on the formation and robust working of partnerships

Contributing to effective partnership working

Representing the council on partnerships and outside bodies

Ensuring partnership working is effective – providing challenge where appropriate

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Challenge 7: From opposition to control

If you are likely to take control of the council within the next 1-2 years, consider:

  • How will you make the transition to power smooth and effective?
  • What actions will you take? When?

From control to opposition

The process of moving from control to opposition varies in its impact on political groups. Where control regularly swings, it is part of the political culture to manage the transition quickly. Loss of control which is ‘signalled’ over a number of years can be more easily prepared for. The most difficult, challenging transition to opposition comes when the group has had a long period of majority control which ends in a sudden loss of power. In the last three to four years there has been extensive political change and some longstanding majority control councils have had a change of control.

In groups which are unfamiliar with opposition, moving to opposition can be traumatic and emotive. The change curve can be a useful tool to explain what can happen in some groups which have recently moved to opposition – it can also provide some ideas for how to speed up a transition to effective opposition. The change curve explains that when change occurs people can go through several stages as they experience the change: shock and denial, through anger and fear, to acceptance and moving forward. It is used widely in organisations, and in particular it is a useful tool for leaders to help people transition through a change.

Diagram of the Kubler Ross change curve which describes the various stages of dealing with change from shock, denial, frustration, depression, experiment, decision, integration

The key for people being able to move forward successfully is for them to be able to see themselves in a positive vision of the future. For leading members, the loss of the ability to make decisions, the power to effect change, and the loss of close working relationships with senior officers and partners can be difficult to adjust to. Some groups enter an extended ‘mourning’ period when they focus on what is lost rather than on the challenges of being an effective opposition. Leaders of newly opposition groups in this situation can help the group move through the transition by encouraging them to see the positives and opportunities in being in opposition, maintaining a focus on seeking improved outcomes for their communities.

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Challenge 8: From control to opposition – using the change curve

If you are a leader or ordinary member of a group which has transitioned to opposition after a long history of majority control, consider using the change curve.

Using the change curve:

  1. Draw a simple change curve on a piece of paper.
  2. Plot the individual members of your opposition group in terms of where you believe they currently ‘sit’ on the change curve – just use initials
  3. What steps could be taken to move the group generally through the curve towards the upwards part of the curve?
  4. What would work with key individual members of the group?
  5. Make a list of possible actions to be taken.
  6. After three to six months, re-plot the group to check on progress.

The following strategies and actions can help in ensuring a quick transition:

  • Discussing and recognising the different opportunities and challenges of opposition and governing
  • A quick start to opposition. Identify actions which will ensure your group will be viewed as transferring rapidly to effective opposition. For example, establish a shadow cabinet or shadow spokespeople system quickly, identify key policy/service areas to focus on quickly and be quick to issue well thought out press campaigns and press releases.
  • Use away days and workshop style group sessions to quickly engage group members in activities and plans for working as an effective opposition.
  • Consider using the LGA (or party organisations) to identify experienced opposition councillors to coach or mentor leading group members. Potentially, engage experienced opposition councillors from other councils to facilitate group workshops.
Challenges icon

Challenge 9: From control to opposition – A focus on opportunities

This is an exercise you can either undertake on your own or with the whole opposition group.

Option 1:  On your own

Ask yourself…

‘What opportunities can you identify that you can act on as an opposition councillor?’

‘What opportunities can you identify that the group can act on?’

Note them down. Take actions.

Option 2:  The whole opposition group

Prompt the group with the following questions:

‘What opportunities can we identify for us as an opposition group?’

‘How do we maximise these opportunities?’

‘What actions should we take? When? By whom?’

Depending on the size of the group, it is often best to break up into small groups and then each group feeds back on its ideas. Agree actions to be taken by the whole group.

Challenge 10: From control to opposition – A vision for a powerful opposition group

Again, this challenge can be undertaken individually as an opposition councillor OR collectively as an opposition group.

A vision for a powerful opposition…

Two or three years from now, imagine that your opposition group has become a powerful and effective opposition group. Consider:

  • What would your opposition group look like? 
  • How would it behave? 
  • What could it achieve? 
  • What difference would it make?

What would other councillors, senior officers, partners, and the public say about your group that is different from now?

Note down a brief description of your vision.

What actions can you take to make this vision a reality? What would your first step be?

Opposition in No Overall Control councils

Since one third of authorities are in No Overall Control (NOC) in 2023, it is useful to consider how to operate effectively as an opposition in NOC councils. Political history, culture and the type of NOC arrangements will shape the opportunities and challenges of opposition. A ‘minority administration’ NOC council supported informally by one other political group is a different environment than a ‘rainbow coalition’ of perhaps as many as three political groups in ‘control’ and perhaps only one opposition party. The advice and guidance provided in this workbook is relevant for opposition groups operating in NOC councils in general, but the following might be of particular importance:

  • Analyse the particular type of NOC arrangement - It is worth spending time considering the challenges and opportunities presented by the particular type of NOC arrangement in your council. If moving to NOC is new or there is a new type of NOC control, ask yourself, what is likely to change? What do you need to do to adapt to the changes?
  • Impact on political groups - Similarly, if you are adapting to a new situation, consider the impact that this might have on both controlling group/s and opposition group/s. Is it likely to change group dynamics? The focus or behaviour of groups?
  • Cross group relationships - NOC governance arrangements rely on informal and formal partnerships between groups. This means opposition groups will benefit from examining the dynamics of not just ONE controlling party but at least two groups and the relationship between them.
  • A shift to collaborative working - NOC arrangements can produce a shift in some councils to a more collaborative, co-operative relationship between different groups. What opportunities and risks would emerge if this happened? How can you proactively shape this?
  • Increase in informal meetings - NOC councils also tend towards a greater volume of informal meetings across parties before formal meetings are held. These are necessary to exchange views and build up consensus across parties. How would you approach these (if some include the opposition)?
  • Impact on opposition continuum - A move to NOC prompts questions about what overall opposition strategy to adopt: competitive, collaborative, or attempting to employ both?

We would also recommend two recent LGA publications which would be useful to opposition groups in NOC councils or likely to move to NOC:

Overview and scrutiny and the opposition

Much of the work relating to opposition in local government talks about the importance of opposition roles such as ‘holding to account,’ asking searching questions and ‘scrutinising’ policy and services. This is also the language surrounding the creation in the 2000 Local Government Act of the overview and scrutiny function in the majority of local councils. But care must be taken with how opposition groups approach the statutory overview and scrutiny role, to ensure that the focus remains on improving outcomes for local communities.

Scrutiny councillors are politicians and should be using their political insights, and the insights gathered through ward work and door knocking, to influence and guide their work. However, party politics – expressed through scrutiny as an arbitrary opposition or promotion of a particular party line, and a lack of interest in discussion or consensus on that issue, does not have a place in scrutiny.

CfPS - The good scrutiny guide

In some authorities there can be an assumption that overview and scrutiny committees or panels are the ‘natural domain’ of the opposition. In some councils this supports a tradition of the opposition party chairing scrutiny. However, overview and scrutiny is not just the domain of the opposition group/s – it is the domain of all non-executive councillors regardless of political group and there is clear evidence that overview and scrutiny committees work best when they are genuinely cross-party. Where overview and scrutiny becomes a political football between different groups – or different factions of one group – scrutiny is often disempowered. The skills and experience of opposition councillors can significantly strengthen overview and scrutiny, but they need to be set within a firmly collaborative, non-partisan approach.

Skills for opposition councillors and groups

There are many skills which support effective opposition working. Skills can be simply defined as ‘things you need to be good at.’  These apply to leaders of opposition groups, deputies and generally to all opposition councillors. The skills range from leadership, influencing and persuasion, intentional relationship building and networking; to effective communication and working well with the media, understanding the policy making process, analytical, questioning skills which produce effective challenge; and the ability to advocate, negotiate, build strong teams and work well within them and use advanced political skills.

Skills for effective opposition
Leadership Analytical
Influencing Questioning
Relationship building Advocacy
Communication Negotiation
Media Team building and working
Policy making Political skills

Some council role descriptions for opposition leaders go further than a description of necessary skills, listing useful knowledge and/or relevant experience for the role. Kirklees’ role profile includes eleven areas of knowledge useful for opposition leaders in addition to skills. South Holland’s person specification for the leader of the opposition includes a mix of skills and knowledge requirements.

Challenges icon

Challenge 11: Skills audit

This is an exercise you can either undertake on your own or it can take the form of a skills audit for a whole group.

Option 1:  On your own

Consider the opposition skills set out in this workbook.

  • Which skills are your strengths?
  • Which skills are you less comfortable with? Which require more development?
  • What actions would you take based on this self-assessment?

Option 2:  The whole opposition group

Consider the spread of skills within your opposition group.

  • Which skills are well represented in the group?
  • Which individuals have advanced levels of certain skills?
  • Which skills are poorly represented in the group?
  • Would mentoring or training help develop individuals in the group or help with skills which are generally under-represented?
  • What actions could we prioritise?

Developing political skills

Opposition groups will be more effective if they have advanced political skills. It could be argued that given the complexities of the opposition role and the inability to ‘command and control’ that political nous is of greater importance for the opposition than ruling groups. There tends to be an assumption that councillors will excellent political skills just by virtue of being elected. In reality political skills often have to be developed through experience – but they can also be developed through undertaking training and//or being mentored or coached. A good self-reflection question to ask is, ‘how developed are my political skills?’ and, ‘how well developed are the political skills of my opposition group?’

There are a number of frameworks which can be used to help identify and develop political skills. It can be useful to consider the Four Levels of Political Skills summarised below. The first level – the knowledge level – is being able to identify the political landscape. This involves being able to identify the different arenas and platforms where politics plays a part. This would include the governance arrangements in your council, the political groups, and the nature of the political geography (i.e., the political balance in different geographic areas). The second level involves moving beyond this knowledge to analysis – from knowledge to understanding – and involves understanding how power is distributed and being able to identify the key decision-makers and influencers.

The four levels of political skills, developed by Dr Stephanie Snape, New Leadership Foundation, 2023.
Level Summary
Level 1 Knowledge Identifying the political landscape – the governance arrangements, political groups, political geography
Level 2 Analysis Analysing the political landscape – understanding how the system works and who the key players are
Level 3 Alliance building Establishing networks and forming alliances
Level 4 Achieving outcomes Bargaining and negotiating to achieve outcomes

The third level uses the understanding gained in level 2 to develop personal networks, forming strategic alliances through intentional relationship building. The fourth level involves using your political skills in alliance building to achieve your political objectives and achieving desired outcomes. As you move up the levels, you develop your own power and influence.

A simple self-reflection exercise based on the four levels would ask, ‘where are you on the four levels?’ and ‘what level is our opposition group on generally?’

Political Astuteness Framework

The Political Astuteness Framework also seeks to set out the nature of political skills. The framework was produced to describe the political skills required for senior officers and managers in public services, but it is equally useful for politicians. The framework sets out five groupings of skills and competencies which really highlight the deftness and advanced level of skills useful in local politics.

Political astuteness framework: A self-reflection approach for local politicians
Skills More details Self-reflection
Personal skills
  • Self-awareness
  • Listening to others
  • Curious about other views

Are your skills in this area: under-developed, developing, or advanced?


When have you used these skills?


How could you use them?


What actions could you take to improve your skills?

  • ‘Soft’ skills: influencing others, getting buy-in, making people feel valued
  • ‘Tough’ skills: ability to negotiate, handling conflict, withstanding pressure, coaching and mentoring others
Reading people and situations
  • understanding power relationships
  • recognising different interests and agendas
  • discerning underlying agendas
  • thinking through likely standpoints of various interests
Building alignment and alliances
  • actively seeks out alliances and partnerships
  • works with differences and conflicts of interest
  • recognises difference and forges collaborative action
  • knows when to exclude particular interests
Strategic direction
  • strategic thinking – thinking long term and having a road map of the journey
  • not diverted by short term pressures
  • horizon scanning – attention to what is over the horizon
  • thinking through possible future scenarios
  • alert to emerging trends and patterns
  • analysing and managing uncertainty
  • keeping options open – not taking decisions prematurely

Source: Open University, Dancing on Ice, 2013. Adapted by Dr Stephanie Snape, 2023.

Appendix 1

Reflection exercise: Opposition roles and your group
  Key roles Further details Your group
1 Supporting good governance in local government
  • Understanding what good governance is
  • Being assured that the governance arrangements are effective
  • Contributing to good governance, for example, by providing robust challenge of the work of controlling group/s

What is your opposition group doing? 


What is working well?

2 Holding to account
  • Provide ‘checks and balance’ on executive powers – key element of local democracy
  • Providing challenge to controlling group/s in committee systems
  • Provide challenge and contestability to the development and implementation of council policy
  • Asking powerful questions which probe controlling group/s policies and delivery
  • Hold controlling group/s to account publicly and visibly
  • Holding individual executive members/cabinet members/committee chairs to account
  • Monitoring the effective implementation of policy
3 Improving policy and decision-making 
  • Providing challenge and ensuring development of robust policies
  • Monitoring day to day decision-making
  • Ensuring key strategic decisions are robust
  • Reviewing the effective delivery of policy and service changes
4 A focus on sound finances and risk management
  • Reviewing best value and value for money
  • Monitoring financial management, budget making and risk management
5 Developing alternative policies and being a ‘Ruling Group-in-Waiting’
  • Propose amendments to council policy
  • Propose alternative budgets
  • Developing alternative policies
  • Being a ‘ruling group-in-waiting’
6 Representative and advocacy roles
  • Ensure controlling group/s work in the best interest of the residents and other communities
  • Ensure controlling group/s work across the whole authority area
  • Advocating for the communities the opposition represent
  • Amplifying voices of parts of community not often heard
7 Scrutinising the impact of national government policy on local councils
  • Questioning the impact of key national government policy on councils
  • Identifying the implications for councils and their residents of new legislation or guidance
8 Ensuring good group management
  • Developing cohesion within the group and coherence and consistency of policy objectives
  • Developing team/s within the group
  • Effective leadership of the group
  • Providing training and support for councillor development
9 Election campaigning and providing choice at elections
  • Campaigning at local elections
  • Providing a choice of parties and candidates at elections
  • Providing an effective local party organisation for elections and canvassing

Source: Dr Stephanie Snape, New Leadership Foundation, 2020, expanded and updated 2023.

Appendix 2

Reflection exercise: 10 Components of effective opposition and your group
  Component of effective opposition Further details Your group
1 Clarity on aims and priorities
  • Robust strategic direction which gives clear answer to 'what are we aiming to achieve?'
  • Clarity on overall aims
  • Shared political vision
  • Agreement on priorities

What has your opposition group done?

What has worked well?

What have you learnt?

What could you do in the future?

2 Coherent opposition policy
  • Individual policies sit within coherent overall strategy
  • Consistency in approach
3 Be a ruling group-in-waiting
  • Preparing for power (regardless of electoral position) provides discipline, energy, and momentum
  • Adopting alternative policies and plans
4 Engaging outsiders and refreshing ideas periodically
  • Identifying 'outsiders' with new or interesting ideas
  • Reviewing longstanding policy - is it still 'fit for purpose’?
5 Skilled use of opposition strategies and tactics
  • Understanding range of opposition strategies and tactics
  • Applying appropriate strategy/style for particular situation
6 Cohesive, effective team
  • Do you have an effective team which drives your opposition group vision, priorities, and strategies eg, shadow cabinet?
  • Do you have different teams for different roles?
  • How effectively is/are your team/s working?
7 Use resources wisely
  • Recognising available resources (human, technological, financial) almost always restricted for opposition
  • Ensuring receipt of relevant information to enable delivery of role
  • Ensuring maximum impact for resources available
8 Understanding implementation
  • Understanding implementation of policy
  • Gathering information on impact of implementation
  • Awareness of impact of partner bodies on delivery
9 Effective group management
  • Ensuring group dynamics are positive and well managed
10 Positive, upbeat approach
  • Adopting a positive approach to opposition (very important in groups which have just lost control)
  • Understanding the 'upside' of being in opposition and how opposition groups can effect change

Source: Dr Stephanie Snape, New Leadership Foundation