What next for the coalition?

Published in Prospect (May 4th, 2011)

So it is all over bar the shouting. And what a lot of shouting there has been. In truth, the proposed change to our voting system is a pretty small one, which was why it was dismissed for so long by the likes of Nick Clegg. But the debate has been depressing, with juvenile claims made on all sides in an increasingly desperate attempt to grab the attention of a public focusing on far more important matters.

There is a painful irony in supporters of reform arguing that it will help breach the gaping chasm between politicians and voters while immersed in an imbroglio that can only have served to make people despair once again of their elected representatives. Indeed, the idea that adopting the voting system used in Hollywood for the Oscars will somehow heal the wounds of our body politic are among the most absurd of the claims flying around.

If the polls are right, Britain will have spent £80m of much-needed taxpayers money to say No to a new voting system. The Yes campaign has been inept, the No campaign brutally efficient. But the bigger issue, among talk of cabinet shouting matches and accusations between coalition colleagues of behaving like Nazi propagandists, is of the damage done to the government as the smoke from this sour campaign clears.

As I wrote in my column in last night’s London Evening Standard, the real worry is not that the coalition is killed but that it is crippled. For differing reasons, none of the three major parties want a general election right now, whatever the electoral system that is used. But clearly Chris Huhne has embarked on leadership manoeuvres, shoring up his left flank against Lib Dem chair Tim Farron in case grassroots concern with the coalition crystallises into a leadership challenge to Clegg.

This means that David Cameron, determined to hold together his coalition government, must now concentrate on shoring up his deputy prime minister within the Lib Dems, rather than shoring up the Lib Dems as a whole after its bungling of the tuition fees vote. The legacy of this may be threefold.

Firstly, it may hobble Cameron’s ambition to lead the first great reforming government of 21st century Britain, one that transforms the landscape of the nation by reshaping the state so that it serves the interests of both taxpayers and those most in need. Neither were served by the Blair-Brown bubble, with their policy of hurling money at an unreformed system in a way that benefited the middle classes but failed so many of the old, the poor and the sick.

Unlike the Orange Book liberals at the top of the party, most Lib Dem activists dislike the government’s radicalism on public services. They attacked free schools, hate the health service reforms, distrust the housing shakeup and dislike anything that smacks of “privatisation” or undermines the control of their adored local authorities. Many work in the public sector and resent handing over control to consumers of their services. And, sadly, they have allies among the more cautious Conservatives.

Already we have seen the NHS plans hijacked, and now Lib Dem peers are trying to delay the introduction of elected police commissioners. We can expect more of these assaults on the public service reform agenda, with the smaller party dragging back its larger partner. And expect far more concentration on the government’s little-noticed efforts to use mutuals and co-operatives to reshape the public sector instead of relying on private firms.

The second spin-off from the campaign, with a new style of unruly coalition, will be the Conservative need to give the Lib Dems a few liberal triumphs to brag about—and the Lib Dems’ rather tedious need to boast about them. The problem with this, of course, is that it undermines Cameron’s rebranding of the Conservatives after they lost focus on the middle ground. The painting of the team in blue as resisting change—especially when, as has happened in the past, both parties have happily agreed progressive measures—threatens to conjure up the spectre of the nasty party again.

However, it is not all bad. From the launch of the coalition I have been urging some of its leading lights to use the new landscape to reshape public debate, with a more honest approach to politics. The idea of cabinet collective responsibility seems outdated in the digital age, especially with a coalition government. The public knows politicians are mature individuals with widely differing views, policies and ideas. The parties are themselves coalitions. It would be healthy to have more internal debate in the public arena.

So it would be nice—although probably naive of me in the current media climate—to think that the final legacy of this bad-tempered campaign on such a trivial issue could be more open discussion of the ideas and policies that can shape Britain at this time of immense change in the world. Looking at what is happening from Asia to north Africa, we need it more than ever.

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