Where now for the coalition?

Tory manifesto continues to trump coalition agreement, despite all the talk of unity and partnership

Where stands the party manifesto in a coalition government? In a recent interview with the Guardian, the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude mentioned the huge reorganisation planned for the National Health Service, in which the whole system in England is to be turned inside out, with GPs being put in charge of commissioning.

Responding to widespread surprise at the scale of the changes at a time of acute austerity, Maude argued that they shouldn't have come as such a shock, because the reforms hsd been mentioned in the Conservative manifesto and "people should have read the words".

Michael Gove's Academies Act is likely to have equally far-reaching effects. In the view of many, it involves the most significant changes since the 1944 Education Act, which established secondary education for all. Creating academies could well lead to the break-up of the school system as thousands of self-governing schools accountable only to central government come into being. Like Maude on health care, Gove has justified his legislation, which was rushed through parliament using procedures normally reserved for emergencies, by saying that the plans were in the Conservative manifesto, as indeed they were.

Neither Maude nor Gove referred to the detailed agreement drawn up between the Tories and the Lib Dems and published a fortnight after the election. These two iconic policies, with their far-reaching implications, were not reflected in the agreement. The coalition agreement stated: "We will stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care."

In the section on schools there is a mention of allowing new providers to enter the system in response to parental demand -- the so-called "free schools" policy -- but not the plan to promote the conversion of large numbers of maintained schools to "independent" academy status, which is the heart of the legislation. This led to speculation in some quarters that the plan had been ditched in the coalition negotiations. Yet, less than a week later, Gove introduced his momentous bill -- the coalition's first. Could you make it up?

There are two possible explanations for Maude and Gove focusing on the manifesto and not the agreement. The charitable one is that British politicians are so unfamiliar with coalition working that they fall back more often than not on the conventional processes of one-party rule. The other explanation is that they knew they were not following the agreement, but chose to ignore this and mention only their manifesto, as though they had won the election outright.

Does any of this matter? Is it just some arcane procedural quibble? It is surely quite fundamental to where we are today. There's a feel of single-party government in these two policies at least. And unless the Lib Dems want to be seen as simply a means of enabling the Conservatives to implement their manifesto in a hung parliament, that kind of talk will damage them greatly. Perhaps they need to remind the senior partners that, for every three people who voted for the Tories, two voted for them.

More importantly, if coalitions are going to become much more common, whatever our electoral system, as some analysts predict, it is vital that radical policies such as these are seen to have political legitimacy and to be based on consensus between the ruling parties. Otherwise, the intense public cynicism about politics and politicians that became evident at the time of the Mps expenses scandal can only increase.

Ron Glatter is emeritus professor of educational administration and management at the Open University.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.