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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.