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.

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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories