Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Coalition - why having genuine policy debate matters

It is noticeable that, whilst young Mr Clegg has come under fire for some of the things he has said, most of the policy glitches have come from Conservative-inspired ideas. Nick's so-called gaffes on child detention and Iraq merely underlined our world view as Liberal Democrats, and revealed that he hasn't yet been captured by the moderate(ish) Conservatives we are currently working with. Whilst the media, who hate us anyway, will snipe away, he'll be the better for it.

I am less sanguine about some of the policy initiatives coming from the Conservative side of the coalition. It isn't that I am unsympathetic to the aims of some of it, or even that I radically disagree, it's more that the concept of delivery and consequences appears to be only tangentially considered.

Liberal Democrat policy making is seen as being a bit hidebound, a bit London-centric and a mite elitist, and I won't revisit that argument here. However, by having a working group look into a policy field, filtering it through the prism of the Federal Policy Committee and then presenting it to Federal Conference for debate, any significant idea can, and often will, be pulled to pieces to see how it ticks. It isn't flawless by any means, but most of the obvious flaws, implications and consequences tend to be uncovered.

The Conservatives, just like Labour, tend to present policy to their adoring masses. Designed by fearfully clever people like Oliver Letwin, it sometimes lacks a grounding in actuality. A concept which looks good on paper runs into the sands when someone in the real world says, "But how does Section 14 of the Paper Clips Act 1985 interact with this?", (as someone always does) creates a sense of uneasy shuffling.

One of the things that frustrated me so much about Labour in power was their ability to create confusion by legislation. Poorly-drafted bills would be rammed through the Commons by an over-mighty Executive, creating a need for remedial legislation to fix the flaws in the original.

If the Coalition is to succeed, it needs to get its policy-making right first time, especially given the ideological divide to be bridged at every stage. And that means trusting and then involving a wider group of people than is currently the case in the Conservative Party. I have become aware that there are some in the blue team who look at our internal processes and democracy with a degree of envy.

The challenge for Liberal Democrats next month is to remain as committed as we can to that debate, and not to retreat into a cautious shell in fear of what twelve journalists from the Daily Mail might think. And if we do, maybe the Conservatives will take courage and do the same...

1 comment:

Matthew Huntbach said...

The current publicity line from the party centrally seems to be "we're getting a lot of Liberal Democrat policy through - rejoice, this is a Liberal government". This is accompanied by shots of Liberal Democrat MPs looking very smug in Ministerial posts.

I do not think this is working - the smug shots just encourage the line "they sold out their principles to get comfy jobs".

We should be more honest in admitting this is a government in which our influence is limited - there is a lot it is doing which is not what or how we would do it if we were governing alone or the larger coalition partner.

Most people who can be got to think about it could see that the silliest things coming from this government are where the Tories are getting their way, it's what we have to let them have in order to squeeze a few concession from them that we value.

We ought to be able to put it across that a bigger share of the vote for the Liberal Democrats would have meant more LibDem MPs and hence less Tory silliness from the coalition. We ought also to make it clear that we went into coalition with the Tories because they did win the most seats in Parliament and there weren't even enough Labour MPs to make a coalition with them viable. The line against us of "sold out their principles" really ought not to work because it ought to be made obvious there was no other possibility following the election results. We did not "put the Tories in", the people of this country did by voting for them.