What sort of mid-term review should the government hold?

Two new publications look in some detail at how coalition government is working and should work. The sources of the authors – the University College London Constitution Unit and the Institute for Government – gives a clue about their perspectives, and it is a rather different one from that of the usual political commentary.

I’ll review the book, The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Work by Robert Hazell and Ben Yong at a later date, but first comes the pamphlet (for which I was interviewed), How coalition governments renew in mid-term and last the full term by Akash Paun and Stuart Hallifax.

As its title suggests, the authors are interested in how a government keeps going during the second half of a Parliament:

Most governments grapple with the challenge of mid-term renewal, and there is rarely a straightforward solution. For a Coalition, the process is complicated further by the fact that the parties comprising the government will eventually separate, and as time passes, the incentives grow to emphasise difference over unity. The risk that Coalitions face is of drifting without direction through the second half of their term, as consensus on new policies grows increasingly elusive.

From the perspective of how the machinery of government works, they see Whitehall as having adapted largely successfully to a coalition world:

The policy-making process under a coalition is slower and more subject to running into ideological differences. But the differences between the parties are out in the open. In a single-party government, disputes are more likely to be swept under the carpet. Decision-making processes are more formalised and transparent. This is necessary to ensure policies have bipartisan support and all sides have had good opportunity to contribute to the policy process. In particular, the ‘Quad’ (David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander) has emerged as the central dispute-resolution body, and is recognised as such across Whitehall.

Relationships at the heart of the Coalition remain strong, but personal rapport can take you only so far. Beneath the level of ministers, the wider Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are exerting a growing centrifugal pressure on the party leaders.

That adds to the other pressures on the original Coalition Agreement, as the press of events, the requirements of hitting spending targets and the lessons learnt from being in government all chip away at the Coalition Agreement’s original dominance. As I told the authors:

If you look at the big flashpoints there have been, they haven’t been about the Coalition Agreement itself. They have been about things that weren’t in it or about cases where the Government decided not to follow it, even on tuition fees – where the Liberal Democrats didn’t go for the ‘mass abstention’ option.

Even acknowledging that sticking more closely to the Coalition Agreement would have been better over the last two years, as the Parliament passes its ability to provide an all-encompassing plan necessarily wanes.

As a result the authors argue that although a full Coalition 2.0 is off the agenda, a comprehensive mid-term review would be wise:

We recommend that:

  • The Coalition should re-emphasise the importance of the Programme for Government by creating a transparent mechanism for monitoring progress. This should be based on existing systems for tracking business plans, with the link between the Programme for government and business plans made clearer.
  • The Coalition should publish a mid-term progress report, as occurs in Ireland, in which it demonstrates what progress has been made in delivering programme for government commitments so far.
  • The mid-term review should be clearer than the original programme about prioritisation, outlining an action plan and timeline for implementing remaining and new pledges.
  • Prioritisation would also be strengthened by a clearer link between policy and budget planning as in Germany and the Netherlands. Spending targets and economic forecasts underpinning commitments in the renewed policy programme should be spelt out…
  • The Coalition could also follow the approach of the Swedish Coalition, which differentiates between those policies to which they are firmly committed, and those that will be pursued subject to amenable economic and fiscal conditions…

In place of a long undifferentiated list of items, the Coalition should develop a clearer statement of its overarching strategic objectives and should set out the specific steps that will be taken to achieve these core economic and social goals.

The renewal process should seek agreement on some new policy ‘wins’ for each party as in the original Coalition talks. This will allow each side to concede to policies it might otherwise oppose, in exchange for progress in its own priority areas.

That is a much more ambitious mid-term review than looks likely to happen over the summer, but the point about having a clear overall strategy is an important one as the increasing day-to-day disputes that arise from political pressures and the increasing love of differentiation amongst both parties risks leaving the government even more buffeted by day-to-day tactical questions than previous ones.

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