Caring diddlysquat about democracy

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 27/09/11]

One of the less pleasant characteristics of the Coalition government is its cavalier attitude towards transparency, accountability and Parliamentary process. This is part of a more general impoverishment of democratic practice.

We hear reports of serious, but relatively small scale, issues such as Ministerial advisors using private email accounts for Government business in order to evade oversight and avoid Freedom of Information requests. We have last week’s news reports of the proposed scheme of Ministerial buddying with big business. This is a scheme which, in many other contexts, would be condemned as tantamount to formalising the corruption of the political process.

The Government is not above ignoring the letter and the spirit of good Parliamentary practice. Examples proliferate. Read more of this post

Policy, evidence and dogma – the homelessness episode

A leaked memo from Communities & Local Government exposed in today’s Observer has already generated considerable comment. The memo, written by a senior civil servant at the start of the year, sets out perfectly clearly not only that the Government’s welfare reforms ran the risk of making an additional 40,000 households homeless and reduce the number of new homes constructed, but also that – taking these knock-on effects into account – the “reforms” won’t save any money. On the contrary, they are likely to impose an increased burden on the public purse.

A lot of attention has focused upon the former point. It raises important questions about whether David Cameron misled Parliament in statements about the downside risks of the policy. The memo suggests that statements may have been made in Parliament that contradicted the best available evidence and advice to Ministers. The memo also gives some indication of what sort of costs the Prime Minister considers worth paying to drive this policy through. There is a callousness there that many will no doubt find extremely distasteful.

It has been asserted today that Mr Pickles has distanced himself from the memo and is fully behind the Government’s welfare reform agenda. I’d expect nothing less. Or more.

The suspicion of Government hypocrisy is bad enough, but I think it is the second component of the memo is more revealing. Read more of this post

Harsh but fair? Marquand on the Liberal Democrat leadership

David Marquand reviews Vernon Bogdanor’s new book The Coalition and the Constitution in today’s Guardian. Bogdanor is clearly not impressed with the Coalition’s mandate to pursue its radical agenda. And Marquand agrees. He is particularly scathing on the process by which the Coalition agreement was established as the basis for government. As an interim conclusion Marquand observes that:

Though Bogdanor does not say so, the clear implication of his account is that the present coalition is the least legitimate peacetime British government in modern times.

Read more of this post

Sense prevails on public services?

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 08/05/11]

The reports this week were that the Government is planning to scale back its proposals for outsourcing public services. A significant policy shift means that the delayed Open Public Services White paper will not feature proposals for “wholesale outsourcing” to the for-profit private sector when it finally emerges in a few weeks time. Read more of this post

Where next on electoral reform?

There are already plenty of post-mortems on the AV referendum result. I don’t propose to add much to that growing body of discussion. In fact, Mark Thompson has already said most of what I would want to say on the topic. And he’s said it better. Not for the first time. The one comment I wanted to add is that it is extraordinary how widely it is being reported that the referendum result indicates the British people have rejected electoral reform.

What’s interesting is precisely where we go next. Read more of this post

Think Tanks and the policy process: Right, wrong and possibly both at the same time

I’m currently halfway through The Conservative Party and Social Policy, edited by Hugh Bochel. The contributors chart recent developments in the policy agenda of the dominant Coalition partner. The book does a good job of conveying the protean nature of Conservative thought. Of course, one of the dangers of such an enterprise is that when assessing whether Cameron’s Conservativism represents continuity or change – traditional, neo-liberal or progressive – you’re driven to the conclusion that it’s too early to say. And that is precisely what the book does.

As well as having plenty to say on the substance of policy, the book also has something to say about the policy process, although that isn’t really central to its purpose. Read more of this post

Pressing on with NHS Reform – a less than rational process

The central question in the current debate over the Government’s NHS reforms is whether the “listening” exercise taking place during the recently discovered “natural pause” in the legislative process is genuine or symbolic. Concerns that the exercise is cosmetic will only be fuelled by an article in yesterday’s Guardian which cites a letter from David Nicholson, the Chief Executive of the NHS, who suggests that the implementation process should press ahead and that there is a need to “maintain momentum on the ground”.

The article includes a quote from Hamish Meldrum from the BMA who states that the BMA has:

… always maintained that changes in the NHS must not anticipate the legislative process and lead to irreversible decisions.

I’ve no idea whether the BMA have always maintained this position. But this quote highlights something very significant about the way policy is currently developing in this field. Read more of this post

Liberal Democrat alternative realities

Quite a few blog posts have now appeared offering a perspective on the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference. Some significant positive developments occurred. The amendments to the conference motion on NHS reform have attracted most attention. The support for the emergency motion on banking reform was equally emphatic. They both represent important interventions by the Social Liberal Form. Indeed, the growing influence of the SLF in the party was noted by Mark Pack over at Liberal Democrat Voice. Both motions were passed almost unanimously; Conference was equally united on the questions of political independence and electoral strategy; on reasserting the importance of the mobility components of the DLA and of legal aid for access to justice. These were clear statements of intent. Conference saw itself as sending a signal that Coalition hadn’t turned it into “forelock touching automatons” – to borrow Andrew George’s memorable phrase. The atmosphere in the hall was generally and genuinely positive. Of course, the question of what happens next – how to turn policy positions into reality in the context of Coalition, and whether the leadership is particularly inclined to so do – was not really addressed.

Conference was repeatedly regaled with more or less extensive lists of Liberal Democrat policies that have already been implemented by the Coalition government. Many went away from Sheffield relatively happy.

It feels a little churlish to register concerns. But I’m going to anyway. Read more of this post

Political patronage and a scaled down Parliament

Yesterday’s Guardian carried an article by Sarah Wollaston that raised an issue of profound significance for British democracy. The issue is the Government “payroll vote”. Some 150 of the coalition’s MPs are on the payroll. That means that they are bound by collective responsibility to vote with the Government. They cannot depart from the Government line, at least in public. Nearly a quarter of these votes are held by Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPS). The PPSs have no real independent influence on Government policy. They are simply lobby fodder which can be used to make it a bit less challenging to secure support in the chamber for Government proposals.

This raises at least two important questions for democratic practice – one old, one new. Read more of this post

Clegg and Co – whose side are they on?

These are troubling times, for many reasons. If you’re interested in the politics of the Liberal Democrats then you’re driven to ask precisely what’s going on. For those who considered they were joining a tolerant and federal party of the centre–left, the omens seem to get worse by the day.

Yesterday we had a letter in The Times by leading Liberal Democrats in local government (reported here). The argument was utterly reasonable. They were not disputing the need for cuts. They were not even pressing all that hard on the point that the cuts cannot, pace Mr Pickles, be made through efficiency gain but will require reductions in frontline services. The main point was that the cuts being imposed on local government – unlike those being made in Whitehall – are being frontloaded. As a consequence they cannot be dealt with by natural wastage or by considered restructuring. Rather they have to be rushed and dealt with by compulsory redundancy, which will incur considerable additional costs. This is going lead to irrevocable – but avoidable – damage. So it was a public request for equitable treatment. Not an unreasonable point, one might have thought. Read more of this post

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