Bad government rules

Incompetence rules
November 14, 2012

The coalition has so far squandered its chance to be a transformative government (photo: The Prime Minister's Office)

It could have been so different. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition not only ought to have worked—it could have been transformative. By fusing together Conservative ideas about the free market with the Lib Dem tradition of political radicalism, the government could have become a watershed administration. But it has been nothing of the sort.

The lack of anything new has been most obvious when it comes to economic policy. Far from trying anything bold or different, we have ended up with Continuity Brown, the macroeconomic setting virtually unchanged from when Gordon was at the helm. During the five years of this parliament the government will borrow more than Gordon Brown managed in 13 years. Just like under Brown, the treasury has looked to monetary stimulus to produce growth, but ignored supply-side reform. “Unfunded” tax cuts continue to be ruled out, yet “unfunded” borrowing never seems to be.

Just as the treasury remains impregnable to new ideas, Whitehall assumptions about Europe—and Britain’s role in it—remain unchanged. While the eurozone lurches from one bailout to the next, government policy has been about how to perpetuate the problem rather than extricate ourselves from it. While the non-western world grows rapidly, the finest minds in government are fixated on remaining part of a bankrupt, stagnant club.

Instead of change, too often the coalition has ended up perpetuating the status quo. We can’t go on like this, you might think. But thus far, we have.

Nothing is ever entirely black and white. There are some transformational changes being made. Michael Gove has driven through bold reforms that will reshape education. Iain Duncan Smith’s work may lift millions out of dependency. Francis Maude’s initiatives on open data are magnificent.

But far from making politicians more in tune with what the public wants, in 2011, the coalition gave the people a referendum on the alternate vote system, a variety of electoral reform that very few outside Westminster wanted.

The idea of open primaries, whereby candidates to become MP would be chosen locally, rather than being imposed from outside, and which would have made MPs properly answerable to the electorate, has been quietly dropped. The proposal for a mechanism to allow the recall of MPs has been so mangled that if it goes ahead it will actually strengthen, rather than weaken, the executive’s control over parliament.

Despite all the lip service paid to localism by the government, what has actually changed? Local councils have even less control over their finances than they did previously. The Lib Dems might have long campaigned against the council tax, but there has been no serious consideration given to the alternatives. It is also not clear whether changes to the planning system will actually give local people more control over local decisions, or achieve the opposite.

As for the Protection of Freedoms Act, it appears to want to ban things.

What about the so-called “bonfire of the quangos,” which was supposed to ensure power was devolved away from Whitehall? It seems to have gone out. If anything, the “Sir Humphreys” who run the civil service now have more say over public policy now than ever before.

It is, I would argue, not only the constraints of coalition that explain the lack of radicalism. It is also the influence of the Whitehall machine.

Where ministers came to office with a clear sense of what they wanted to change, and an idea of how to make it happen, they have sometimes managed to get their way. Others have found themselves frustrated by a mandarinate adept at playing the coalition partners off against each other.

Too often, ministers have acted as departmental spokesmen, ready to defend a status quo that does not work and drift along with Whitehall’s ingrained assumptions.