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Five suggestions for renewed Tory-Lib Dem cooperation

By Peter Hoskin
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Last week I wrote about the sharp end of coalition: the concessions that could be made to the Lib Dems in return for certain Conservative policies. But there’s also the soft end: those areas where the two parties might, and should, happily cooperate with each other in future. And, for those who want the Coalition to function successfully, it is this spirit of cooperation that is more important right now. The looming party conferences could yield various shades of bad blood, but both sides would do well to remember the ties that bind.

So what are these areas of cooperation? Of course, the Coalition itself — and the Coalition Agreement — could be said to be an exercise in cooperation, but I have something else in mind. The five policy areas I’ve outlined below are ones where the Tories and the Lib Dems might want to renew their efforts, where they can work together with greater vigour than before. There is a constant danger of both sides making deficit reduction the be-all-and-end-all of their partnership, and allowing divide and disagreement to break out elsewhere. These five policy areas are ones, I think, that lend themselves to stronger unity:

i) Political reform. As I said last week, the Lib Dems haven’t had much joy when it comes to remoulding politics as they want to: both AV and Lords reform have been dispatched into the bin marked ‘not for recycling’. But there are other ways to change the system, including — although not limited to — giving people the power to recall their MPs, shining a light on lobbying, and cutting back Parliamentary perks. The Coalition would probably say that it has already made progress on these fronts, but more could certainly be done. As Douglas Carswell has consistently pointed out, the Government’s draft proposals for recalling MPs are “deeply flawed”. The Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee has attacked the Government’s proposed “Register of Lobbyists” for its narrow focus. And as for Parliamentary perks, many of the most egregious examples still persist.

There is also party funding, which I included in my list of concessions last week because a deal would probably require the Tory leadership to stand down from (what appear to be) its firmly-held views on funding caps. But, nevertheless, some Coalitionauts see this more as an area for cooperation. In an interview from before his return to Government, David Laws suggested that, “When I consider [the] issues [surrounding party funding] and compare them with other challenges like getting party agreement on Lords reform, this feels like the kind of thing that a few sensible people ought to be able to figure out in a dark room in a matter of hours.”

A renewed effort on political trust would not only suit the Coalition philosophically, but perhaps also electorally. But it’s worth noting that when Mark Harper was moved to Immigration in the reshuffle his old position of Parliamentary Under Secretary for Constitutional and Political Reform was not occupied by anyone else. That renewed effort does, sadly, look unlikely.

ii) Civil liberties, etc. Here, I hope you don’t mind if I reproduce part of a recent Dominic Raab article for the Financial Times:

Beyond the economy, after 13 years of authoritarian Labour rule, defending British liberties should be a coalition rallying cry. Yet, after a saintly six months when ID cards were abolished and pre-charge detention halved, the coalition looks feeble in taking on the entrenched views of the security establishment. Half-baked plans for unprecedented mass surveillance have not been properly scrutinised, while both sides have lost their zeal for overhauling the blunt extradition regime that hangs too many of our citizens out to dry. While Labour circumvented the justice system, the coalition should make it a weapon – lifting the ban on intercept evidence, expanding plea bargaining and strengthening prosecutorial agencies. That is the way to reverse the 100 per cent fall in terrorism convictions since 2006 and to give the plodding Serious Fraud Office a shot in the arm. An Eliot Ness-style approach, from terrorist conspiracies to City fraudsters, would strengthen law enforcement and send a powerful political message.

iii) Early years care. One of the best ways to identify the Lib Dems’ current priorities is to read the agenda for their forthcoming conference in Brighton. And, doing so, you’ll see that the first major policy motion they have up for discussion is about “early years” — specifically, about making childcare cheaper and more flexible for parents. The motion pushes for reports and “feasibility studies” into policies such as “a ‘Nursery Premium’ to provide additional funding for the early education of young children who would meet Free School Meal criteria.”

This is unsurprising: Nick Clegg’s political priority is, he says, social mobility, and his conception of social mobility rightly places a heavy emphasis on the “early years”. But, on subject matter at least, this means that there is considerable overlap with the work that the new childrens' minister Liz Truss has been doing since before entering government. The Lib Dems will not like all of her ideas: they, for instance, seem to place more emphasis on qualifications for childminders. But perhaps, as we saw with the English Baccalaureate, the presence of David Laws in the Department for Education could bring about a solution of some sort.

iv) Transparency, spending cuts … and tax cuts? It will also be interesting to see what effect David Laws has in his other departmental role, embedded at the Cabinet Office with Nick Clegg and Francis Maude. This department is the one that has been pushing transparency out across Whitehall, often in order to identity waste and have it cut, and the new minister is certainly minded to do more in that direction. In a recent interviews and pamphlets, Mr Laws has been pushing for further cuts, such that state spending is reduced to 30 per cent of GDP, lower than the 40 per cent currently planned. If anyone is to insist that all departments follow the DCLG’s lead in publishing spending data, then it will probably be him.

And what would the savings go towards? Deficit reduction, of course — although perhaps, eventually, there might also be room for further tax cuts. Mr Laws, it should be noted, has also been calling for “lower marginal rates of taxation at all income levels”.

v) Employee ownership. Another Lib Dem conference motion stands out; this one calling for action on “Mutuals, Employee Ownership, and Workplace Democracy”. This, you’ll remember, was a policy area that George Osborne was especially interested in  before the election, particularly for the public sector, on the grounds that it can help deliver better services at a lower cost — and we’ve duly it seen it acted upon in government. But, when it comes to expanding that work, the policy paper that the Lib Dems have produced to support that discussion is worth a quick read. Conservatives may not agree with all of its proposals — particularly its relentless tendency to enshrine rights into legislation — but there is something there to work on.


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