Mark Drakeford is a Professor of social policy and applied social sciences at Cardiff University. For ten years he was the Cabinet’s social policy adviser at the Welsh Assembly Government and, latterly, head of the first minister’s political office. He is now the prospective Labour candidate for the Cardiff West consituency, following Rhodri Morgan’s decision to retire from the Assembly.
Recent stresses and strains in the Westminster coalition have largely been dismissed by those involved in them as simply the sort of thing to be expected when two Parties come together to form a government. The argument set out here is that many of the fissures springing open between the Conservatives and Lib Dems are inherent, not in coalitions per se, but in the particular ways in which this specific coalition has been constructed and managed.
In making this case, six different points of difference between the conduct of coalition at Westminster and the post-devolution experience in Wales are now discussed in turn. Each one, it will be argued, has made an avoidable contribution to the incipient instability of the Cameron-Clegg coalition.
Since 1999 there have been three Assembly terms, and in two of them government has been conducted through a coalition. In the case of the Labour/Lib Dem ‘partnership government’ of October 2000 first discussions took place immediately after Rhodri Morgan became first minister, in February of that year. The detailed work of drafting the text of an agreement took place over the summer, intensifying in September and concluded by October 5th.
The negotiations between Plaid Cymru and Labour, after the inconclusive elections of May 2007, were, in the final stretch carried out rapidly, but even that was underpinned by a slower-time set of discussions which had started, in face-to-face fashion, as early as the day after the election.
By contrast, the Westminster negotiations were completed at break-neck speed. Of course, the context was very different. The Westminster stakes are higher, the focus of media attention of an entirely different order, the constitutionally curious parts played by the Governor of the Bank of England and the head of the Civil Service Sir Gus O’Donnell, all creating a set of heightened pressures.
Yet, a different approach was possible, once a Labour/Lib Dem coalition had been ruled out. In Wales, a minority Labour administration, headed by Rhodri Morgan, was formed early after the May election of 2007. None of the major players expected that administration to last for long – but it provided a constitutionally proper first minister and set of cabinet ministers.
They were all able to ensure that the machinery of government, with all the day-to-day decisions which that entails, was able to go on functioning. Similarly, there is no constitutional reason why a minority Conservative administration could not have been installed in Westminster, after May 2010. Discussions about a longer-term programme could then have continued in slower time, with a more reliable and lasting set of outcomes.
My second point of difference between the Westminster coalition, and those in Wales, lies in the content of the Conservative/Lib Dem agreement. Now, it is arguable that the gap between the manifestos of the two parties in the 2010 general election was more difficult to bridge than either of the Welsh experiences. Yet, quite certainly in the case of the Labour/Plaid Cymru agreement there was a long history of ideological antipathy and policy difference which needed to be overcome.
The key, it seems to me, to resolving the difficulty of content lay in ensuring that the final joint programme: (a) contained only items which had been put before the electorate by either one party or the other; and (b) did not contain any item which had been explicitly rejected in the election by either of the coalition partners.
The importance here is two-fold. First of all, it minimises the areas for future disagreement between the two coalition parties. Secondly, it provides at least an inroad into the criticism of many coalition agreements – that they lack democratic legitimacy, foregrounding backroom deals and bristling with policy details which had never been put before the electorate (and, indeed, might have been specifically ruled out by the two parties during the election period).
The 2010 coalition fails on both these tests. The content of the joint programme for government, produced so rapidly, is less an amalgamation of two manifestos than a usurpation of both. It tears up vast chunks of pre-election positions, and invents wholly new policy proposals. Intensely undemocratic, and carrying the seeds of its own destruction, the content reflects its headlong and ideologically driven genesis – the polar opposite of a carefully crafted compromise.
The democratic deficits of the 2010 coalition document were compounded by a failure to subject it to any meaningful form of ratification by the wider membership of the parties involved. The contrast between the Welsh and Westminster experience in this regard is profound. In 2000 the Lib Dems held a special ratification conference. The more difficult agreement, between Labour and Plaid Cymru, was put, separately, successfully and in full, to special conferences of both parties.
The absence of such a ratification in the Westminster case gained the short-term objective of putting the fact of the coalition beyond interference, but at the cost of long-term, inherent instability and lack of legitimacy.
Status of coalition agreement
From the point of view of day-to-day coalition management, this fourth point of difference is the most puzzling. In both Welsh experiences, the text of the coalition agreements has been treated with utmost seriousness. If a commitment appears in the agreement, it has to be delivered. If a policy proposal is not contained in the agreement, then it cannot form part of the joint programme for government. Inevitably (and especially as time moves on) exceptions to this golden rule have to be negotiated, but they are just that – rare and exceptional.
The reason for this seriousness is that the text of the coalition agreement provides party leaders, in particular, with means of exercising the discipline which is necessary for the implementation of any political programme. This very substantial advantage of treating the coalition agreement seriously was thrown away in the Westminster case almost before its ink was dry. The agreement of May 12th (and its elaboration on May 20th) has, rather, been treated as a blueprint for the hokey-cokey, with items moved in and out of it at increasing speed.
Andrew Lansley’s decision, on July 12th, to abandon both health service commitments of six weeks earlier – to retain PCTs and to ‘stop the top-down reorganisation of the NHS’ in England – certainly lacks political wisdom, whatever the policy merits or demerits. Once the coalition agreement was exposed as something with which individual ministers could play fast-and-loose, almost at will, then its power to act with a binding force on reluctant government supporters was destroyed, and a powerful weapon in the armoury of coalition management was thrown away.
The daily survival of a coalition depends upon a dogged attention to the detail of legislative programmes, policy announcements, ministerial decisions and so on. An ongoing set of discussions are needed, between the parties, in which potential problems are, as far as possible, identified early and resolved at the lowest possible level of political authority. All that requires is a set of political arrangements in which the process of resolving difficult issues is clearly set out and properly understood.
None of this can prevent political trouble from occurring, but it can reduce the occasions on which that happens, and help minimise the difficulties when they occur. That is why, in Wales, both coalitions have published a set of political arrangements, to go alongside their policy programmes. Maybe all of this is in place in the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition – but, if so, the arrangements remain opaque and hidden from the public.
The impression, at least, is that political management relies on the blutbruderschaft between its party leaders – a method destined to spend political capital at a rate which is as profligate as the same coalition’s approach to public spending is penny-pinching.
Ambiguity: coalition, or incorporation?
Finally, to address an issue which appears to lie close to the heart of a fundamental instability in the 2010 coalition. In both Welsh cases it has been clear that the coalitions are fixed-term and fixed-purpose arrangements which carry no implication for wider political re-alignments. The temptation, in the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, for all sorts of ambiguities to creep into the arrangement – special deals in individual constituencies, joint manifestos at the next general election, full merger, each and many more inventive possibilities have been suggested, each one bringing a new wave of instability in its wake.
The moral is clear: muddying the waters in a way which suggests that coalition is only part of a slippery slope towards merger (or incorporation) is much more likely to sink a coalition than to sustain in. Post-devolution experience in Scotland and in Wales suggests that parties can successfully come together for important purposes, while retaining clear separation as political entities. In this dimension as well as the five others set out here, there are lessons which can be learned from that experience by those in power in London.
Ironically, the deeply ingrained belief that wisdom only flows out of Westminster, and never into it, seems likely to ensure that such lessons will continue to go unheeded.