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Tuesday, July 27, 2010 

The Con-Dems and the race to legislate.

Whether it's attributed to either Emma Goldman or Ken Livingstone, the idiom that if voting changed anything they'd abolish it/make it illegal has always been one of those pithy statements which sound good but which fall apart under scrutiny, unless you take it as a criticism of so-called liberal democracy itself. Voting does change things, it's the politician's promises which are always broken. One of the things the Tories assured us they would not do prior to the election, with the Liberal Democrats making similar noises, was legislate to the extent which New Labour did, notoriously driving through over fifty criminal justice bills in thirteen years. Something they would also do would be to consult, and not in faux exercises like Labour's Big Conversation, with the whole thing micro-managed by spin doctors. They also wouldn't impose top-down reforms on the public services without doing the above, recognising how they had demoralised and demotivated the NHS especially, as well as wasting valuable time and resources. They even put the last one in the coalition agreement, such was the dedication to learning from the mistakes of the past.

Less than three months after the election and formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and the one thing which strikes you about this government is just how much of a hurry it's in. On one level this is to be expected: even if for the moment the leadership of the two parties is still dedicated to making this partnership work, the murmurings from the backbenchers on both sides are undeniably getting louder. For six Liberal Democrat MPs to vote for a rebel amendment to the not just rushed through but rammed through academies bill is significant at such an early stage, especially on legislation which was similar to that which they promoted in their own manifesto. While the Lib Dem left is worried, it's the Tory right, not sated by the swingeing cuts yet to come which finds itself marginalised by the Cameroon revolution. Jibes about a "brokeback" coalition might seem relatively frivolous, yet it's little wonder it's miffed when it comes to prison policy and its liberal mushiness, which certainly wasn't hinted at prior to the election or in the manifesto. Their opposition to the AV referendum is less easy to understand, such is its chilling potential affect on Labour rather than them, yet all is certainly not well.

Some of the haste is then undoubtedly down to the potential instability of the coalition. Compared to New Labour's first few months in office, which were reasonably well planned in advance and included the independence of the Bank of England and the imposition of a windfall tax, it didn't really inspire its first proper rebellion against legislation until the revolt against the cutting of single parents' benefit at the end of 97. New Labour did however have the potential luxury of time, such was the disarray in which the Tories found themselves in along with a majority which effectively established an elective dictatorship. It was only later that Tony Blair regretted not pushing harder during his first term for public sector reform, although not when it came to the timidity of following the Tories' budgets for the first couple of years. It also wasn't until the fuel protests of 2000 that Labour found itself behind in the polls for the first time, giving it the kind of security that this current government would all kill for. The Tories find themselves only four points behind Labour in the latest ICM poll, long before the cuts begin to bite in the autumn, and on the back of exceptionally positive economic growth figures.

Even so, the slamming through of the Academies Bill was more akin to Labour's treatment of emergency anti-terrorism legislation than carefully considered and combed over drafting and re-drafting, as Tom Freeman noted. The argument made by Michael Gove in favour of the rush was that the topic had been endlessly debated over the last few years, as if this were an acceptable replacement for the usually more staid parliamentary process. In reality the rush was to be able to ensure that those schools that have applied for academy status can indeed have it when they reopen in September, although if we're to believe Julian Glover almost every aspect of reform which the bill covers is already available under previous legislation; in that case, why do we need a new bill which seems to do so much at the expense of the consultation which this government had previously promised? The big society it seems only works in favour of those that want the change which the Tories have already pre-determined which the public wants; if you'd rather your child's school didn't become an academy, then tough luck, as it's going to become one anyone. You can of course set up your own "free school", but it'll take years and you'll have to do all the work, or rather the private and voluntary sector firms you'll employ will.

More perplexing has been the relative silence over the proposed reforms of the NHS, where at least the legislation itself is at yet still to come. The coalition agreement clearly stated there would be no top-down reorganisations, while the primary care trusts would be reformed and elections held to ensure there was public representation on them. Eight weeks later and this went completely out the window when the health white paper was published: PCTs would be abolished altogether, local authorities instead providing the the democracy previously lacking, while GPs, the biggest winners out of Labour's own reforms with their pay increasing massively, would be given the task of commissioning services and organising themselves into consortia, whether they want to or not. This relies entirely on GPs being the well-informed heart of the health service which they are often assumed to be, knowing who delivers the best services in their area. It doesn't matter that plenty find their work with patients to be stressful enough, and prefer the management to be taken care of by others, and that they often simply don't know which is best locally as they don't have information on which to make such assured decisions upon, as the management side will probably be provided by the private sector firms itching to get a larger slice of the NHS budget, this was what wanted wasn't it? Aren't they pleased the government has been listening to them?

We can't however say we haven't been warned about the policing white paper. Ignore the parts about the setting up of the umpteenth "British FBI" and volunteers picking up the slack and/or patrolling with the actual police, the latter of which is a legal mindfield and almost certainly won't happen, it's instead the election of local police commissioners which has long been promised. This is without doubt the worst possible thing you could do to the police, as similar schemes in America have abundantly proved. At the moment there is at least a smidgen of operational independence between police and politicians, although New Labour first and then Boris Johnson have both tried their best to undermine that. It's not so much that it will open up the opportunity for the likes of the BNP to get themselves onto the boards of police authorities, the possibility for which is exaggerated (more realistic is local independents who'll demand to see more police on the beat and less teenagers on street corners), but more because as much as we complain about them, the police themselves generally do a reasonably good job at determining what the local priorities in their area are. Undoubtedly those who will put themselves forward for election will know what the problems in their very localised area are, but will they over a far larger radius? The opportunities for imposing their own tin-pot ideologies and prejudices on the police at large (and that goes for both right and left) will also doubtless be far more limited than they at first seem, but the potential for them to sack chief constables who will almost certainly disagree with them and instead install someone more amenable is a recipe for disaster and endless disputes that will distract from the police work itself.

As no one can even begin to put an estimate on how long the coalition will last, and few really believe that this is a marriage which can last much longer than a couple of years without major disagreements and fights breaking out putting the entire government in jeopardy, the potential for ill-thought through, badly drafted and overly rushed legislation ending up on the statute books is not much lower than it was under Labour. Of course, that this is all being conducted under the auspices of a government that believes so deeply in individual and community involvement in the political process and change from the talking to the hand which occurred under the last government means that history couldn't possibly repeat itself. They've learned from the past mistakes and are dedicated to transparency above everything else. What could possibly go wrong?

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