Coalition Government: Experts in pseudo-consultation and historic U-turns

There are two types of Government consultation. There is the kind of consultation that provides people with a background on a specific issue, enables people to respond to Option A, B, C, etc, so that the general public respond accordingly with A, B, or C or with perhaps some written submission, and then the Government responds accordingly.

The other sort of consultation is the one in which a general briefing is provided by Department X within a narrow perspective, which provides Option A, B, C, etc, with the pre-existing intention to legislate in line with one option and thereby pulling the wool over the eyes of the electorate and in which they, the general public smell a rat, thereafter throw out all the options, protest outside Westminster, call for the resignation of the appropriate minister and after which the consultation is resolutely kicked into the long grass as a decisive, expensive and historic failure.

The Coalition Government have become a cabinet of experts on this latter type of undemocratic, pseudo-consultation, which really does not go down well with the general public and there is a very good reason why. It certainly is a bad and undemocratic way of governing but the roots of that governance lie in the failing Coalition Agreement.

Crucially, nobody voted for the Coalition Agreement. As the Archbishop of Canterbury recently said, “With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted …” No doubt a good part of this has been the wasted, failed and expensive consultations that are being dragged out, as part of the Coalition policy of in-fighting. We have ended up with all these pseudo-consultations and Government-rigged reviews (see the membership of the recent UK Bill of Rights Commission) bec au se of unstable Coalition arrangements, relating to in-fighting between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. The ‘national interest’ and democracy have been discarded for now.

On the recent U-turn on sentencing, the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, came under fire for “consulting” on the matter that defendants who plead guilty at the earliest opportunity could have their sentence reduced by a maximum discount of up to 50 per cent. The Prime Minister had to save his bacon and halt the plans. As a matter of justice, is this worse than the Coalition failing to oppose the European Court of Human Rights judgement on prisoners voting bec au se the Conservative Party cannot face their Liberal Democrat partners? The Coalition simply does not work.

On the U-turn on selling off of forests, the 12-week consultation was disbanded bec au se of public anger, the Prime Minister was forced to intervene to quell the public backlash, and the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, bowed in the House of Commons to humbly state “…I have taken a decision to end the consultation on the future of the Public Forest Estate…”. Nobody ever voted for it. Nobody wanted it.

On the radical NHS reforms, the Government was effectively forced into a “p au se” for consultation given the public opposition to the Health and Social Care Bill, even after it had already been passed in principle in the Commons and so again, the pseudo-consultation arose. Troublingly, go back to the Conservative election manifesto it says “… we have consistently fought to protect the values the NHS stands for and have campaigned to defend the NHS from Labour’s cuts and reorganisations.” The Coalition Agreement said “We will stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care.” The new Bill which was otherwise being merrily hammered through Parliament means a radical top-down reorganisation of the NHS. I can’t see how this can go on, but the Prime Minister has so far leapt to the defence of poor Mr. Lansley, his health proposals and not to mention his unworkable Coalition.

In pursuit of the private interests of the leadership of the participating Coalition parties and their own private coalition agreement, the British people are subject to the subversion of the manifestoes on which the Coalition MPs were elected, the breaking of the democratic connect between the Coalition MP and voter through the surrendered manifesto and most important of all, the abandonment of the national interest in pursuit of the power-hunting party leaderships seeking private agendas which are fixed not by their respective voters, or even by their party grassroots, but by the party leaderships themselves.

It was certainly right of Neil Bentley, the CBI’s deputy director-general, to have recently voiced his concerns over public service reform of “vested interests fighting modernisation at every turn” but I simply wish that he would have added who the vested interests were – in most people’s minds the vested interests are the 23 percenters. The Liberal Democrats. Or what the Tories now call the ‘Yellow B**stards.’ Nobody voted for the Coalition Agreement which relegates the national interest and democracy to the sidelines as private party in-fighting takes over, under David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s agreement.

The way in which Coalition politics are manifestly put before the national interest and British democracy are proof of that. In this sense, the solution to the problem is now becoming self-evident: that the Coalition must be dropped, a General election called and a new democratic government formed.

Jim McConalogue is a Westminster-based political analyst

  • What a strange Tory rant from someone who has never even commented here before, or taken any part in serious attempts to research and improve government consultation, be it the Consultation Institute or the E-Consultation Study Group that led to the definitive study of public consultation across the island of Ireland. Neither of his “two types” of consultation actually correspond with reality. It is both better and worse than that.

    Nor does he seem to have looked at any of the subtle discussions of coalition agreements and disagreements in Ireland, even as discussed on this site. Democracy is the art of finding consensus support among people who disagree, not forcing the weak to submit to the strong.

    How is it that unknown newcomers are given the right to post here, while the rest of us are limited to short comments?

  • Now I have calmed down a bit (and taken some medicine for my chest infection), here it is again “playing the ball”.

    All governments need to consult on their policies and actions, otherwise they get surprised by the unintended consequences of their actions. A current example are the proposals to cut down the number of coastguard stations. It is clear from his statements that the Minister thinks of the Coastguard only in terms of providing a service to the shipping industry. From that viewpoint, concentrating the Coastguard in the big commercial ports makes sense. But that would have consequences for all the others served by the coastguard, such as sailors in trouble, fishermen, cockle-pickers on the Morecombe sands, people fallen half-way down a cliff and so on. Locals need someone to take care of local problems. I doubt the Minister intends such people to suffer – he merely hasn’t thought of ordinary poor users of the sea and seaside.

    When governments change policy, from what they promised in manifestos, they also need to get public input into the design and implementation of the new policies. It doesn’t matter whether this results from a coalition agreement, a financial crisis, or a natural disaster – a pragmatic government does NOT stick to its early promises or even its party ideology.

    Now such consultations need to be done carefully, with lots of preparation, and making all the consequences clear. Ken Clarke could have spent time explaining the choices we have between higher taxes for keeping people in prison for longer or releasing them earlier. Ideally there should have lots of different options, perhaps bigger discounts for different crimes, or a special super-tax paid by people who professionally benefit from scaring the public about crime, such as newspaper editors and proprietors, MPs and lobbyists.

    Unfortunately, this is a government in a hurry. Be it NHS reform, forestry policy, prison reform or energy policy, the Ministers are trying to rush things through. Once a government moves down Arnstein’s ladder from consultation to manipulation, people cotton on, and react. Hence the public uproars on the NHS and the disposal of Forestry Commission land. Instead they should have moved up Arnstein’s ladder, asking those involved (both citizens and providers) to help design new solutions to the problems we face.

    It doesn’t matter whether the Ministers come from a single or multi-party government. Whenever they try to rush things through, acting as bullies rather than servants of the public, they will get reactions and be forced to modify policies. It is particularly unfair to blame this on the Liberal Democrats, when two of the controversies come from trying to implement policies on the NHS and forests based on the ideology of the right wing of the Conservative party.

    The real democratic question is not whether Ministers follow their party instructions written in the manifestos, it is whether they can humbly serve the needs of the British people today.