Monday 17 September 2012

What has the coalition achieved?

The coalition government under David Cameron has had a rough time recently. Surveys show that key ministers are deeply unpopular amongst the British people and the poll figures for both parties, the Conservatives and the LibDems, took a beating since the Rose Garden photo op in 2010.

Happier times! Cameron and Clegg in the Rose Garden of Number 10 in 2010

There have also been rumblings amongst Conservative members of parliament about the leadership qualities of David Cameron, prompted by a perceived advantage given to LibDems in key policy areas. Nick Clegg and his parliamentary colleagues, so the complaint goes, determine policies to a far greater extent than they should. Given the widespread disenchantment with the coalition one might be forgiven to ask: what is the point of the coalition? Has it achieved anything so far?

The most effective opponent of the coalition government is not Her Majesty's Opposition, yet perhaps time itself and the tendency of all electorates to indulge in selective memory. It is easily forgotten how radical this government actually has been, much to the consternation of some former Labour ministers who had similar plans for transformations of public services, yet either never got round to implement them or were blocked by Gordon Brown.

Just reviewing a list of recent reforms reveals the magnitude of the policy programme of the current government. Fundamental change and reforms have received legislative approval in education, health, constitutional affairs and welfare.

Take welfare for example. James Purnell was the one but last Labour Welfare Secretary and his plans for welfare reforms approximated closely those of the current postholder Ian Duncan Smith. When in power, Labour had a keen awareness that the current trajectory of welfare spending was unsustainable in the long term. Ian Duncan Smith, starting in 2010, implemented a radical shakeup of the welfare and benefits system which, for the first time in more than 30 years, involves the re-assessment of benefit recipients for payments.

Despite some criticism from disability rights organisations the reforms seem to be largely in tune with the views of the British public and there seems to be widespread consensus that benefit payments require better targeting at those in need. Ian Duncan Smith carefully built the case for reform and is about to implement it, ceaselessly reminding reform opponents that simply continuing to increase welfare expenditure is not an option and may exacerbate inbuilt injustices.

In other words, he managed to locate the current reforms in the wider context of equity and justice, as well as present them as largely continuous of previous postholder's intentions. Similar feats have been pulled off by the Education Secretary Michael Gove, who argued that his education reforms are in essence an extension of the academy programme started by Labour under Tony Blair.

Yet, how truly radical the policy agenda of this government has been is only revealed by looking at those areas that have little resonance with the British public. It is in matters such as constitutional affairs that investing political capital rarely pays off and hence little progress is often made over decades. Shortly after coming to office, the coalition legislated for fixed term parliaments which removed the prime ministerial prerogative to set the date of the general election, something not even Labour was ready to give up.

After only two years, the record of this coalition government compares positively with Tony Blair's first term, even though he always regretted not having adopted a more radical approach when coming to power. Yet as selective as collective memory might be, it is also usually arriving at a more balanced appreciation of achievements as time goes by. John Major's government, though deeply unpopular at the time, might be a case in hand. Major's term in office is now seen as laying the foundation for the unprecedented economic recovery in the second half of the 1990s creating the space for the expansion of public expenditure under Labour. In this sense, Cameron and Clegg may have their best time still ahead of them.

No comments:

Post a Comment