Saturday, 6 October 2012
Ed Miliband's apparent triumph with his speech at the Labour Party conference may have, for the moment, dispelled thoughts of future coalition governments, but I suspect his glory will fade, just as Nick Clegg's did after the first debate of the last election, and the probability of another balanced parliament will be back on the table again well before 2015.
If so we need to amend our constitutional conventions to help coalitions between whatever parties to be formed and to operate more effectively.
1. We need to dispense with the expectation that, when there is a change of majority party, the new prime-minster walks into No 10 by the front door and the old leaves by the back on the day after the election. A period of at least ten days should elapse to give time for an effective coalition agreement to be hammered out and thoroughly examined. After all, the Americans have three month "lame duck" period, and the French about a month, when there is a change of president, and he world copes quite adequately, so the sky is unlikely to fall in if the British take ten days to form a new government.
Many of the problems with the present government arise from the fact that the coalition agreement was cobbled together in too great a hurry, under the spurious threat that the markets demanded it. This gave insufficient time for proper examination of the agreement and to realise, from the point of view of the Liberal Democrats, that a permission to abstain on a vote to increase student fees was insufficient for a party that had pledged to vote against, and that an undertaking to introduce proposals for electoral and second chamber reform did not actually commit the Tories to remain neutral on the former and actually support the latter.
2. Rules regarding collective cabinet responsibility need to be be revised to take account of the different circumstances of coalition rather than single party government. We need to make a distinction between those policies which all members of the government must support, and those in which there could be public argument, even if, after such discussion, they would be bound to vote for the final compromise.
3. We need to become more adult in the way that we regard public discussions of policy differences. Revelations on the lines of "We proposed A , they proposed B and we settled on C," as Jonathan Freedland described recently in the Guardian as the modus operandi of coalitions in other European countries, should be conducted and reported as civilised debates rather than in the militaristic language of wars, attacks, fights and struggles.
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