Coalition government and the realities of power

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
19 May 2010

As the initial excitement over the first formally constituted coalition government for 70 years starts to die down, it is becoming easier to see past the hype, to examine one's own expectations, hopes and disappointments and to take stock of the realities of power in conflict with principle.

Neither of the two parties now sharing government would have chosen the situation in which they find themselves – it is only realistic to acknowledge that the natural state of political parties is to want power. And because power has many undesirable, potentially corrupting attributes and is difficult to exercise with integrity, it is easy to forget that at bottom, it is the capacity to get things done.

What those things may be must be a matter for discussion and – in the novel situation of a coalition – for dialogue, but the best, most democratic and most radical ideals will eventually collapse under the weight of impotence and frustration if they remain the conversations of opposition.

For that reason, it is necessary to be resigned to the Labour Party undergoing a period of self-examination and “renewal” in opposition. The hope of most progressives was that Labour and the Liberal Democrats would be able, with others, to reach an agreement on coalition and it is dispiriting that there were evidently rigid tribalists within the Parliamentary Labour Party who were unable to make the mental leap which responds to changed circumstances with changed thinking.

At least the political days of such 'dinosaurs' are likely to be coming to an end as younger Labour politicians, more alert to the new realities of a society angry and restless with the outcomes of the old politics, seek a way forward.

In my view, a period of renewal is necessary because the Labour Party is necessary. The vulnerable, weak and disadvantaged cannot afford to be without a compassionate, left-of-centre force which will fight their corner at home and work for justice and equity in dealing with climate change, conflict and poverty in the developing and failing states of the world.

Labour should not permit itself a prolonged period of navel gazing or internal conflict – we cannot afford to be without its presence and influence as was the case during the 18 years of its last fratricidal and self-indulgent period in the wilderness.

The judgement of leadership candidate Ed Miliband on Labour's more recent failure was: “We stopped being idealistic and became caretakers of the system”.

This attitude offers some hope that the principled party – the “moral crusade or nothing” of Harold Wilson – still has the will to become what it needs to be. An intelligent and genuinely radical leadership contest has the potential to be the engine of that change

The Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition will be preferred by many over a solo Tory administration which would have had fewer restrictions on its powers. But despite some promising signs of inclusion and compromise, the new government still looks uncomfortably inclined towards 'business as usual'.

Perhaps the defining image was Ken Clarke – old politics incarnate in his bombastic talk-over-your-interlocutor refusal to acknowledge any viewpoint but his own – wearing the full, absurd regalia of Lord Chancellor. If ever a man looked happy and pleased to strut his public stuff in a long wig, lace bib, brocaded gown, tights and buckled shoes while preceded by an attendant with a ceremonial purse, it was him.

No one should be surprised at this: the centre of gravity of the Tories remains the status quo and the preservation of privilege, power, wealth and stasis in the name of 'tradition'. It will be difficult for the Liberal Democrats to counter this down-draught, despite all the talk of partnership, co-operation and change.

The men (and two women) who will sit around the cabinet table do not appear to constitute an administration alert to the need for genuine change . It is apparent that Liam Fox (defence) will not answer the challenge of Trident, non-proliferation and withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Theresa May at the Home Office has already promised to be “tough”, although her lack of overt tribalism – she once described the Tories as “the nasty party” - suggests a certain independence of mind.

The new Chancellor, George Osborne, who has already treated Vince Cable with barely concealed disdain, will hear nothing of the collective wisdom of non-partisan financial experts that deep and immediate cuts are likely to lead to a double-dip recession.

These are not many who make much use of public services seated around that coffin-shaped table and the protection of the less fortunate will not necessarily be at the top of their priorities.

Michael Gove at education is in favour of parents being encouraged to set up their own schools, free from local authority control – a recipe for the self-confident and sharp-elbowed to advance the interests of their own children, free from the adjudication of an overseeing body.

Perhaps the clearest sign that less has changed than reformers would wish, is the replacing of the 50 per cent plus one majority which formerly enabled a dissolution of Parliament on a confidence measure. The new requirement is a 55 per cent majority.

With 'stability' as the excuse, the new administration has negated all its talk of constitutional reform and has given the interests of the executive priority over those of Parliament. The power of recall over individual MPs is of little significance when the ability to 'recall' an administration is treated with such cynical self-interest.

The most 'stable' governments are dictatorships. We have to learn to build democratic stability on an intelligent and ethical adjudication between conflicting interests which will protect the weak and will not fear to occasionally offend the powerful. This is not a good start.

But it would be churlish and inappropriate not to acknowledge that there are also some positive signs. The appointment of the pro-European David Lidington as Europe Minister is a welcome indicator that the coalition is willing to end decades of Tory hostility to Europe, and that a realignment with the European mainstream might be hoped for in the aftermath of the Tories' alliance with the European Conservative and Reform Group, described by Nick Clegg as “a bunch of anti-Semitic, homophobic, climate-change denying nutters”.

David Cameron's willingness to bring in expertise from outside the coalition is encouraging. Will Hutton, the left-of-centre vice-chair of the Work Foundation and former editor of the Observer, has been enrolled to lead a public sector pay review and former Labour welfare minister, Frank Field has been asked to lead a study on poverty across Britain (though his critics accuse him of being a crypto-conservative on many of these issues).

Of course, it is not going to be easy for either politicians or voters to re-examine the habits and loyalties of a lifetime or to learn to put the needs of the people before ambition and party interest.

No one has got their entire wish-list from the verdict of 6 May 2010, and we all have to discover a means of combining realism with vigilance and sustained pressure on the new government to be alert to the changed mood of the country.

There are some reasons to feel hopeful, however. Both coalition partners have a vested interest in making their shotgun marriage work and the knowledge that significant numbers of their respective parties are sufficiently annoyed to punish them if there were to be an early election, particularly if a resurgent Labour party was doing well in the polls, may concentrate their minds wonderfully.

As politicians deal with a first-past-the-post result which has delivered a proportional representation outcome, they will have to remake many of their maps. The electorate must do the same.

Meanwhile, veteran parliamentarian Tony Benn's abiding “five questions for the powerful” are an excellent guide for the enterprise: "What power have you got? Where did you get it? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?"

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© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's associate editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger

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