A Sickening Taste
December 11, 2010
It is a stomach-churning time to be a Liberal Democrat. I’m sure that none of us, while pushing our Focuses through rusty letterboxes, ever considered the possibility that our party would be legislating to the accompaniment of pounding hooves and breaking bones.
Whatever one’s opinion of the tuition fees policy, it’s clear that its implementation has been as far away from politically astute as one can get. This was always an issue that was going to cause divisions within the party, and the ironically uncompromising attitude of the leadership towards it has not helped. However, it’s possible that the latter is a feature of this Government.
One can divide British governments based on the ways in which the centre controls the implementation of policy. The Blair Government aimed to control policy through control of the messages around it; the Brown Government aimed to control policy via spite and back-biting. The Coalition seems to aim to control policy through decisiveness; the loss of the old levers of Number 10 in terms of an extensive network of special advisors has pushed it onto a path where the speed by which decisions are taken aims to wrong-foot opposition, both within the Coalition parties and in the Civil Service. This has been a complaint since the election – the rapidity of the Strategic Defence Review and the speed of the Spending Review have given rise to grumblings across the political spectrum.
While decisiveness can be a virtue, as a political tactic it has its limits. These have been clearly demonstrated by the way in which the fees policy has been passed. The Browne Review was published on October 12th. Just under two months passed until the Coalition’s policy on fees was put into law. In that time, relatively little effort was put into consultation with the people most impacted by the change – future students. The Coalition should have made a point of holding full consultation sessions at universities and colleges across the country, presenting them with the range of options available, including uncapped fees, the current solution and the Browne review. Instead, a single option has been imposed on a demographic well able to make its resentment felt.
The whole point of pluralism is that power is shared, and compromise is achieved. Our leadership appears to have forgotten that this doesn’t just apply to political parties, but to everyone impacted by the exercise of that power.