Collective irresponsibility, by Colin Talbot

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The triumphant early days of the coalition are rapidly becoming soured by the demands of Cabinet government and political compromise on entwined parties. The strain is showing

In the very early days of the coalition, the Liberal Democrats made what might prove to be a fateful decision – to ‘own’ everything the government does. This has neatly slotted into the ‘constitutional’ conventions of Cabinet government and collective responsibility as practised in the Westminster system.

What is unclear is whether anybody really thought through the long-term consequences of such a decision. What sounded good in the heady days of May 2010 is already turning into a headache for both parties.

Probably the best example of this so far has been the invidious position of Vince Cable. The business secretary has not only had to sign up to several policies he is clearly unhappy with but to defend them in public. We know that, from his own words revealed to undercover Daily Telegraph reporters, he is not happy with some of these ‘Maoist’ policies. Several other LibDem ministers were also trapped into similar comments. These incidents raise a problem about trying to run a coalition government in a system that evolved solely for one-party rule.

Coalitions have happened before in Britain of course, but mostly during wartime and they have been ‘national’ governments including all parties. They were therefore very different from the present ‘majoritarian’ coalition, where there is also a strong opposition.

Coalitions of this type happen frequently in Europe and have become the norm in Wales and Scotland (Northern Ireland is different again). But not all operate in the strong ‘collective responsibility’ way that our one is trying to do.

In any coalition, there are essentially four ways in which policy decisions can operate. These are: where parties can genuinely agree because their pre-existing positions were more or less the same; where a compromise is possible; where a compromise is not possible and one or other partner has to accept – for the sake of the coalition – a decision they would otherwise oppose; and where no compromise or concession can be made by one of the parties and they have to agree to disagree and resolve the issues through means external to the coalition, such as a vote in Parliament.

The problem with the current coalition’s ‘we are all in this together’ approach is that no-one (apart from the insiders) really knows which government decisions represent genuine agreements and which are compromises. And there seems to be no real mechanism for ‘agreeing to disagree’ – hence the furore over tuition fees, when Cable seemed for a while to be ready to abstain. In other countries with coalition governments, the parties tend to admit openly where they agree, disagree and compromise.

Government is big – and however much the coalition cuts back, over the next five years it will find that it has made decisions on every issue big and small that is covered by government. After five years there will be no issue on which they haven’t come to some ‘collectively responsible’ decision.

They will then be faced with the obvious dilemma as the elections approach. Do they renege on things they have previously defended as collective government policy or do they continue to support them all? And if the latter, how on earth are they going to differentiate themselves from one another?

In the ‘first fine flush’ of coalition, slipping into the comforting ministerial limo of collective responsibility might have seemed a sensible option. But as the road gets more bumpy, both parties will find it is becoming a more and more uncomfortable ride.

Colin Talbot is professor of public policy and management at Manchester Business School

About Colin Talbot

Colin Talbot is Professor of Government in the School of Social Sciences (Politics), University of Manchester, and a former adviser to the Treasury select committee. He writes and comments widely on public management reform. Colin has worked with numerous national and international public sector organisations, as an adviser, consultant and researcher. He blogs at Whitehall Watch.

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