The coalition government needs a renewal plan to help it work more effectively over the next two and a half years, says the Institute for Government.
A mid-term review leading to a renewal plan, which sets out progress so far and objectives and priorities for the second half of the term, will help the parties in government work more effectively, the Institute’s latest report 'A game of two halves: how coalition governments renew in mid-term and last the full term' says.
The report is research based on over 60 interviews across Westminster and Whitehall and in several other countries where coalitions are common. The author, Akash Paun, looked at international experiences of coalitions and how the UK can learn from them.
All governments struggle with the task of mid-term renewal - international research confirms this - but for coalitions the process is more complicated. The risk coalitions face in the second half of their term is of ‘drifting without direction’, the report says. The parties in government will eventually separate and the incentives and pressures will grow to emphasise difference over unity.
There is also a major challenge ahead for the Civil Service which will need to adapt again to working with the parties in government in the final months, when they will be trying to emphasise their party record and their differences. They should plan for a minority government too, should the coalition pull apart early, the report warns.
The report’s author Akash Paun argues that the coalition should hold a mid-term policy review – though not a full renegotiation of the programme for government.
The programme for government was the central reference point driving government activity in the early part of the government’s term. Programme commitments were seen as binding, helping the coalition push through controversial policies such as fixed term parliaments and police and crime commissioners.
But policies that were not explicitly agreed in 2010 (including the NHS and Lords reform plans) have increasingly encountered opposition on the grounds that they are “not in the coalition agreement”. This has hampered the coalition’s ability to develop new policy in response to changing circumstances and events – like the economic downturn and the Euro crisis.
The mid-term review should not be a list of actions or a technocratic exercise, but should be used as an opportunity for cross-party political reflection on what has worked so far and what the coalition should focus on next. It should:
- Clarify what actions are to be taken on matters where the programme for government was vague or silent and it should be open about policy plans that have been amended or dropped since 2010.
- Develop a clearer link between policy commitments and the budgetary plans that underpin them, and might – as in Sweden – differentiate between firm policy commitments and aspirations to be pursued subject to amenable economic and fiscal conditions.
- Lead to the development of a clearer statement of the coalition’s overarching objectives for the next two to three years and of how the specific planned policies will help to achieve them.
- Engage government in long-term horizon scanning and consideration of issues stretching beyond 2015, in a similar fashion to the Swedish Commission on the Future and Scotland’s pre-2007 strategic policy review.
Unity v Differentiation - second half challenges
The challenge in the second half is to strike a balance between government unity, as expressed in a refreshed policy programme, and the distinct identity of each of the two parties. The policy review should therefore seek agreement on a few identifiable policy “wins” for each side, to give backbenchers and party members a reason to back the coalition to the end of term.
There should be clarification of areas where the coalition agrees to disagree, but consensus will be needed on the core areas of economic strategy and public service reform.
Differentiation is necessary in a coalition, but it must be managed carefully and must have limits, the report says. If differentiation is viewed as trench warfare rather than diplomatic negotiation, then government effectiveness will suffer.
In the final stages of the parliamentary term, electoral factors will prevail over government business. The parties will not credibly be able to disown policies they helped implement. During the run-up to the campaign, the coalition parties will need to manage the tone of the debate and avoid an overly aggressive campaigning style towards their partner – this is important because ministers from the two parties will need to work together in government right up until election day, and possibly beyond.
The civil service will face an unusual challenge of having to serve ministers of the two parties during a competitive election campaign. New procedures will be required to manage this. The role of the Office for Budget Responsibility should be extended to cost opposition policies, and not just government plans.
Akash Paun, lead author of the report, said:
“Those who argue that ‘all governments are coalitions’ and that resolving differences between competing ministers is nothing new miss an important point. The natural cycle of a multi-party government is that centrifugal forces from within the parties will exercise a growing pull on the leaders to disengage and to assert themselves more in dealings with the other side. A stronger emphasis on party identity is sensible, but at the same time, the two sides need to come together to reaffirm what they are in government to achieve, to reach compromise on the big issues, and to trade off on a few flagship policies for either side. The alternative may be a government that increasingly drifts in the wind.”