Fairly regularly I receive interview requests from researchers who misguidedly think I have memories, views or ideas which can inform their work. It’s nice to feel needed so I try to be helpful, although I have started to draw the line at undergraduate or Masters dissertations about New Labour. Sometimes my altruism is rewarded by learning from my interlocutors. So it was this morning when two nice chaps from the Institute for Government came to visit.
Their research is on how governments renew themselves in office. One of their case studies was the various attempts made by the Blair administration to develop what we cliché-bound political strategists would call ‘momentum’. Indeed my first task on entering Number Ten was to write a discussion document to accompany the Big Conversation which TB announced in his 2004 conference speech.
Writing ‘A Future Fair for All’ with its ninety-odd policy questions was incredible exhausting and stressful but arguably it was the single most substantive contribution I made in Government (just goes to show you don’t need to be happy to be productive). But this was only one of several attempts to renew, which also included a process of bringing in external strategic advisors in around 2000, the Five Year Plans which emerged in 2004 and the Pathways to the Future process in 2006-7.
But – as I said to the Institute researchers – the situation for Labour in its second or third terms with a reasonably strong economy was completely different to a first term Coalition fighting its way through a downturn. Having delivered a pretty high proportion of its top line 1997 election promises, from about 2001 onwards Tony Blair was in a running battle with Whitehall’s innate small ‘c’ conservativism and hostility from the Gordon Brown camp (which the Brownites also fermented in the wider Party).
For Blair the risk was that he was seen as wasting his strong economic and political inheritance in 1997 (which is indeed now a widespread judgement) or that his opponents or the media portrayed him as having lost his modernising edge. In contrast, the Coalition was dealt a much tougher hand and if its strategists were to list their top five priorities for the next two years I suspect they would all be about managing risks: of the economy failing to pick up, of the NHS reforms falling over, of the Coalition falling messily apart, of Scotland voting for independence (they might also be starting to have some concern over the absence of a credible structure of school management).
Nevertheless, despite the fact that the word ‘strategy’ is apparently explicitly banned by a certain portly cabinet minister, governments do have to plan for the future. And here is a genuine problem for the Coalition. While Conservatives and Lib Dems may grudgingly accept a marriage of convenience to get through this term of Parliament they are both hoping to be in a position to begin the divorce process come the next election.
Any suggestion that the Coalition is working on a broad ten year strategy for Britain would cause consternation to Conservatives who are hopeful of being able to govern alone after 2015 and Lib Dems who would like at least to explore the possibility of working with Labour. Cameron and Clegg may be able to sell compromise to their faithful to get through tough times but why compromise on future vision?
Two thoughts spring from this: first, when Labour was in power it was possible – as other governments had before – to blur the boundaries between policy making for Government and for Party (basically, Government policy commitments went to make up the next manifesto). One of the many interesting consequences of Coalition may be that it causes longer term policy making to be farmed out to Party HQ. One benign side effect may be to strengthen the compromised boundary between the civil service and political advice. Second, ambivalence about future collaboration may in part explain the growing sense that this Government lacks a core mission beyond austerity and its current reform programme (a charge which is not just coming from commentators but was also implicit in Vince Cable’s recent leaked letter). This problem may grow more acute for the Government as it moves into the second half of the parliament. It also offers an interesting lens though which to view tomorrow’s budget.