Opinion: LibDems should run a big-spending department

Writing in The Times, Danny Finkelstein (here for subscribers) predicts that the Coalition Government will stick together in 2012 and that those who think there will be a general election this year are wrong.

I agree. The coalition will survive and there will not be a general election. But I hope that the coalition will look rather different. The Liberal Democrats need to be running a big spending department responsible for a key public service. A problem that the party faces is that it struggles to explain to non-politicos what the Liberal Democrats actually do. People see our ministers nodding behind the Prime Minister in Parliament and hear Liberal Democrat politicians defending Government policy, but they don’t really know what Lib Dems are actually responsible for.

Of course, the reality is very different. We do have Cabinet ministers running departments and taking on huge responsibilities. It is also true that key Liberal Democrat policies have been introduced. The Pupil Premium is making a real difference in schools across the country. Nearly a million low-paid workers have been lifted out of income tax. And pensioners have been guaranteed a decent increase in their pension. These are important policies, and ones the Liberal Democrats can be proud to have achieved. But these don’t easily come together to form a cohesive narrative.

In the business of day-to-day government, it is difficult to see what the Liberal Democrats are doing. The nature of Chris Huhne’s department means that his work, while hugely important, is rarely headline-grabbing. Vince Cable is slightly different, but much of what he does often seems detached from the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. As for Nick Clegg, the face of the Lib Dems in government, explaining to people what he actually does is very difficult.

And as for our junior ministers, few people are even aware they exist. While they toil away at their red boxes and achieve results behind the scenes, they’re certainly not particularly visible. These junior ministers could be doing more to tell activists and the general public about what they are doing. But they lack influence and profile, too often coming across, at best, as thorns in the side of the Tories, and, at worst, mere administrators, doing what they are told.

So it is time for the Liberal Democrats to run a big-spending department like Health or Education. In doing so, we can pursue a focused programme of reform and be clearly identified with it. And this would include reforms to which ordinary people could relate and understand. Instead of pointing to things we have stopped, or attempted to stop the Tories from doing, we could instead highlight tangible reforms that we are working to achieve and a series of coherent policies that we will implement.

Ahead of Labour’s 1997 General Election victory, Andrew Adonis (then an Observer columnist) argued that Tony Blair should become Education Secretary as well as Prime Minister to make clear that it was the priority and passion of his government. By taking over a department like health or education, the Liberal Democrats could do the same.

Sam Cannicott is a former media and policy adviser to the Liberal Democrats 2008-10

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7 Comments

  • Daniel Henry 9th Jan '12 - 7:56pm

    Conservative Home have suggested cutting a deal with us. We remove our influence from all things economic and get control of a single department instead.

    Would it be worth the trade in your view?

  • @Daniel Henry

    I was thinking about this alternative method of coalition government a few weeks back, and thought that swapping out the network of hardworking but largely invisible junior ministers in exchange for complete control of one Secretary of State and all the attendant junior posts, plus the Chief Secretary to the Treasury’s job to ensure ‘our’ department isn’t starved of cash could be a working compromise politically.

    But removing our influence from all things economic would include removing ourselves from any discussion on how ‘our’ department would be funded. Not wise.

    Also, which ministry would we take?

    Health? We’d have to kill off the NHS reforms and start again to implement what we actually want. Education? Again, we’d have to roll back a fair amount of contentious legislation and re-run a lot of extremely inflammatory debate to get what we actually want.

    I’d be more tempted by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ministry, especially if the Energy and Climate Change brief were rolled back into it. I will admit, its my field so I am biased, but I feel that it would be the best choice since it would play to the strengths of the party’s prominent MPs and provide opportunities to make a real and tangible difference on energy, the countryside and on free trade in Europe. Those CAP barriers to free trade won’t knock themselves down.

    Still, its a high risk strategy whichever department we’d get, and risks allowing policy far more extreme than we’d be comfortable with getting through the other departments. Then we’d have bad policy being enacted by a government we keep in office and we’d lose the moderating said government argument.

    So while I think that gaining more control over a ministry and turning it into a kind of flagship for Liberal Democrats in Government would be a good thing, it shouldn’t come at the cost of too much influence outside that ministry.

  • Conservative Home have suggested cutting a deal with us. We remove our influence from all things economic and get control of a single department instead.

    The problem is that the Tories’ idea of a plan for growth is taking a city the size of Liverpool and implementing “Managed Decline”. You couldn’t make it up.

  • Sam Cannicott 10th Jan '12 - 9:27am

    @T-J agree that it’s risky and a Lib Dem in a department like health or education would certainly face internal party battles, but I reckon it would be worth it. We’d still have the Deputy Prime Minister and I’m not suggesting dropping all of the Junior Ministers, so we would still have an influence across Government. What I think this would do, is give more focus to what we do and say.

    @andrewtennant I’m not suggesting we “retreat”, instead this would enable us to push real and high profile reform, relevant to people’s lives. Although I accept your point on “big spending”, perhaps I should have said “key public services” instead.

  • I think Sam makes some important point about how we could build towards the next election.By gaining control of a traditional public service department the Lib Dems would then have demonstrable achievements to talk to the electorate about.

    @Dan Falchikov – I find it interesting that you’re offering cheap insults to people about how good they were at their jobs. Are you the same guy who got caught mouthing off by Kevin Maguire on the train about your cheap Kingston Hospital campaign? Not exactly a great comms moment…

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