Opinion: Cabinet Collective Responsibility and why we need to reform it

clegg cameron rose gardenA lot has been written over the last few weeks about the coalition, how it has damaged our poll ratings and what we need to do to turn things around. I’d like to put the spotlight on Cabinet Collective Responsibility and how it’s not only damaged our party’s identity but has also helped damage the public’s view of coalitions in general.

Cabinet Collective Responsibility is the convention that members of the government, i.e. ministers, all have to suspend their own opinions and collectively hold the government line. If they want to publicly disagree with the government then they’re expected to resign. This may have made sense when one party ran the government but with a government formed from two different parties, with very differing views and identities, this has predictably caused a number of problems.

Damaging party identities

It doesn’t take rocket science to see that if a party’s leader and key spokespersons are forced to publicly take positions that differ from their party’s usual line then it’s going to damage that party’s identity. People are going to start wondering what that party really stands for.

When the coalition formed, it looked to the average observer that Nick had had a change in personality. This made it all too easy for our political opponents to paint Nick as a “turncoat” who’d ditched all his previous beliefs and promises for a Government limousine.

One of the reasons why the tuition fees pledge scandal was so damaging for us is because it epitomised this “turncoat” narrative that Collective Responsibility played a part in building. If we’re going have a strong party identity then our spokespersons need to be free to set out what it is we really stand for.

Preventing Coalition transparency

Since the 2010 election, critics of coalition in the UK have largely moved away from criticisms of instability and are now more likely to criticise a lack of transparency. They claim that election promises and manifestos are junked and that horse trading is done behind closed doors.

The claim that manifestos are junked is actually untrue. The four key priorities in the Lib Dem manifesto, for example, have largely made it into government policy, and where they haven’t, (e.g. House of Lords Reform) the Lib Dems have been visibly seen to be fighting for them.

However, where a coalition compromise has been agreed, all the negotiations have taken place behind closed doors. When the final policy is announced both parties act as if it’s what they support entirely. Since that’s obviously not true it comes across as dishonest and damages trust.

The public are also left completely in the dark as to what each party has contributed and what they have compromised to reach the final position. This makes it very difficult for people to accurately assess the work of each party within the coalition. We talk about promoting our record in government but for a voter it’s very difficult to properly ascertain what that record actually is.

Coalition governments will never be fully acceptable to voters until we address this.

Bad for Coalition working

Without a legitimate way for the coalition parties to express their differences, ministers have often resorted to less dignified ways to differentiate such as leaks, briefings and spats. These unconstructive approaches to differentiation often make both parties look immature and unprofessional.

It doesn’t do the job either. Differentiation done in this way can often look tokenistic or even contrived. The public would rather see an honest assessment of the two parties’ different policies and contributions to the government. Spats like these merely damage the image of both parties and the working relationships of the ministers involved.

Arguments against the stability of coalitions will continue to have teeth until this problem has been solved.

How we could reform it

Our key aim here is to ensure that both parties within the coalition are fully able to express their own position and to give the electorate an idea of what they’ve brought to the table and what they’d have done had it been entirely up to them.

One way to do this might be to downgrade the responsibility from having to agree with government policy itself, to only having to agree that it was the right compromise for the parties to make given their positions. They’d be taking responsibility for their actions in government while still being able to express their own party’s actual view.

Further to this, each policy document released by the government could come with a statement from each party, allowing them to express their opinion on what’s been agreed and to give the public an idea of what they’d have done had they instead had a majority. It would fully show the differences between the two parties, but in a professional way that upholds the image of working together in the national interest.

Whatever reforms we make to Cabinet Collective Responsibility, whether they follow this particular model or take another approach, they need to allow the two parties to express their differences in an open and honest way.

Where do we go from here?

Cabinet Collective Responsibility as it current operates is a serious flaw in coalition government. At the very least we want to reform it before forming another coalition, but we might not have to wait that long.

Top civil servants are said to hold concerns that as the election approaches briefings and spats will become more and more common as the two parties try to differentiate themselves from each other and manoeuvre to gain electoral advantage.

Perhaps now would be the perfect time to reform Collective Responsibility in order to provide a controlled way for the two parties to express their differences without disrupting their work in government.

Perhaps this new policy of expressing party differences will go some way to repairing our party’s identity, and maybe even start to repair some of the damage done to us in the polls…

Perhaps…

* Daniel is the chair of Leicester Liberal Democrats

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14 Comments

  • Anthony Tuffin 17th Jun '14 - 7:23pm

    A thoughtful and stimulating article.

    How do continental parties cope? Coalitions are a way of life in most of mainland Europe.

    Would it be feasible for one party to be fully responsible for some Ministries and Departments and for the other to be fully responsible for the rest – within the agreed parameters of the coalition agreement?

  • @ Anthony Tuffin
    Problem with that approach is that the majority party would always control the treasury and thus be able to scupper the minority party’s departments policies, or claim credit for giving the successes budget.

  • Tony Dawson 17th Jun '14 - 9:05pm

    If only we could reform collective Cabinet IRRESPONSIBILITY! 😉

  • Yes – apart from all the tactical errors that have been made, this is the overriding strategic error. There’s no reason the traditional doctrine of collective responsibility should be written in stone as though it’s a fundamental law of physics. We’re forever being lectured that we should be grown-up enough to understand that coalition involves compromises. Fair enough, but the converse of that is that politicians should be grown-up enough to admit that they are compromises, rather than maintaining a silly pretence that both parties agree with everything that’s done. The Lib Dems would be in a much better condition if their ministers could have said “We don’t agree with this; it’s not our policy and it won’t be in our manifesto; but it’s the best compromise we could achieve within a coalition”.

  • Daniel Henry 17th Jun '14 - 11:22pm

    Even if we split the coalition more into individual departments (which would have some advantages and some disadvantages) our MPs would still need to vote for bills that we strongly disagreed with and they’d need to be able to say where they were voting for what they believed in and where they were voting out of compromise.

    I’m not really sure how this compared to the continent.
    It would be interesting to see if any other countries had developed similar mechanisms for handling disagreement within the coalition.

  • Daniel Henry 17th Jun '14 - 11:40pm

    Unfortunately Tony it would be both illiberal and undemocratic of us to bar the majority of Labour and Tory MPs from government! 😉

  • And another grown-up thing would be for the Lib Dems to have made it clear what policies and/or principles would not be up for compromise. I would vote for “not penalising the poor more than those on average incomes” as an absolute principle. And given the pledge on tuition fees, Lib Dem voters in 2010 had the right to consider that would be an absolute principle too.

    But there’s no point doing it now, because people simply won’t believe you.

  • Yes, this is the problem.

    I live in a country in Central Europe which almost always (but not right now) has coalition governments, usually with at least three members. You see things like cabinet ministers saying direct to camera what issues (e.g. pet projects) they raised at cabinet and who voted against them if the issue came to a vote (which they sometimes force for differentiation purposes). In the last coalition it was mainly the liberals and the Christian Democrats who were blocking each other’s projects (gay marriage, a treaty with the Vatican etc.). Next time there is a coalition it should work like this.

  • “I’d like to put the spotlight on Cabinet Collective Responsibility and how it’s not only damaged our party’s identity but has also helped damage the public’s view of coalitions in general.”

    I’m sorry, but that’s just patronising the electorate. It is what the Lib Dems have done in coalition that has damaged your poll ratings and decimated your councillors and MEPs.

    On the subject of collective responsibility: Firstly it is a convention and therefore cannot be ‘reformed’. Secondly, you appear to have completely misunderstood what it is. Collective responsibility means that members of the cabinet have to defend the decisions made by the cabinet – it has nothing to do with suspending their own opinions. It is perfectly possible for a cabinet minister to say to the public that they voted for something as a compromise or as a quid pro quo arrangement that they would not have voted if their party had a working majority. That way, they are taking responsibility for what they voted for in cabinet (collective responsibility) whilst also quite reasonably saying to the electorate that it isn’t how they would have voted in a Lib Dem government.

  • Daniel Henry 18th Jun '14 - 10:32am

    Chris, I largely agree with you, but feel I ought to defend the LDs a little bit there.
    That is, I think our performance in government has been disappointing in a number of ways (especially in what we let Gove, Lansley and IDS get away with) but I still think we’ve done better than most people give us credit for.

    For example, in a fringe session one of Nick’s advisors revealed that whenever a policy idea floated, Nick always insisted on seeing what the effect would be on the income distribution. Having closed a number of loopholes and put in additional taxes (e.g. the banking levy, extra stamp duty on “mansions”, a higher rate of CGT, etc.) the coalition is actually taxing the richest more than the previous government was.

    This is why the ONS revealed that by 2012 inequality had decreased. (I hear Labour also deserve a bit of the credit for this due to Darling’s policies in the last two years of Labour)

    This trend may have started reversing now though, especially since the welfare reforms took effect… we’ll have to see.

    And while we did cock up on tuition fees, when it comes to the key priorities in our manifesto, (http://issuu.com/libdems/docs/manifesto/6?e=1696482/2592272) some we’ve delivered (reducing tax for the lowest paid while closing tax loopholes for the wealthy), others we’ve partially delivered (rather than “breaking up” the banks we’ve legislated for an accounting firewall) and where we haven’t delivered, we at least put our all in to fighting for them but was ultimately outnumbered by the other parties. (e.g. voting reform and lords reform)

    Don’t get me wrong; you could throw a string of criticisms of how we’ve handled the coalition and I’d probably agree with most of them. Perhaps where we differ is that I’m more sympathetic at how difficult coalition is, especially for a smaller party in the coalition, when the entire country is inexperienced in coalition politics, how it should work and what we should expect from it.

  • Daniel Henry 18th Jun '14 - 10:36am

    Steve, I think CCR is more than the loose voluntary convention you make it out to be.

    Perhaps someone could correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that ministers have to sign standing orders where they declare that they will abide by it. I suspect that it is also regulated and enforced by the civil servants, with disciplinary measures if it is breached.

    Tory MP Cheryl Gillan, for example, seems to think that legislation needs to be passed to alter it.
    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jun/08/rules-cabinet-collective-responsibility-need-review-cheryl-gillan

  • This argument, along with the suggestion of individual departments run by one party, is really something our negotiators should have thought about. A council with a joint cabinet which I was involved with, did just that and the agreement specifically excluded collective responsibility. The budget was decided by negotiation each year. The Lib Dem negotiators were actually much better than the other side so got a lot of ideas through the other party’s portfolios. I’ve always thought it unfortunate that the Lib Dems after 2010 seemed not to have learnt the lessons from balanced situations in local government which they had been working at for years.

  • @Chris
    “We don’t agree with this; it’s not our policy and it won’t be in our manifesto; but it’s the best compromise we could achieve within a coalition”.

    Exactly, but saying something along those lines is not a breach of collective responsibility. The key word is ‘responsibility’ – cabinet members cannot disassociate themselves from a decision made by cabinet. As such, examples of a breach include making a public statement stating they didn’t agree with a cabinet decision or voting against a cabinet decision in the Commons. A cabinet member publicly supporting a cabinet decision and voting for it whilst stating it was a compromise and not what their party would have done in power is not a breach of collective responsibility.

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