Do political parties make any difference?

To the politically obsessed this might seem like an odd question. Of course political parties matter.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who take a more jaundiced view of politics: they’d argue that “they’re all as bad as each other” and it doesn’t matter who you elect the government always get in. The more recent revival of that argument would be that all the main political parties are signed up to some version of hegemonic neoliberalism, so it doesn’t really make much difference who forms the government – you’re going to get some version of the same marketising, privatising, deregulating and impoverishing agenda.

Among those who study politics and policy rather more theoretically there is a somewhat more nuanced debate on the topic. You can find views on a spectrum running from accounts of great leaders rising above their circumstances to reshape the world for the better to those who believe that politics is simply an epiphenomenon that does no more than deliver the policy agenda functional to deeper, dominant socio-economic interests. And most points in between. If you’re not careful you soon find yourself entangled in the thicket of state theory, reflecting on whether social institutions are objective, subjective or entirely discursive, or scratching your head over where to strike the explanatory balance between structure and agency.

A paper by Hampshire and Bale, published in West European Politics, has recently appeared online. It offers another take on these issues using coalition policy on immigration as the case study. [Read more...]

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Ed and Nick go courting

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Today, as might have been anticipated, Andrew Rawnsley took as his subject the apparent thawing of relations between Labour and the Lib Dems. The opinion polls suggest that an outright Labour majority in 2015 is by no means assured. So it makes sense for them to leave the option of plan B open this time around. The major news this week was Ed Balls’ concession that it would be possible to work with Nick Clegg, rather than demand his head on a plate as the price of coalition. Others in the Labour party – notably Tom Watson in the New Statesman yesterday – are, however, holding firm to the Clegg’s-head-on-a-plate option.

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Travels through Coalitionland: Notes of disquiet and dissent

CoalitionlandfpThe formation of a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats was probably the only viable outcome of the General Election in May 2010. A coalition between two unnatural bedfellows in the public interest looked like the only plausible way forward.

Coalition was always going to be a journey that carried risks. It is rarely kind to the junior partner. The history of Tory-Liberal coalitions in Westminster is not an entirely happy one, especially for the Liberals.

The nature of the Coalition’s political agenda became apparent fairly soon after it was formed. Criticism and protest swiftly developed in response. My response was to engage with the agenda online. I have been blogging about political developments under the Coalition since 2010. [Read more...]

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Nothing to see here …

Big ideasI’m not quite sure what the point of today’s Coalition Mid-Term Review was. Apart from reasserting that the Coalition intends to go the distance – and beyond? – the main thing that was clear was that they’d really rather like the media to change the metaphor and stop talking about a loveless marriage.

The document itself is largely a list of what the Government has done. It is not an evaluation of that programme. It does not, for example, compare what it has done with what it was planning to do. Nor does it reflect upon why the latter has, in many areas, fallen considerably short of the former.

And it is not – perhaps understandably – a critical document. All the actions the Government has taken thus far are presented unselfconsciously as positive in themselves, commensurate with the scale of the challenge they seek to address, and contributing positively to the achievement of the Coalition’s overall, shared agenda.

It is, therefore, largely a PR puff. As befits a government led by a former PR man.

Much of the document is taken up with what has happened since May 2010. But some of it is given over to listing future plans. I have been through the whole document and my sense is that a substantial slice of these future plans will not come as news. Lots of the individual initiatives have already been announced. That isn’t to say that there is nothing new in the document. Just that you have to hunt quite hard for it.

My first instinct was to search the document to see what it has to say about housing. This is, after all, as Nick Cohen reminded us earlier today in the Spectator, one of the biggest problems we currently face. [Read more...]

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The undifferentiated Clegg

8026282347_48d7bde875_nI don’t normally read the Times. But I bought it yesterday because it carried a half page opinion piece by Nick Clegg under the title Carping Labour must come clean about cuts.

We’ve been told that 2013 is going to herald a stronger message from the Liberal Democrats about the party’s distinctive position in the “centre ground”. The position is being defined as distinct from the other parties inasmuch as it is fairer than the Tories and more competent on the economy than Labour. I agree with the recent post at Liberal Democrat Voice in which George Potter argues that this isn’t an entirely convincing strategy, but that is a different issue.

I was interested to see how the strategy was working out in practice. [Read more...]

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What’s your game, Mr Clegg?

Emergency wealth tax, eh? I wonder whose bright idea that was.

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The Tie That Binds

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 22/07/12]

Last week’s reversal over Lords reform may turn out to be key moment in the life of the Coalition. In retrospect it may appear the point at which it all started to unravel. It was swiftly followed by another Cameron-Clegg relaunch, but that didn’t convince too many people that everything in the garden is rosy. Differences between the parties become ever clearer – witness George Osborne putting the kibosh on Ed Davey’s plans for renewable energy – even without the parties adopting a conscious strategy of differentiation.

But at least there’s the deficit reduction plan. In the national interest the Liberal Democrats put aside their own more cautious and contextually-sensitive plan for deficit reduction in order to form a coalition with the Conservatives. While everything else may seem to be rapidly fraying at the edges, the commitment to bringing down the deficit remains the tie that binds the parties together.

It is therefore rather unfortunate that the plan isn’t working terribly well. [Read more...]

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Is the end nigh?

It is surely not simply the feverish atmosphere that always takes hold as the end of term approaches. The backbench Tory revolt over Lords Reform has genuinely destabilised the Coalition. The party leaders may have been back out on the road in a show of unity. They may have reaffirmed their commitment to see it through until 2015. But it’s just not quite the same. Like any relationship where one partner has been unfaithful, the trust has gone.

While the leaders profess everything in the garden is rosy and they’ll stay the course, each attempted relaunch comes with a slightly stronger whiff of desperation. And the relaunches seem to be arriving at more regular intervals.

The speculation over the early implosion of the coalition grows more intense. [Read more...]

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Age, ignorance or incompetence?

What a shocking week for the Government. We’re well past the odd mishap. As the Government careers from one problem to another we’re now shading into something rather more embarrassing. With the exception of some über-loyalists with an eye to preferment, excoriating comment is emerging from all points on the political spectrum.

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Coalition to end in tears?

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAn interesting piece by Vernon Bogdanor on the future of the Coalition has just appeared online. His main point is that both Coalition parties are having to look out for their increasingly restless grassroots: Tories pulling to the right, LibDems pulling to the left. And this destabilises the Coalition. The odds of it failing to reach 2015 intact must be steadily shortening.

It is clear that parts of the Tory party – both at Parliamentary and grassroots level – are making attempts to pull the party to the right, and are seemingly getting plenty of sympathetic media space in which to air their views. The evidence that Libdem activitists are trying to pull the party to the left is a little less clear. There is a clear attempt at differentiation, but that isn’t quite the same thing. [Read more...]

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