Big themes in the small print

So I had a flick through the coalition agreement (PDF), and my immediate tweeted reactions as I read it are set out at the end of this post, after the fold.

As I’ve said before, it’s not all bad (see my tweets for some examples). However, a couple of thoughts come to mind.

First, an awful lot of the language is still very general. Implementation will be everything. Example: under “Transport” we are told that “We are committed to fair pricing for rail travel”. Sounds good, you think. Except Philip Hammond has already indicated the “RPI + 1%” formula for permanent year-on-year fare increases remains in place (and as someone who has used the same daily train journey for nine years, I can tell you: it all adds up). Now multiply that by every reassuring-sounding-but-vague statement in the coalition agreement.

Second, it’s not about adding up “good things” and “bad things” and seeing if there’s more of one than the other. What will shape this government and form the political reality of the next five years are not this or that better or worse proposal, but a small number of themes which occupy relatively little space in the agreement while having a major impact on people’s lives and on the future direction of politics.

Here are three themes which I think will come to play a major part in the story of this government.

1. Cuts

This is the obvious one, of course. Quite apart from the central government cuts which we know are coming (deeper, faster and harder than those proposed by Labour), local government faces a council tax freeze of up to two years. This will have a devastating effect on “non-essential” council services such as libraries.

In addition, the “general power of competence” for councils will enable Tory councils to cut back their spending even further in the name of “EasyJet-style” services (though perhaps more “Ryanair” in the execution…?)

Another area to watch for is who ends up paying for deficit reduction. The poor and low earners will suffer more than others from cuts to services and cuts to benefits. But they will also suffer proportionately more than better-off people from increases to VAT. Already low earners pay a higher proportion of their income in tax than high earners: I suspect that differential will increase rather than decrease over this parliament.

2. Privatisation

The coalition’s plans for the NHS will “give every patient the power to choose any healthcare provider that meets NHS standards, within NHS prices”. This is a step towards what many Tory rightwingers have been advocating for some time: that the NHS becomes a standards-setting and service-procurement body, with the actual healthcare services carried out increasingly by commercial (sorry, “independent”) concerns.

On the same theme of backdoor privatisation, plans to allow encourage public sector workers to form “employee-owned co-operatives” could be music to this Co-operative party member’s heart. However, the agreement does not indicate how those co-operatives will be protected from commercial competition under public sector procurement rules: they will simply be allowed to “bid to take over” services.

Even if employee cooperatives are given the initial outsourcing contracts without competition, on renewal (as I’ve pointed out before) they would face competition from private providers. You may think this is a good thing: but in that case be open about it rather than spinning it as “empowering public sector workers to become their own boss”. The effect – intentional or otherwise – is more likely to be to break the power of public sector unions before delivering the “empowered” employee-owners back into the hands of private providers.

3. Tyranny of the majority, redux

I suspect that what may end up discrediting proportional representation and coalition government will not be the negotiations that followed the election (remember those? bet you won’t in a year’s time), but the spectacle of how a government behaves when it believes it represents a substantial majority of voters, as well as having a majority of seats.

This can be seen in particular with proposals to pack the Lords with Tory and Lib Dem peers so as be “reflective of the share of the vote” at the last election. Among the many other reasons to object to this, creating 100 to 200 new peers makes a mockery of the claim that reducing the number of MPs by 150 is a bid to “reduce the cost of politics” – rather than a power-grab by the executive at the expense of the Commons.

The same casual arrogance towards the constitution can also be seen in the proposal for five-year fixed parliamentary terms (why not four years? why 55% for a dissolution? and above all, why no consultation on such a significant constitutional change?). Cameron’s dismissive treatment of his backbenchers (as seen in the effective dissolution of the 1922 committee) is surely encouraged by his awareness that the coalition’s 80-seat majority can weather significant rebellions from both left and right – and that a compliant Lords will then rubber-stamp Commons decisions.


So, there are three areas which I predict will come to have a far greater prominence in political discourse than may appear to be the case now. At the very least, these are three areas in which we need to be fully on the alert.

Those #coalitiontweets in full…

  • Council tax to be frozen for at least a year, maybe two: enjoy your local library while it lasts, folks.
  • Councils to be given “general power of competence”: hello, EasyCouncil!
  • “We will ensure that people have the protection they need when they defend themselves against intruders”. #hangaburglar
  • Some good news: “We will maintain free entry to national museums and galleries”.
  • HoC merely to be allowed to “express its view on repeal of the Hunting Act”. ROFL! Tory right’s not going to like that!
  • More good news: Stopping deportation of those seeking asylum re sexual orientation or gender identification.
  • Why the particular obsession with “limiting the application of the Working Time Directive”? Genuine question.
  • “We will never condone the use of torture”. #sealclubbing. Let’s get specific: deporting AQ suspects to Pakistan?
  • “We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants”. Hmm.
  • “We will give every patient the right to choose any healthcare provider within NHS prices”. Think we get your meaning.
  • I just spotted the trick re AV referendum: tying to Tory gerrymandering of constituencies. Vote for one, get the other.
  • Public sector workers able to “bid to take over the services they deliver”. In competition with private sector…?

8 thoughts on “Big themes in the small print”

  1. I read the agreement too. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my reaction ever so slightly different. For example:

    The coalition’s plans for the NHS will “give every patient the power to choose any healthcare provider that meets NHS standards, within NHS prices”.

    Now, I practically broke into applause when I read that sentence. 😀

    We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants.

    This is something I really can’t make my mind up on. My gut instinct is that anonymous complainants is causing the problem here: there’s an asymmetry, which the more vocal supporters of the status quo are happy to maintain because, to be quite blunt about it, most of them seem to forget why we use the word ‘alleged’ in connection with defendants. Am I just being over-sensitive on that, or is there a real problem there?

    1. Now, I practically broke into applause when I read that sentence.

      You’ll forgive me if I see that as a confirmation, rather refutation, of my own reading of the statement!

      As for anonymity for rape defendants: apparently one reason this was dropped in the first place – by a Conservative government! – was because it hindered the investigation of rape, making victims more reluctant to come forward and preventing police from putting out appeals for witnesses.

      There are also questions over how far the anonymity would extend – to other forms of serious sexual assault? To “preparatory” crimes such as burglary with intent to rape? And so on. (To which one might add: why not anonymity for murder defendants?)

      Finally there’s the whole issue of justice being seen to be done. Anonymity for rape victims is, from that point of view, non-ideal – but it recognises the very particular problems of encouraging rape victims to come forward, and I don’t think the question of anonymity for defendants is quite the same thing.

      See this Guardian report for more details.

      To be honest, this proposal strikes me as “saloon-bar politics” aimed at the supposedly huge problem of “women crying rape”.

      1. You see, from that Guardian article, it’s language like this which I was worried about:

        With a 6.5% conviction rate for rape and so many women not getting justice, all they are putting forward is anonymity for the men who rape us.

        It’s all so black-and-white, so simplistic. No ‘innocent until proven guilty’, no recognition of the difficulties in proving rape. Rape is a horrible, horrible crime, but I can’t react well to legal proposals which appear to be founded on the genuinely saloon-bar principle that ‘if the case made it to court, they must have done it’.

      2. Phil: in every individual case, the principle is of course “innocent until proven guilty”. (Hence I oppose proposals such as putting the onus on defendants to prove consent.)

        But when only 6.5% of reported rapes result in a conviction, then in broad terms there are only two ways of explaining this. Either (a) the vast majority of rape allegations are unfounded; or (b) the vast majority of rapists are getting away with it. I’d say that (b) is (to put it mildly) nearer the mark, and that is the problem to which most energy should be directed.

        Another point someone raised was whether this rule will apply to those accused of assaults on children. You see how far this begins to spread?

        Above all though, I still find myself asking why rape defendants should have the unique privilege of being granted anonymity. If a mere acquittal is not seen as enough to clear an innocent man’s name, then I don’t see that that’s any different from any other serious crime. (A friend of my parents once earnestly argued to me that those convicted of murder should be hanged, and those acquitted should be imprisoned for life – because “better safe than sorry”, “no smoke without fire”, that sort of thing.)

        I don’t think the “if the accuser’s anonymous then it’s only fair that the witness is anonymous” argument stacks up, because there are very particular reasons for anonymity for victims in rape cases.

        It’s difficult not to draw the conclusion that what lies behind much of the pressure for this move, particularly among sections of the press, is a feeling that women’s allegations of rape are uniquely untrustworthy: that women are using anonymity as a cloak for taking revenge on poor, helpless men who made an innocent mistake that any of us could make, when you think about it, really. Same again, Geoff?

      3. I stress that I’m not saying that’s what lies behind your arguments. I understand the point you’re making. But you only have to look at papers like the Daily Mail and the Sun to see how they relish a “cry rape!” story.

        Personally, in cultural terms I think “cry rape!” is basically just another version of the “vagina dentata” myth.

  2. Thanks. I’m sympathetic to the case that complainants need support, and that maybe women alleging rape need anonymity. But it’s the kind of area where I’m genuinely unsure what to think, because I perceive a host of complexities and difficulties which appear to get lost in the debate.

    the “vagina dentata” myth.

    There are times when I feel I must have led a sheltered existence. And there are times when I am glad…

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