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By Peter Hoskin
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Last
week I wrote about the sharp
end of coalition
: the concessions that could be made to the Lib Dems in
return for certain Conservative policies. But there’s also the soft end: those
areas where the two parties might, and should, happily cooperate with each
other in future. And, for those who want the Coalition to function
successfully, it is this spirit of cooperation that is more important right
now. The looming party conferences could yield various shades of bad blood, but
both sides would do well to remember the ties that bind.

So
what are these areas of cooperation? Of course, the Coalition itself — and the
Coalition Agreement — could be said to be an exercise in cooperation, but I
have something else in mind. The five policy areas I’ve outlined below are ones
where the Tories and the Lib Dems might want to renew their efforts, where they
can work together with greater vigour than before. There is a constant danger of
both sides making deficit reduction the be-all-and-end-all of their partnership,
and allowing divide and disagreement to break out elsewhere. These five policy
areas are ones, I think, that lend themselves to stronger unity:


i) Political
reform.

As I said last week, the Lib Dems haven’t had much joy when it comes to remoulding
politics as they want to: both AV and Lords reform have been dispatched into
the bin marked ‘not for recycling’. But there are other ways to change the
system, including — although not limited to — giving people the power to recall
their MPs, shining a light on lobbying, and cutting back Parliamentary perks.
The Coalition would probably say that it has already made progress on these fronts,
but more could certainly be done. As Douglas Carswell has consistently
pointed out
, the Government’s draft proposals for recalling MPs are “deeply
flawed”. The Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee has attacked
the Government’s proposed “Register of Lobbyists” for its narrow
focus
. And as for Parliamentary perks, many of the most egregious examples
still persist.

There
is also party funding, which I included in my list of concessions last week
because a deal would probably require the Tory leadership to stand down from (what
appear to be) its firmly-held views on funding caps. But, nevertheless, some
Coalitionauts see this more as an area for cooperation. In an
interview
from before his return to Government, David Laws suggested that, “When
I consider [the] issues [surrounding party funding] and compare them with other
challenges like getting party agreement on Lords reform, this feels like the
kind of thing that a few sensible people ought to be able to figure out in a
dark room in a matter of hours.”

A
renewed effort on political trust would not only suit the Coalition
philosophically, but perhaps also electorally.
But it’s worth noting that when Mark Harper was moved to Immigration in the
reshuffle his old position of Parliamentary Under Secretary for Constitutional
and Political Reform was not occupied
by anyone else
. That renewed effort does, sadly, look unlikely.

ii) Civil
liberties, etc.
Here, I hope you don’t mind if I reproduce part of a recent Dominic
Raab article
for the Financial Times:

Beyond the
economy, after 13 years of authoritarian Labour rule, defending British
liberties should be a coalition rallying cry. Yet, after a saintly six months
when ID cards were abolished and pre-charge detention halved, the coalition
looks feeble in taking on the entrenched views of the security establishment.
Half-baked plans for unprecedented mass surveillance have not been properly
scrutinised, while both sides have lost their zeal for overhauling the blunt
extradition regime that hangs too many of our citizens out to dry. While Labour
circumvented the justice system, the coalition should make it a weapon –
lifting the ban on intercept evidence, expanding plea bargaining and
strengthening prosecutorial agencies. That is the way to reverse the 100 per
cent fall in terrorism convictions since 2006 and to give the plodding Serious
Fraud Office a shot in the arm. An Eliot Ness-style approach, from terrorist
conspiracies to City fraudsters, would strengthen law enforcement and send a
powerful political message.

iii) Early
years care.
One of the best ways to identify the Lib Dems’ current priorities
is to read the
agenda
for their forthcoming conference in Brighton. And, doing so, you’ll see
that the first major policy motion they have up for discussion is about “early
years” — specifically, about making childcare cheaper and more flexible for
parents. The motion pushes for reports and “feasibility studies” into policies
such as “a ‘Nursery Premium’ to provide additional funding for the early
education of young children who would meet Free School Meal criteria.”

This
is unsurprising: Nick Clegg’s political priority is, he says, social mobility,
and his conception of social mobility rightly places a heavy
emphasis
on the “early years”. But, on subject matter at least, this means that there is considerable overlap with the work that the new childrens' minister Liz Truss has been doing since before entering government. The Lib Dems will not like all of her ideas: they, for instance, seem to place more emphasis on qualifications for childminders. But perhaps, as we saw with the English Baccalaureate, the presence of David Laws in the Department for Education could bring about a solution of some sort.

iv) Transparency,
spending cuts … and tax cuts?
It will also be interesting to see what
effect David Laws has in his other departmental role, embedded at the Cabinet
Office with Nick Clegg and Francis Maude. This department is the one that has
been pushing transparency out across Whitehall, often in order to identity
waste and have it cut, and the new minister is certainly minded to do more in
that direction. In a recent interviews
and pamphlets,
Mr Laws has been pushing for further cuts, such that state spending is reduced
to 30 per cent of GDP, lower than the 40 per cent currently planned. If anyone
is to insist that all departments follow the DCLG’s lead in
publishing spending data, then it will probably be him.

And
what would the savings go towards? Deficit reduction, of course — although perhaps,
eventually, there might also be room for further tax cuts. Mr Laws, it should
be noted, has also been calling for “lower marginal rates of taxation at all
income levels”.

v) Employee
ownership.
Another Lib Dem conference motion stands out; this one calling for action on “Mutuals,
Employee Ownership, and Workplace Democracy”. This, you’ll remember, was a
policy area that George Osborne was especially
interested in
 before the election,
particularly for the public sector, on the grounds that it can help deliver
better services at a lower cost — and we’ve duly it seen it acted upon in
government. But, when it comes to expanding that work, the policy
paper
that the Lib Dems have produced to support that discussion is worth a
quick read. Conservatives may not agree with all of its proposals — particularly
its relentless tendency to enshrine rights into legislation — but there is
something there to work on.

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