Sunday 6 January 2013

Mid-Term Review – What’s all that about, then?

Today’s media are full of Sunday-for-Monday stories about tomorrow’s launch of the coalition government’s ‘Mid-Term Review’ (MTR) – see for example the BBC, Express, Independent, Sun.

The MTR is intended to relaunch the coalition but is unlikely to justify the hype. In fact, the ambitions for this exercise have been scaled down considerably compared with what was originally planned.

The MTR started life in 2010 as ‘Coalition Phase 2’, a policy planning operation based on the assumption that everything in the original coalition agreement would have been implemented by the middle of 2012, and that a comprehensive second agreement would be needed to cover the second half of the 2010-2015 parliament. Even by the middle of 2011, however, leading members of both coalition parties were getting cold feet about the whole idea. What we will see tomorrow is merely the residue of a much grander scheme.

The following report, which originally appeared in the Radical Bulletin column in Liberator 355 (September 2012), provides a fuller history:
Have pity on members of the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Policy Committee (FPC). At their meeting on 15 May [2012], they were handed an inch-thick pile of documents from the ‘Mid-Term Review’ of coalition government policy.
Party members may be excused for feeling confused about any such policy review, since there seem to be so many of them.
Back in the heady days of 2010, it was assumed that the coalition agreement would provide only enough policy to last for the first half of the parliament. By the middle of 2012, the reasoning went, all the ‘difficult things’ would have been accomplished and the coalition would need another agreement supplying a second batch of policies to fill the remaining time.
To this end, two joint Tory-Liberal Democrat initiatives were launched in the autumn of 2010, one official and one semi-official. The official one was called ‘Coalition Phase 2’ and was jointly led by Danny Alexander for the Liberal Democrats and Oliver Letwin for the Tories. Its main task was to produce a ‘second programme for government’, which would concentrate on issues that are “easier for the coalition to absorb” and would be less “heroic”.
The semi-official initiative, separate from Coalition Phase 2, was called ‘Coalition 2.0’. It was set up under the auspices of the think tank CentreForum and intended to plan coalition policy for the 2012-15 period. Alarms went off immediately since, with the exception of Chris Huhne, all the Liberal Democrat participants came from the right-wing free market fringe of the party (see Radical Bulletin, Liberator 344 [February 2011]). Nothing has been publicly seen or heard of this group since its launch.
Then there was a third initiative, this time confined to the Liberal Democrats. The FPC deputed a group under its then-chair Norman Lamb to produce a ‘policy development agenda’. Its recommendations, titled Facing the Future, were published in August 2011 and debated at the following month’s party conference. This turned out to be a disappointingly timid document and earned a riposte in the form of an alternative report by David Boyle and Simon Titley, Really Facing the Future (available here).
By the middle of 2011, however, both coalition parties were getting cold feet about the idea of a second coalition agreement, with senior figures in both parties reluctant to open a can of worms. By January 2012, at a meeting of the FPC, Danny Alexander went out of his way to play down the significance of Coalition Phase 2, saying that it was now merely fleshing out the original coalition agreement, but he promised a report later in the year.
The Mid-Term Review (MTR) is consequently the residue of Alexander and Letwin’s Coalition Phase 2. A thick pile of MTR documents was presented to the FPC’s meeting in May [2012] by Julian Astle (former Director of CentreForum, now employed as an adviser to Nick Clegg), deputising for an absent Alexander. The documents are the basic information on which the MTR is based: an ‘audit’ of the original coalition agreement, intended to identify policies that have been achieved, policies only partially achieved where more action is needed, policies where nothing has yet happened – and whether to press for action or not.
Unlike Coalition Phase 2, the MTR will not put forward any new policies; the original coalition agreement remains sacrosanct and will not be re-opened. And because the MTR is merely an audit, the FPC and Federal Conference Committee have made a dubious decision that no conference debate or formal approval is required, which is why this September’s [2012] conference is getting nothing more than a Q&A session with Alexander.
Both coalition parties are conducting separate MTR exercises, then the results of both audits will be submitted to Alexander and Letwin, who will agree a joint set of recommendations for priority action by the government in the next two years (Astle told the FPC that the purpose of the Liberal Democrat half of the MTR is to provide ‘guidance’ to Alexander when he negotiates with Letwin). Anything that Alexander and Letwin cannot agree will be resolved by the ‘Quad’ (Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Alexander).
Some things remain unclear. What about government policies that were not part of the coalition agreement, such as academies and NHS reforms – and will the MTR prevent further instances? Will either or both of the Liberal Democrat and Tory MTR recommendations be made public? (Although the FPC’s report to party conference promises that the MTR “will be published in Autumn 2012”, it isn’t clear whether this means the party’s recommendations or the final agreement between the parties).
In the meantime, the scope of the MTR can be judged by the papers given to the FPC. They vary in length and thoroughness, and include, in no particular order, overall priorities, fixing the deficit and securing growth, family friendly policies, ‘Greenest Government Ever’, diversifying provision of public services, civil liberties and political reform (the longest paper at 35 pages), pensions, immigration, housing, social mobility, educational underachievement, reform of the welfare and tax system, crime and punishment, and international affairs (the shortest paper at less than a page).
The document titled ‘Fix the deficit and secure strong, sustainable and balanced growth’ is the most revealing. It skates over the fact that the government’s economic strategy is not going to plan and does not confront the elephant in the room: the failure of orthodox economic doctrine. An ideologically-driven policy is failing, just as the Liberal Democrats’ 2010 manifesto said it would. This is fundamental to the coalition government’s underperformance – all else is secondary.
It is inconceivable that the Tories would even consider a basic re-assessment of economic policy, which is presumably why the Liberal Democrat half of the MTR has decided to dodge the issue, which in turn prevents the party establishing any real ‘differentiation’. But sooner or later, the Liberal Democrats will need to repudiate neoliberal economic ideology if they intend to escape from the coalition alive. Just don’t expect the MTR to deliver the necessary exit strategy.
If the spin in today’s media reports is anything to go by, the main message of tomorrow’s MTR launch can be summed up as, “We’re not just about austerity, you know.” The trouble is, so long as the government remains wedded to a failed economic dogma, nothing besides austerity is likely to win much attention.

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