Here is my column – published in the Ham & High on Thursday:
It seems only a moment since the election of May 6 ushered in the new government – the Coalition. This ‘new’ political title which was strange only a few weeks ago has now passed into the lexicon of daily political life. The Coalition this and the Coalition that.
The ‘Five Days that Changed Britain’ documentary by Nick Robinson (BBC political supremo) told the story of the negotiations – who said what to whom and when. But once that electrifying and uncertain period was concluded – and the Coalition was born – in one mad dash to the summer recess a new entity has been in play.
Listening to ‘phone ins on the subject – it would seem that the vast majority of people are giving the coalition a chance. It’s the same for me. That journey – from realising that the country had not given any party an absolute majority to recognising that a coalition was the only real way forward – to the agreement with the Conservatives – was undoubtedly a political roller coaster to beat anything I had ever been part of in my time in politics.
And a new entity it is – and giving new headaches to the old, traditional ways of opposing and reporting too. Neither the media nor Labour knows what to do with this new phenomenon. The media is obsessed with tensions and splits – but it is a no brainer that there are differences between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. And Labour’s scream of anger and entitlement is unimaginative and predictable. Given Labour spent their thirteen years of government blaming the Tories for everything wrong in this country – they seem strangely unwilling to acknowledge any contribution to the state we are in.
But old politics always looked backwards and I want to look forwards. One of the most liberating and energising parts of this new Coalition is that the future is far more open than ever before. The possibilities – as we come out of the recession – for growth nationally, as communities and as individuals is tremendous. The old and very tired, restrictive and stultifying era of Labour’s iron grip on everything is over.
There were some very good things that happened under Labour – Sure Start being one and the reduction in waiting lists for hospital treatment another. But there were also very bad things that Labour did – the Iraq war and detention without charge to name but two and closer to home – seriously underfunding Haringey schools and trying to close the Whittington A&E.
But more insidious than the obvious – the encroachment of control from Whitehall was disabling us. The former government issued thousands upon thousands of pages of bureaucratic instructions to teachers for example – inhibiting teachers from doing what they do best – teaching. Endless tick boxes for social workers to the point where filling in forms took the place of use of their critical faculties and their professional capability. We were going around in ever-decreasing circles with less and less freedom and more and more conformity. The loss of local and individual power was tangible. I saw it every week in my advice surgeries.
It’s very, very difficult to get that balance right – the balance between state intervention and freedom – between helping and enfeebling.
As the Coalition agreement forges ahead – yes of course – I have concerns that babies must not be thrown out with bathwater. I am still a Liberal Democrat and we are working with the Conservatives to an agreement. We are not joined at the hip! The pending spending review looms over us. The Big Society is undoubtedly a better idea than the nanny state – but the line between public service provision and what can be added by the Big Society is a critical one. The Coalition, in our haste to free ourselves from inappropriate shackles, must be mindful of this.
What sustains me and us – is the good that we can do. We will get the ‘pupil premium’ – money going into our schools following children from underprivileged backgrounds (e.g. those with special needs or eligible for free school meals) – that will help every school in Haringey. The tax threshold is raised and will go higher every year until no one pays any tax on their first £10,000 on earnings – taking the low paid out of tax altogether. The earnings link to pensions will come into force. The prison system will be renovated to be effective – not vindictive. Id cards are all but gone. The counter terrorism review will address control orders and detention without charge.
One of the best things about the coalition is the fact of politicians from different parties working together. People certainly seem to like that. I like it too.