The coalition must learn to balance those important short-term media hits with developing its long-term vision for government
The coalition government likes to say that it is more open and accountable than its predecessor. The Office for Budgetary Responsibility and other such measures are used as examples of how much harder it will be for government ministers to bend rules and avoid scrutiny. But it will take more time before it can be said with confidence that this government has willingly given up power. There are two great trends of British governments over the last 30 years. One is the increasing centralisation of power to Whitehall which has left local authorities drastically reduced in both status and power. Another is the huge importance attached to getting good media headlines.
This month we talk to Alastair Campbell on p14, a name often associated with spin and power. But the coalition government, of course, now has its own spinners in place, with Andy Coulson at the top of the tree. All parties need a medium through which to get their message out and to react quickly to events. But the reputation and influence of spin on politics remains negative. While communications, to use its proper title, is necessary, we hope this government avoids using it in a way that is be detrimental to its principles.
The Conservative, now much maligned, manifesto involved two themes that were long-term projects - the Big Society and the Post-Bureaucratic Age (PBA). The Liberal Democrats claim that the coalition agreement keeps the "radical" politics that Nick Clegg was so keen to espouse in our interview with him in TP February. The PBA - opening up government spending and investment to public scrutiny - is a 10-year project. And while two-term projects are all very well, this coalition agreement is only guaranteed for a five-year term. No government can realistically instil so much focus on projects that last 10 years. Another temptation to avoid is living on a day-to-day obsession with getting positive news hits. After an emergency Budget which was fast approaching at the time of writing, the government needs to show it can remain calm, focused and competent.
As we have explained in past issues, the Conservative strategy during the last election focused on getting the big media splashes. It will be interesting to see how well the Conservative and Lib Dem priorities of localism and civil liberties survive the need to feed ‘the beast' that is the media. Wellmeant, long-term strategies can easily fall by the wayside when negative headlines feel endless and a government feels the need to regain momentum. Can a coalition provide the sufficient stability to avoid departments like the Home Office becoming mired in short-termism and continuous problems? It will require the prime minister and his cabinet to walk a very careful balancing act between proving they are responding to the electorate's needs and taking a long-term look at what is best for the country.
On p28 we take a look at the Labour leadership contest. Along with the recent select committee elections, we seem to be going through a mini golden-age of democracy both within parties and Parliament. There appear to be elections happening everywhere. Much has been written about the candidates' similar backgrounds, and it is noticeable that even Diane Abbott - the only woman and ethnic minority on the slate - still comes from an Oxbridge background. In Amber Elliott's article, she looks at whether the Milibands et al are able to come up with differing policies, or if, in reality, the contest boils down to personality.
The truth is that the next leader for ‘next Labour' needs to present the best combination of both. Talk to Labour MPs and you discover their second preference may not be the nearest political bedfellow. Choosing Ed Balls first, then David Miliband second, is the option for several. The contest runs until the Labour conference in late September. With over 20 hustings still to come, the political machinations will continue to be complex. Yet we still await the killer message from a candidate that best sums up where the party currently finds itself after leaving government, and where it goes from here. The contenders need to find it before September to ensure the party offers a strong alternative to the coalition.