Police reform proposals reflect a bad habit of the coalition: why are ministers constantly making trouble for themselves?
By Dr Matthew Ashton
Here's a general rule for politics: don't go looking for controversy if you don't have to. If you were out hiking in the woods and you came across a sleeping bear, you'd be extremely ill advised to try poking it with a stick to see what would happen. Most likely you'd come to a bad end and I doubt anyone would feel sorry for you.
A good example of this is the current row over allowing private companies to take on some of the responsibilities of the police. As far as I can tell there are four major problems with this. Firstly, in the aftermath of last year's riots does anyone really think it would be a good idea to have private security forces patrolling the streets? Young people have a dim enough view of the police as it is without giving them a new target. That's on top of all the practical and legal issues these changes raise.
The argument that this policy will lead to greater savings is also unconvincing. Over the past 20 years we've seen time and time again private sector companies taking on key roles in British life with the promise that it would lead to greater efficiencies and better management. After numerous disastrous PFI projects I doubt anyone seriously believes this anymore. Just look at the private companies brought in to manage all those huge computer database projects during the Blair years. Most of them ended in either massive cost overruns or faulty products.
Also if these private security firms turned out to be a disaster, or it was revealed we don't need them anymore, would we be able to get out of the contracts? The economy is still smarting from having to build two redundant aircraft carriers because the government decided that it would cost more to cancel the contracts than to go ahead with them. If there's one thing the private sector does seem to have going for it, it's that they have better lawyers than we do.
Finally and most importantly there's the issue of accountability. In an age where the government is trying to make the police more transparent and accountable this appears like a backwards step. Private companies are usually only transparent and accountable when forced to be; it doesn't come naturally to them. What the government really should be doing is reversing the 20% cuts in policing announced a year ago and focusing on cutting red-tape rather than bobbies on the beat.
The Conservatives have always prided themselves on being the party of law and order and I just don't see this strategy as being one that will make friends and influence people. It's already antagonised some in the police and I don't think it'll find favour amongst many people in the wider country.
This is part of a wider pattern though where the coalition seems determined to upset and annoy its own supporters at every opportunity. Obviously there is the example of the Liberal Democrats and tuition fees, but who can forget the Conservative plan to bring in private companies to manage the forests? It instantly brought howls of outrage from Middle England and the National Trust, forcing them into a hasty retreat. The decision to go ahead with the new HS2 line (which I actually agree with), has also upset much of the home counties, including a sizeable number of the government's own MPs.
Probably the biggest case so far is the long-running saga of the NHS reforms. Now I'm not saying that the NHS doesn't need reforming, but I'm pretty sure that this isn't the way to go about it. Also I don't think that the government's current policy of labelling anyone who disagrees with them as 'an enemy of progress' is necessarily a good one. This is a classic example of politicians leaping without looking, with a badly written bill that even they now acknowledge wasn't originally well-thought through. Equally their failure to initially get all of the major stakeholders and interest groups on board is an astonishingly inept piece of politicking. As the old saying has it, they might have benefitted from 'less haste, more speed'.
Normally when governments make simple mistake like this it's usually a result of over-confidence. Blair's huge majorities after the 1997 and 2001 elections led to this, but David Cameron hasn't got that excuse. There's setting the agenda and then there's plunging head-first into problems of your own making.
It's not even as if they can blame it on the fact that they're coming to the end of their time in office so are rushing to get things done. Thanks to the electoral reforms they introduced they've got another three years yet to fine tune their policies. Likewise in the current economic crisis their focus should be on getting the economy moving again rather than messing around with poorly thought out ideas.
Some people might argue that the government's willingness to press ahead with things, even when they're unpopular, is a sign of bravery and perhaps it is. However it should also be remembered that sometimes bravery and stubbornness can look awfully similar. Only time will tell which side of this divide the coalition is really on.
Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.
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