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A Short introduction to Cabinet government

Clare Coatman
9 November 2008

Clare Coatman (London, oD): I went along to Clare Short's Political Studies Association/Hansard Society lecture (full text here) on 'making politics fit for purpose'. I have never warmed to Clare Short, but found myself laughing along with the rest of the audience several times and the lecture was well thought out if perhaps a little 'school-marmish' in places.

Her main aim was to spell out in a definitive way two things: first, that there really is Presidential governance, and second that this creates ineffective decision making. I found particularly disturbing her claim that, "there was never a full discussion of any policy issue with all options considered and a consensus reached in my six years as a member of the Cabinet".

She went on to say that the extensive powers of patronage enjoyed by the Prime Minister and the timetabling and guillotining of all legislation, is very bad for accountability. She sees "the growing distortion in the electoral system" as a main cause. It's not new (as she admitted) but backed by her personal experience it seemed pretty definitive.

However, while I firmly believe in the virtues of Cabinet government, I disagree with her characterisation of it as having shuffled off the mortal coil: I prefer to think of it as merely lying dormant - as it did during Thatcher's time - before resurfacing under Major.

I also wonder whether her assertion that if government was more accountable, and our electoral system more proportional, people would participate more, is true any longer. I think the shift away from parliamentary and party politics is a long term trend predicated on a disillusionment stemming from scandal and a sense that it matters less and less which party is elected – no matter what the electoral system. As Clare Short says, "what is said in the House, as opposed to through the media, has less and less significance."

It isn't that I'm not desperate for electoral reform, but Clare overestimates the effect it would have. She talks of the cabinet "once again [becoming] a place where decisions would be fully considered" and a lessening in the power of spin doctors, as if this would follow almost automatically; whereas I think of the '07 Scottish elections debacle. Reform needs to happen, but it is going to be a long revolution.

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