Cross-party co-operation: collaboration or conducive?

John HuttonIn March, John Hutton, the former New Labour Work and Pensions Secretary, published an independent report on public sector pensions, unintentionally eigniting the debate on whether cross-party co-operation should be viewed in a positive or negative light.

As with most overtly partisan issues, opinions are concrete, fierce and bountiful, leading to conclusions which are sometimes drawn viscerally rather than using logic and reason. We hope to break through the tribal emotions and instead present the facts surrounding this incredibly divisive issue.

Impartiality NB: Despite ‘collaboration’ and ‘tribalism’ having strong connotations, in this piece they are used solely as ‘politically non-partisan cooperation’ and ‘the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe’ respectively.

Clearing up the confusion

Many of the arguments against cross-party co-operation can be grouped into two categories: intrinsic arguments and instrumental arguments. The intrinsic argument says that the entire idea of someone from party A aiding party B is wrong, whatever the circumstances. The instrumental argument suggests that co-operation is deplorable, not because of the principle, but because of the situational factors and content of said co-operation.

In the current debate, the flag-bearer of the intrinsic argument is Lord Prescott, who summarised the critic quite succinctly¹:

“They’ve [John Hutton and Frank Field] now turned a Con-Lib Government to a ConLibLab one and made themselves human shields for the most savage and heartless Tory policies in 20 years. Policies that will hit the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest – the very people Labour was founded to protect.”

John Prescott’s argument was presented months before either Hutton or Field (the government’s ‘poverty czar’) announced their findings, so therefore is an intrinsic objection rather than an instrumental one.

Advocates fear that any cross-party collaboration would ‘blur the lines’ between parties. This would leave the public with only one choice and reduce the ability of the opposition to oppose; leading to a situation where there is less cross-party scrutiny.

Another option is that such co-operation could lead to a more co-operative, collegiate, political environment, that some would view as favourable.

The instrumental argument focuses on content of Hutton’s report, as opposed to the act of producing a report for the Conservatives. If Hutton’s conclusions had supported the instrumentalists views, would these people’s reaction to the collaboration have been different?

Those who support Hutton, Field and Milburn (currently advising the government on social mobility), stress that such co-operation will improve governmental decisions. They believe that this government will make more informed decisions on social mobility through Milburn, on public pensions through Hutton and on reducing poverty through Field. Additionally, it is suggested that cross-party involvement will help ensure fairer policies, and a better critical analysis of policies.

However, John Prescott, among others, believes that by advising the Conservatives, Hutton, Field and Milburn are unwillingly providing electoral cover and giving the Tories more of a mandate². Prescott fears that their involvement will make this government more accepted by the public and therefore cause Labour to suffer in the future.

Some argue that goals like reducing poverty are best achieved with cross-party consensus. Gordon Brown attempted to create a ‘government of all talents’ (GOAT), featuring non-partisan members in order to make the government more responsive and collaborative³. It has been argued that if good policies are created, does it really matter what colour someone’s rosette is, or whether they’re even wearing one at all?

Some will argue that party aims can only be achieved through tight discipline and a unified party operating as one, believing that cross-party cooperation will have an adverse effect on the party.

What do you think? What stance do you support? Should we focus solely on the ends, or do means matter too? Are Hutton and co. right to be involved with their opposition parties? Should cross-party cooperation be encouraged or shunned?