The coalition’s tin ear problem
Today sees prime minister David Cameron and his Lib Dem deputy Nick Clegg ‘relaunch’ the coalition. It’s hard to imagine most lawyers being anything other than sceptical about this exercise, for reasons I’ll come to below.
I probably have more time for politicians than most, as well as plenty of reasons to be cynical about their conduct. As a political staffer in the 1990s, among many other things, I saw MPs be tenacious in pursuing matters they believed in for constituents, and stood beside Scottish MPs in the party’s press office as news of the Dunblane massacre came in.
And the MP my wife worked for at the time was under Special Branch protection, following credible underworld threats for his assistance in urging a terrified witness to testify in a murder case.
I’ve also seen politicians of all parties do and say some pretty, shall we say, sub-optimal things. But in general, despite many disappointments, I don’t think ‘they’re all the same’, or that they are ‘all in it for themselves’.
But from a legal sector perspective, many politicians share a behavioural tic. Understandably stung by the suggestion that they have not been listening to The People who elected them, they want to show that, in the words of the pre-briefing for today’s event, that they do not have a ‘tin ear’, and that they can show contrition for, at whatever level, letting people down.
The behavioural tic is this: what’s billed as a ‘listening exercise’ invariably means redoubling efforts to convince voters that they have misunderstood the politician or government concerned. And the contrition lacks a certain, shall we say, self-knowledge - politicians almost invariably apologise for not working harder to explain their policies and motives to voters.
(Ed Miliband has also run this line in the past, as did Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.) In the context of what has just occurred with the passage of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (now Act), this approach seems especially risible.
To declare an interest, I am known to be against the substantial shape of the legal aid cuts. But that is not why I, and many who followed the bill’s passage, will be depressed at the assertion that the coalition has anything other than a ‘tin ear’ on public policy matters.
At this level I found the disconnect between valid points put to ministers by MPs and peers, though mostly peers, and the ministers’ responses during the bill’s scrutiny, disappointing. In fact, it was possibly more disappointing than the government victory on the final votes. (I’m altogether more hardened to parliament not voting the way I’d like.)
Justice minister Lord McNally, as I told many people opposed to LASPO during its passage, is a nice man. And I still believe it. But I cannot honestly say he showed anything other than a tin ear in the debates - arguments were stonewalled with a repetitive government line that rarely countered specific criticisms.
As a performance, it wasn’t even slick - but simplistic and dogmatic. It remains embarrassing to read in Hansard - and it was worse to watch live.
So on this evidence, I’m afraid the tin ear label remains pretty firmly stuck to both sides of the coalition head. No amount of redoubled post-LASPO communication is really going to change that.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor
Follow Eduardo on Twitter