Leading article: The pluses – and minuses – of the big tent

Share
Related Topics

Alan Milburn's decision to accept an invitation to work for the coalition brings to three the number of prominent former Labour figures who have, in a sense, crossed the floor. He follows Frank Field and John Hutton in agreeing to place his expertise at the service of the Government. And there could be a fourth if it turns out that David Blunkett is also in line for a role. Mr Milburn, who produced a report on social mobility for the last government, will advise on improving the chances of the least well off; he will not be paid.

Whether or not these jobs come with pay, the coalition's successful courting of former ministers has met a predictably dusty reception in some Labour quarters. Alan Milburn, though, as a leading Blairite, is probably the greatest catch. Frank Field had long been written off as something of a maverick, while John Hutton's appointment to head a commission on public-sector pensions was greeted with more disappointment than anger within Labour ranks. Although Mr Milburn left Parliament at the last election, his defection yesterday drew open expressions of bitterness. Andy Burnham, the former Health Secretary and a left-leaning candidate for the Labour leadership, pithily accused him of "putting his own social mobility above the people he used to represent".

The interest – or, to be more accurate, the self-interest – of the Government in recruiting former Labour ministers is twofold, and the first aspect is rather more noble than the second. By co-opting these individuals, the coalition acquires their specialist knowledge and experience. It means that new ministers will not have to duplicate work already done, and that their perspective will be widened. Gordon Brown hoped for something similar when he tried to form a "Government of All the Talents", but he largely failed because the specialists he appointed were given ministerial posts without displaying any real aptitude for party politics. The coalition's recruits remain essentially outsiders, which could work better for all concerned.

Above all, though, these appointments will give the Government additional political cover for unpopular decisions – even more cover than it already has as a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. This should assist the coalition as a whole, but it could be of particular benefit to Nick Clegg, who continues to face sharp criticism from his own supporters for even countenancing, still less joining, an alliance with the Conservatives. The more politicians from the left can be found to argue that, say, curbs on housing benefit or tax credits or student places are unavoidable, not just for financial, but for social equity reasons, the more difficult will be Labour's job in opposition.

Those very benefits for the coalition, however, could carry drawbacks for politics as a whole. The more erstwhile opponents are harnessed to the Government's cause, the less it looks like a two-party coalition and the more it resembles a government of national unity or consensus. At a time of great national crisis, that might be a desirable option: encouraging all to pull together for the national good. But while the economy, and specifically the budget deficit, undoubtedly calls for severe remedial measures, we are probably not facing the sort of national crisis that would warrant an all-embracing unity government.

There are risks in not having a strong opposition in Parliament that were vividly illustrated by the lack of serious challenge to Tony Blair's arguments for the Iraq war. A one-party or even two-party government with a clear working majority is one thing; a government that makes its tent so big that any objections are to be found only on the outermost fringes is another. The consensus must never be so broad that genuine and reasonable alternative voices are drowned out.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own