There was no talk this year of banning champagne at the Conservative Party Conference. Perhaps there was no danger of exuberance among delegates. As recalcitrant Tories sought one-in-the-eye against Nick Clegg by erasing Lords Reform from the Coalition Agreement, their party’s treasured redrawing of the UK electoral map was duly jettisoned too. Without a stronger second chamber to challenge the executive, it would have been wrong to reduce the size of the House of Commons, thereby increasing the proportionate dominance of the government’s ‘payroll’ within it.
Clearly, the failure of the most comprehensive attempt to reform the composition of the Lords since 1968 (when another unholy Tory/Labour alliance in the unlikely shapes of Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, thwarted progress) is a major blow to democratic reformers. The cretaceous forces of conservatism prevailed; doubtless they have popped the odd champagne cork recently. But their revelry can only be temporary: a celebration of progress postponed.
In the coming years ‘the problem’ with the Lords will ferment further. More peers will be created, as per the Coalition Agreement. To achieve political balance, most will be Conservative or Liberal Democrat, not Labour. Proponents of the status quo defended a system of appointment by patronage: now they will see its ill-effects. These new peers are likely to attend more regularly than those who are long-established, and perhaps who lost interest long ago. Every time they attend, they collect £300 tax-free. That is The System defended by reform opponents. It cost taxpayers nearly £20m last year, double the price tag in 2001, and in the coming years the figure will easily double again. In a period of austerity, that can hardly be said to be value for money.
In this Parliament, an over-grown, over-blown House of Lords has been in the DPM’s Cabinet Office in-tray. After 2015, it will be the business of every single Minister, as an ever more assertive set of political appointees each seek to make their mark challenging whoever is in government next. Where the democratic demands of the public were so easily brushed aside, day-to-day demands from Ministers for a more rational second chamber may prove more influential.
Some peers are now pressuring the government to try a ‘quick-fix’, which would preserve party patronage as the primary route into the Lords, but make the place marginally less ridiculous. At one stage, our ex-leader David Steel prepared a Bill to prevent any more hereditary peers coming in, ‘chuck out the crooks’ and permit peers to retire, but even this timid package was emasculated. The question is, why should the Coalition – and particularly Nick Clegg – be interested in backing it? As Liberal Democrat members put it in their recently-approved conference motion, “meaningful reform of the House of Lords is contingent on the introduction of direct elections to determine its membership.”
Lord Strathclyde, Leader of the House, observes that 70% of MPs voted in favour of an elected House, but that the Steel Bill would, by contrast, be a “move to entrenching an appointed House”, and I am inclined to agree. As David Lloyd George astutely observed, “the most dangerous thing in the world is to try to leap a chasm in two jumps.” Lord Strathclyde has likewise concluded, “Lords reform is now a matter for future Parliaments.”
The cause of real reform has been advanced in the last year by good, cross-party workmanlike pre-legislative scrutiny, and a very strong second reading vote in its favour. In the next Parliament, the issue will arise again, and our Party stands ready to help make real reform happen when that day comes. I will have a bottle of bubbly chilling for when it does.
PS: Following the Brighton conference discussion, I suggested in the Lords on Tuesday that no MP who had voted against reform in this Parliament should be appointed a Peer in the next. This caused one of those special Lordly rumbles!
* Paul Tyler is the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the Lords on constitutional reform issues