Compromise and conflict in the air in Lords stand-off over filibustering

There’s a finely balanced stand-off in the Lords over the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill. Many Labour peers feel they are just a few days of filibustering away from achieving, for them, a major political objective – forcing the government to change the date of the AV referendum – and, or perhaps instead, forcing major changes to the Bill, such as a change in the new rules for drawing up Parliamentary constituencies.

However they also face a major risk of the delaying tactics going wrong. Over-play their hand, annoy the cross-bench peers and spur the government into action and the likely result? Support of the cross-bench peers gives the government the votes and the political standing to change the rules of debate in the Lords to end filibustering, following which government gets its way over boundaries.

House of Lords. Photo: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of ParliamentIs ending up with only the AV referendum delayed really worth it for wrecking relations with cross-bench peers, weakening their position in future debates – especially in the eyes of Labour peers who either quite like the idea of the AV referendum happening in May or who really dislike the idea of Lords reform and so want to maximise their abilities to oppose that? And given how much hostile media coverage there has been of Labour filibustering, such as the BBC Today program’s reports leading on Toby Harris’s discourse into prime numbers, what does filibustering to to Ed Milband’s attempts to portray his party as being into new politics and leaving the political style of Gordon Brown behind?

The view from the Liberal Democrat side at the moment is a mix of confidence and doubt – confidence that things will work out, a referendum will happen and the government will prevail in the Lords but doubt over whether this will happen through Labour agreeing a face-saving way to back down or by Labour trying to tough it out and being undermined by cross-bench peers, many of whom privately are very critical of Labour’s approach, as too – far more quietly – are some of the longer-standing Labour peers.

The nearing deadline for getting the bill through in time for a May 5th referendum, not to mention the decisions needed shortly on whether or not to cancel the mini-break in sittings that the Lords is due to have in February, is concentrating minds heavily at the moment. Much is likely to be decided in the next few days.

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  • Shameful behaviour by Labour in the Lords. Smells just like the US Republican party, Labour have been reading their text-books thoroughly in the months since they lost. New politics my arse.

    One thing this does show is how totally unviable a “Confidence and Supply” government agreement would have been with Labour in this kind of childish mood.

  • This is quite shameful tactics by Labour peers. Ed Milliband needs to get a grip and prove he wants to take part in the new politics.

  • “what does filibustering to to Ed Milband’s attempts to portray his party as being into new politics”

    What does the stubborn approach to two very separate issues say about the reality of plural politics?

    The AV vote can go ahead if the Government compromise in splitting the Bill. There is still chance for a properly researched and debated bill regarding MP numbers to be achieved before 2015. Listening to the debates it is very clear that in Wales and Scotland there are cases far more deserving than the Isle of Wight for exception. Looking at the current exceptions it is impossible to see this as a fair Bill. The exceptions (mostly) make sense, but their inclusion should actually point to the need for others to be treated the same. Take the heat out of the issue and then find the more reasonable path. Then if Labour try to block it they will be the losers.

    The use of registered voters rather than population takes no account of the workload of the MP. The use of any numbers rather than the geographical area and state of transport link takes away the ease of access for constituents to their MP. The rules allow these factors to be taken into account but ONLY within the 5% rule making the chance of them affecting constituencies negligible.

    There is also the fact that previously the commission has been given a target rather than a cap to enable such deserving constituencies to be excepted not by clause in a bill but by an independent commission. This would enable much more local issues to be taken into account.

    The biggest joke was hearing a Tory talk about votes of equal value. There are systems that achieve this, none are on offer in this Bill they saw to that. There was no pre-legislative scrutiny and no real attempt at consultation.

  • Alex Macfie 25th Jan '11 - 1:41am

    Even if the methods of the Labour peers are distasteful, so is the government in rushing this legislation through, especially with the coupling of two completely separate things (the referendum on AV, and the boundary changes). I am against reducing the number of MPs, unless it were also accompanied by a significant reduction in the number of ministers. Somehow I don’t think the latter is going to happen. So the result is going to be that the payroll vote is considerably increased as a proportion of the the voting strength of Parliament, turning Parliament into even more of a rubber stamp than it is already. As for the boundary changes, I simply do not buy the idea that equalizing the constituency size is so important. Representing natural communities (if we must have single-member constituencies) is much more important. This is bad legislation and I hope it does get defeated, so that it can be thought through properly.

  • richard heathcote 25th Jan '11 - 4:42am

    i actually think they are right to give this whatever opposition they can i really dont see how they can link to issues together and try to force it through without proper scrutiny as far as i can see. if it was a vote on av only it would have been passed already. the stumbling block is the tory part of it, the boundry changes and reduction in mp’s which i think is rightly being objected to.

  • I would be more sympathetic to the Labour Peers in their efforts – the bill is pretty rushed and probably needed quite a bit of fine tuning even if one does agree with its principle aims, and the Lords have a very important role in seeing that scrutiny happens – if it were not for the obvious delaying tactics reported (intentionally rambling speeches etc), which have nothing to do with debating the merits of the bill and trying to convince a majority of the House to accept proprosed amendments, but to delay the date of the AV referendum – the bill will get through eventually, it has the votes, but the opposition have included far too much faffing about on trying to force a politically inconvenient and embarrasing result in addition to their legislative scrutiny of the bill, though I hope they have all kept awake well enough to properly debate the worthy amendments, as some have been passed.

  • Kieran – the weakness in your argument is, of course, that with whipped votes in both coalition parties, the opposition will probably be outvoted. Of course filibuster has always been a deliberate waste of time, but has quite often been the way to force change. I don’t suppose anyone knows what the position would be if a free vote were taken, either in the Commons or the Lords. But it would seem quite possible that the 5% margin, and the review every 5 years of boundaries would be taken out as nonsensical. Lord knows how anyone let them through in the first place.
    Alex Macfie – Hear, hear.

  • Kieran – the weakness in your argument is, of course, that with whipped votes in both coalition parties, the opposition will probably be outvoted. Of course filibuster has always been a deliberate waste of time, but has quite often been the way to force change
    That is certainly a possibility. A certain amount of intransigence is expected and tolerated of course, as the positives of lengthy debate outweighs the occasional political games. Perhaps they are merely hoping for a major concession from the government in order to meet that politically important deadline, but I am currently having difficulty seeing one emerge unfortunately; both sides seem entrenched and they need to come to a compromise that will enable both to come away without being humiliated for giving away too much/allowing too much through. If they could do that without one side or the other crowing about it maybe there would not be so much acrimony.

    Of course, the weakness in your argument is that the majority in the chamber is a result of the governing parties being whipped. Maybe they genuninely believe in even the more contentious aspects of the bill, we don’t know. I have my concerns abtu certain aspects of the bill, but this still looks like a political slanging match where victory (in not backing down) appears to be the main goal as opposed to genuinely debating the merits of amendments; in that sense at least the Labour opposition have failed to convince me of their motives for their current techniques, which is why I am inclined against them.

  • I see no Iceberg 25th Jan '11 - 10:11am

    If only someone saw this trouble coming, when linking AV with boundary changes was first proposed? Like say, almost every political commentator at the time. Sadly those around Nick still think their past, present and only strategy of ‘hoping everything will turn out nice’ always seem shellshocked when it doesn’t. They will act equally surprised after May.

    “Support of the cross-bench peers gives the government the votes and the political standing to change the rules of debate in the Lords to end filibustering, following which government gets its way over boundaries.”

    Fanciful stuff.
    With Lords reform still looming most of the Lords definitely aren’t going to give a blank cheque to Parliament to cut their own throats no matter how much some Peers want the A.V. vote sooner rather than later. And the boundary reforms are goin to cost the Liberal Demorats far more seats than Labour so there is no unanimity on that subject either.

  • I didn’t see the BBC Today program’s reports on Toby Harris’s discourse into prime numbers but I did watch the discourse live.

    The prime number issue wasn’t actually fillibustering IMHO – it was part of a series of exchanges pointing out that no one on the Government side had been able to explain how the 600 figure had been arrived at although one leading Peer seemed to be quite honest when he said it was ‘plucked out of the air’. So I hope the BBC provided balanced coverage on the issue.

    And I really think it is a bit of a ‘Nelson’s Eye’ to complain about fillibustering when you look at how this objectionable bill has been cobbled-together on purely party-political grounds to gain an advantage.

    I have mentioned previously that some detailed work has been done that now shows that instead of the LP suffering worst in terms of seats held under the new system that it’s actually the LibDems who will fare worse so be careful about what you wish for 🙂

    At the end of the day Labour is happy to let the AV go ahead if the other stuff is split-off to be further discussed. This is a 5 year Parliament we are told so there is no timing problem in delaying the non-AV portion unless of course Cameron has an early GE date in mind.

    The Tories and LibDems are stuffing the Lords with Peers to get through future legislation including reform of the Lords so I don’t buy your argument at Labour or the cross-benchers losing voting power – they’re going to be swamped by the new LibDem peers anyway so this could be their Last Stand. In fact I am amazed that this site has enough bandwidth to actually cover all the maiden speeches of the new LibDem Peers.

  • The Tories and LibDems are stuffing the Lords with Peers
    They might be moving faster to do so than normal – I would need to see the figures – but it has surely been the convention that the Upper Chamber reflect, broadly, the political proportions in the Lower Chamber eventually, not including the Cross Benchers, and currently the largest single group is Labour. So that at least is one criticism of the process I find hard to see as a major issue.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 25th Jan '11 - 1:14pm

    But is it true as reported that Clegg is prepared to compromise and split the Bill into two – but that Dave is against such a compromise? Coalition or a Tory led government?

  • Coalition or a Tory led government?
    Both are technically correct. When they are used to develop a partisan media narrative is when they become an issue.

  • I love how the LibDems argue so passionately for every vote having the same weight but have managed to find two parliamentary seat exceptions in Scotland – I’m sure the fact they are currently held by LibDems has nothing to do with their choice which is obviously based on sound democratic principles :).

    I’m really looking forward to the next GE in Scotland when LibDem MPs will become an endangered species just like the Tories have been for some time.

  • @Stephen W

    Well nothing’s changed from the 18202 then with the Tories still fiddling to win seats.

    Can anyone tell me how the figure of 600 seats was arrived at. No Government Miniuster in the Commons or Lords has been able to do so btw.

    Do people on here really believe it’s good for democracy to have absolutely artificial constituency boundary lines which take no account of communities when they are drawn.

    It reminds me of all the mistakes we made when drawing up boundaries in Africa along river lines and mountain ranges. The same tribes on either side of the lines ended up in different countries and often became minorities in the process were exploited by the majority.

    What have the Tories and LibDems got to fear from an Independent enquiry like say a Speaker’s Commission being set-up to examine the best way forward in democratic terms.

    Why has the independent role of the Boundaries Commission been emasculated. Is it right that the ruling political party now decides on the number of seats.

    Under this system there will be almost constant changes in boundaries with population/registered voter increases/decreases.

    It goes on and on and on and all we hear on here is a simplistic mantra about equalisation of fhe weight of votes. The ordinary people do not have vote equalisation at the front of their mind. In any case we were moving towards PR I think being accepted and now the LibDems have destroyed that for a generation.

    There’s the nonsense of the Isle of Wight and the two LiBDem seats in Scotland being allowed to escape the formula as exceptional cases. That reminds me I haven’t seen the exceptional case definition for £9K tuition fees yet – when are we getting that or is that another time-bomb ticking away.

  • For those actually interested in the mechanics of the changes I would recommend a look at:…/P16_Borisyuk_EPOP2010.pdf

    Interestingly it reaches a conclusion which seems to suggest the gerrymandering is all a waste of time and won’t hit Labour as badly as thought.

    There is another academic study I’ve read but have misplaced the citation – it finds the LibDems will be biggest losers

    So if these studies are correct in their conclusions the LibDems are going to throw AV away for what? Methinks a poisoned chalice being held out to them by Cameron.

  • Paul McKeown 29th Jan '11 - 12:32am


    “it reaches a conclusion which seems to suggest the gerrymandering is all a waste of time and won’t hit Labour as badly as thought”

    That would be because it isn’t gerrymandering at all. It is well established that Labour does well because of the performance of its urban vote under differential turnout; if some ill-informed Conservatives think that equalising the constituencies will lead to a dramatic change in Labour’s returns to the Commons, then they will be sorely disappointed. None of this is new. It is natural justice that seats are of an equal size; that Labour is in histrionics illustrates the triumph of partisan emotion above fair play, commonsense and informed debate.

  • Paul McKeown 29th Jan '11 - 1:11am

    I do hope the Liberal Democrats are planning a series of events to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Parliament Act 1911. It was, after all, a historic victory for the last majority Liberal government, entrenching the elected will of the people against hereditary vested interests.

    It would be good to remember also that one of the chief reasons for the Parliament Act was the Lord’s opposition to the 1909 People’s Budget, which, championed by two great Liberals, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, was intended to finance the Liberal welfare reforms, which became a template for today’s welfare state.

    I think it would be fitting if the Liberal Democrat’s, in tribute to their forerunners, finally removed all the hereditaries from the Lords and the placemen that owe their positions in the Lords party patronage. The choice is straightforward: a unicameral parliament, without the second unelected chamber, or a genuine bicameral parliament, with election to both chambers.

    Nothing else should be acceptable in a modern democracy and certainly not to the political descendants of Lloyd George and Churchill.

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