Labour’s filibustering and the consequences for political reform

A slightly shorter version of this piece appeared on OurKingdom last week:

The unprecedented filibustering by Labour peers (or rather more accurately, given the splits between hardliners and moderates about Labour’s ranks in the Lords, some Labour peers) of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is having two unintended side-effects which will be important for the future of political reform.

The most obvious is the way in which Labour’s chosen style of opposition has driven Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers closer together. A more subtle form of opposition might have looked to divide the coalition partners, but repeated late nights listening to barely relevant and frequently repetitive Labour points has done the exact opposite. It has given both Conservative and Lib Dem peers a common source of anger and in the process they have spent large amounts of time in each other’s company, strengthening the personal connections between peers in different parties who previously had hardly even spoken to each other.

As a result, the odds of David Cameron, and Conservative Parliamentarians in both Houses, sticking to the coalition agreement for a mostly elected Upper House – and by proportional representation no less – have significantly improved. By uniting coalition peers in opposition to them, Labour has made it more likely they will stick to the coalition agreement on other matters. And by showing the Lords in such a bad light, Labour peers have also strengthen the views of those in Conservative ranks who think reform is necessary. That is good news for all of us, regardless of party, who believe Parliament should be based on democracy.

Who is the natural partner for political reform?

The second side-effect is a longer-term one and one whose implications are less predictable yet also more partisan. How will the political scene look to Liberal Democrats come the next election, or in a hung Parliament beyond it? The Conservative Party will most likely have won brownie points for being willing to stick through with constitutional reform, even if it is reform that at heart the party doesn’t really like. But negotiate an agreement and the Conservatives will look to have stuck to it and kept on getting people through the voting lobbies late at night in order to implement it.

As for Labour? Labour most likely will look like the party that, once again, when it came to the crunch flinched away from reforming the Commons or the Lords. Not only will Labour have its record over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, but how are those filibustering Labour peers who opposed elections for the Lords going to behave when that reform comes before them?

For two decades now Labour figures have often talked a good talk about new voting systems for the Commons or voting systems of any sort for the Lords. There is a long history of positive talks to think tanks and words in pamphlets and even a decent smattering of commitments in manifestos from Labour.

But each time it has come to the crunch Labour has backed away from actually implementing the fine words on the Commons voting system or democracy for the Lords. It is always not quite the right proposal or quite the right time. That often promised in speeches and in manifestos electoral reform referendum never happened. The Jenkins report was put on the shelf to gather dust. The government review of electoral systems disappeared into obscurity. Those repeated plans for Lords reform never moved beyond stage one. And so on – and that was when Labour had large majorities on its own, able to get measures through the Commons and with the manifesto commitments giving the power of the Salisbury Convention to stop the Lords completely blocking reform either.

What’s preferable: good words or reluctant votes?

ParliamentSo the way we are headed, after all the main promises but missed opportunities from Labour, is that many Liberal Democrats may well conclude that on too many matters of political reform it will never be the right time for Labour and that, for all the Conservative Party’s unwillingness to introduce political reform, when it comes to the big issues it is better to deal with a reluctant but reliable partner than with one who promises so much yet flinches away before reform is actually delivered.

Symptomatic of this danger for Labour is the question of the AV referendum timing. When it came to holding the referendum on introducing the London Mayor and GLA, Labour happily scheduled it for the same day as other elections. Yet many of the same Labour politicians who voted through that polling day as an uncontroversial and obvious measure are now backing a line that tries to claim there is something awful about having the next referendum on the same day as other elections. Have they all really suddenly thought that they got it all wrong for London and now realise that they should never have supported the timing of the London referendum? Or is it that they are just reaching for any convenient excuse to bash another party and back away (yet again) from electoral reform for the Commons?

When something like that happens once, or twice or even three times, you can believe that perhaps it is really that people have changed their minds, perhaps it is really that the time is not quite right or the details not quite there. But after two decades of ducking away by Labour, continuing to believe such generous explanations looks more and more foolish.

At this point, no doubt, some of the many genuinely committed to electoral reform in Labour ranks will be objecting that this is an unfair view of them. But unless they appreciate just how badly Labour’s record of flinching away over two decades looks to potential partners in a future program of political reform, there is no chance of such a future program working.

Take the example of Labour reformer Michael Wills, who recently argued vehemently in OurKingdom against what the government is doing, listing a long set of questions which he says Parliament should have properly considered. Not surprisingly, I disagree with many of his views in that list of questions, but my main objection is simply this: look at the total amount of time Parliament has now spent on the Bill and you see there has been plenty of time in total to discuss all of those questions in some detail. But instead of discussing them in detail, Labour peers have chosen to squander time on all sorts of trivial, peripheral and irrelevant matters.

If Labour peers had really wanted to get those points debated in detail, they had their chance and their time (plenty of it). But they chose not to take it – because when it came to the crunch it wasn’t scrutiny or improvement that came first, it was wrecking reform.

And unless Labour shows real commitment to reform – not just in the comfort of policy chit-chat but in the voting lobbies in Parliament and the ballot boxes of a referendum – the most likely outcome is that Labour will no longer look to be the obvious and natural partner for a third party wanting an ambitious program of political reform.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I see no Iceberg 15th Feb '11 - 9:21am

    The 40% wrecking amendment only got through with the help of 10 Conservative Peers votes and most of the Commons anti-AV mischief was helped along by Cameron’s distinctly anti-AV backbenchers.

    It’s a nice idea to pretend the current coalition partners aren’t actively trying to wreck AV, but I think we all remember that Cameron is against AV and the No to AV campaign is funded by his dodgy city sources.

    When I hear Nick Clegg rule out Labour for any future coalition deal then all the dire threats might be taken for more than bluster but we know that isn’t going to happen.

  • Haven’t Labour collaborated very successfully on reform issues with the Lib Dems in Wales & Scotland?

    There is one party in the UK has has consistently opposed any attempt at reforms designed to benefit the many over the few in the last century, and it’s not Labour or the Lib Dems. I can’t understand why Lib Dems want to turn a party which has substantial elements, even a majority, in favour of the broad thrust of their reform in to an avowed enemy while sitting cosy with reforms opponents in government.

  • Mr Pack – with respect, this is all a bit on the hopeful side. First and foremost, does any of this have any resonance outside the Westminster bubble and party activists? Maybe, but I’m not convinced.

    But aside from that, the very idea of relying on the Conservative Party to drive forward an agenda for constitutional reform sounds rather desperate. As I understand it it is very clear that they will squarely be in the no camp in the referendum. Indeed, insofar as a defeat for AV would be seen (rightly or wrongly) as a weakening defeat for the Lib Dems they have an active interest in campaigning against. For that matter, I’m not wholly convinced that constitutional reform can ever be a party political issue in the classic sense.

    Indeed, if wasting parliamentary time is your problem, it is not as if the Conservatives have been above it – in excess of 700 hours time was spend debating fox-hunting.

    A better argument here could be that the Lib Dem leadership did not use their position to the full effect, preferring instead other reforms over constitutional commitments. What exactly would you do, have Labour apologise for opposing?

    Incidentally, I’m not sure that the GLA referendum is a good comparison – the GLA was London-only whereas this is national. I can’t remember if all of London had a local election as well as the referendum on the day, but the point is that for a national (as opposed to local) vote the date should be away from other elections to avoid the possibility of a de facto differential turn out. To my mind, that argument is a good one

  • Roger Roberts 15th Feb '11 - 10:12am

    The AV debate has shown, more clearly than ever, the great division in the Labour party.Listening for many hours to the debate and it has been sad to see the real radicals, who accept the need for reform ,being overwhelmed by those (mainly ex M.P.s and largely from Scotland) who appear to be more conservative than the Conservatives and are resisting any change. Little wonder that it was impossible for Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems to reach a Coalition agreement with Labour. Perhaps it is time for Ed Milliband to challenge his tories and do what Niel Kinnock did with Derek Hatton and Militant in the 1980s.

  • Roger Roberts – I’m sure that what you are saying is true, but doesn’t that suggest that there is no, ‘Labour line,’ on AV? Instead of attacking Labour as a whole, isn’t your argument with those who do not accept the case for reform who happen to be in the Labour Party?

    Not everything can be put down to the party line in a neat little bundle. I for example happen to accept that on HE fees my argument is with the people in the Lib Dem party who happen to buy into Browne, not the party per se.

    Indeed, were Milliband to wish to afford AV a priority that, quite frankly, few outside the Lib Dems do it’s not clear what he would get out of it. I would hazard a guess that there is not a great deal of appetite in Labour to cosy up to an Orange Book led Lib Dem party right now.

  • richard heathcote 15th Feb '11 - 10:57am

    from reading the above you seem to think that its Labours fault the lib-dem and tory peers have been pushed closer together? would it not be fair to say some of this pressure has come from the commons and the unwillingness to seperate a bill.

    I would like to have had the oppertunity to vote on AV without the boundry changes being forced through at the same time. This is the real problem and i really cant see why both parts of the bill are together.

  • If the recent Lords problems lead to an STV Lords I’ll consider that an excellent outcome. However, there needs to be an acceptance that some of us who support real reform just don’t want AV….

    As to Labour “forcing” the Lib Dems closer to the Tories…

    I think that the Lib Dems currently holding sway have made clear for some time now who their natural partners are. The coalition was the right move, but since then they have actually made clear their version of pluralism is one way only. The reaction of the party president to the offer of consulting on Labour future policies being a case in point. From the outside the party that used to denounce tribalism and promote pluralism is becoming increasingly tribal.

    A couple of posters on a recent thread stated they would never campaign for anyone who even talked to Labour. That’s fairly clear and represents a significant (and influential) proportion of Lib Dem views.

    As to the “chosen style of opposition”, I’ve said before both sides come out of this badly. The Government (probably because of the coalition agreement) have been unwilling to compromise even when sensible suggestions came from the cross benchers. Labour have resorted to the fillibuster as the only effective tool against such total instransigence.

    The 40% amendment is a classic example of “do unto others”. Whilst there may be some hypocrisy in the GLA versus AV referendum positions there is also more than a little in attempting to impose minimum turnouts on Unions (or at least openly threatening to) but say they are not required for a massive constitutional change such as the move to AV. Perhaps if the Lib Dem leadership had made clear their opposition to the first I would have sympathy for their position in the latter.

  • Sorry just to add as a show of the Government approach to this matter. Rather than keeping the IOW as a single seat (as succesfully argued in the Lords) they are now proposing splitting it in two within it’s geographical boundaries. Effectively creating a second Tory seat.

  • David Boothroyd 15th Feb '11 - 11:58am

    It really is no use Lib Dems praying in aid the Salisbury Convention. You repudiated it when you were opposing a Labour government, saying that you were no part of agreeing to it and could not be bound by it.

  • @Stephen W
    I agree with most of your points except the last. If it was purely about equalising constituency sizes there would be no exceptions and it would be based upon population not registered voters. Look at the new proposal on the IOW, that’s as close to gerrymandering as I’ve seen in this whole affair, in fact probably the only real case.

    The real answer is a proportional system where no one gets advantage, with a purely constituency based system other factors than size need to be taken into account, not least geographical constraints that remove constituents from their representative. I’m not saying Labour are opposing it for the right reasons and not those you have raised, merely that it needs opposing in it’s current form.

  • Andrew

    I suspect the majority of the electorate that voted Liberal Democrats 2010 feel exactly that way towards Liberal Democrats for some reason.

    No offense intended, it may just be rumour of course that over 60% of those voters no longer suport Liberal Democrats.

    I dont really know but it is a good guess.

  • Patrick Smith 15th Feb '11 - 1:49pm

    There is unequivocally sound democratic merit and voter integrity,especially for women and minorities, in the passage of the AV and Constitutional for all poltical parties concerned.

    Moreover, all smaller political parties stand to benefit and also there is are appreciable benefits for the main filibustering opponents in both Houses, namely the Labour Party :so what is the problem?

    The question is not whether the Bill is a good one, as the parliamentary discourse has regaled long enough for all scrutiny possible, on that score.It is now to let the People have their Say!

    The democratic principles at stake in the Bill are endorsed by many non-political and cross party public bodies, including the Electoral Reform Society.

    Now,the democratic electoral merits of AV and Constitutional much required change, should be tested in a national debate `Yes’ or `Nay’ before and on May 5th by the People.

  • richard heathcote 15th Feb '11 - 1:51pm


    no actually its not really much clearer if the tories want a bill on boundry changes let them have it as a seperate bill and put under proper scrutiny in the house of commons and then put forward as a bill on boundry changes.i still dont see why they need to be lumped together.

  • @Andrew Tennant
    At what point did those who wish to talk with Labour take on their methods or way of thinking?

    This should be about moving them towards a less authoritarian more liberal approach not the other way around. It should be about finding areas of policy agreement not any formal linkage. It’s not pluralism otherwise it’s a limited strategic partnership with the Tories.

  • @Andrew Tennant
    Sorry I should have added that this is a problem that is likely to come up throughout the period of this coalition. In both Scotland and Wales hung results could be expected. The Lib Dems should follow the same principled route as at Westminster, i.e. talk to the majority party as first option. These talks need to be genuine, it’s part of what pluralism needs to show if the electorate, as a whole, are to be won over. Add the GLA elections and numerous council elections and it’s clear that pulling out of contact with Labour is not a realistic option. Just because the current coalition was right in May 2010 for Westminster does not mean it is right for all other eventualities.

    Which comes straight back to trying to influence the more progressive entities within Labour (and there are some) to have greater influence on policy. Labour made some truly massive mistakes during the last 13 years, as did the Tories for the 18 years prior to that. I remember the riots of the 80’s and 90’s as well as the Miners Strike and the following devastation of their communities (no big society back then). I remember the Tebbit and his cricket test and black wednesday. I also remember the Iraq War, Control Orders et al from Labour. If you take your argument to it’s logical conclusion there will be no cross party working let alone Government.

  • Is it right what Steve Way says that they are splitting the IoW in two?

    It seems that it is okay to have small seats if it favours the Coalition partners doesn’t it?

    This is why this review of boundaries needed to be done in a more considered way and with cross-party support.

    If we accept now that the Government can change the rules as it wants without consultation then what is to stop the Labour Party doing the same in the future?

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Feb '11 - 6:36pm

    Yet again, Tory politicians (this time in the Lords) have brazenly welched on the coalition agreement and attempted to derail the AV referendum.

    Yet again, you choose to completely ignore this apparently trivial fact and instead aim your fire solely at the opposition – as if it is the most natural thing in the world that Labour should bail out the Lib Dems while your partners stab you in the back.

    I really wish I were a Tory at this moment, as the laughs they are having must be *incapacitating*.

    Even if the referendum fails to get through this time (unlikely, I know) I have no doubt that Lib Dems will still find it impossible to admit that their refusal to split the bill was a colossal blunder.

    “Yet many of the same Labour politicians who voted through [GLA] polling day as an uncontroversial and obvious measure are now backing a line that tries to claim there is something awful about having the next referendum on the same day as other elections.”

    I don’t think that’s fair. The Electoral Commission has repeatedly stressed that “…each specific proposal [on combination of election and referendum dates] should be considered individually”. The Lords Constitution Committee recommended in April 2010 that “…there should be a presumption against holding referendums on the same day as elections but that this should be judged on a case-by-case basis by the Electoral Commission.” All combinations are different in character and Labour are perfectly entitled to judge each one on its own merits, just as the Electoral Commission does. It is truly pathetic that Lib Dems are vilifying Labour for applying the kind of scrutiny to this bill that independent and cross-party bodies have been recommending for years.

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Feb '11 - 6:53pm

    Stephen W: “Only Labour could…” (etc etc)
    Andrew: “I don’t trust Labour, I don’t like them, and think them deceitful, incompetent and selfishly motivated”

    This is why I have never been, and probably never will be, a member of any political party – the tribalism, the lumping together of millions of one’s “opponents” into some homogenous mass who all think exactly the same and are to be despised. Andrew, try substituting the word “women” for “Labour” in your post and see how it reads. Not *quite* the same thing I know, but not totally dissimilar either.

    The fact is there’s bad and good in all parties. Many Labour people opposed Iraq and control orders and 90/28 days detention and all that stuff. Many Tories were in favour of Iraq, and compulsory ID cards, and keeping section 28. (Many of the latter group now sit in cabinet and are toasted as honorary liberals by their partners in the coalition.) Some Lib Dems kept their pledge on tuition fees, others broke it. The political landscape is composed of constantly shifting sand.

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Feb '11 - 7:00pm

    Mark Pack: “I can see (though I don’t agree with) the theory about keeping national and local issues and so polling days separate, but if Labour believed that, shouldn’t Labour have called general elections for days that didn’t have local elections…”

    Mark, national/local is not really the issue here. The issue is that the government wants to have a non-party-political referendum (of great constitutional significance) on the same day as party-political elections. See :-


    So the “compromise” promised by the Government consists of…….. an extra Tory MP

    The 40% is gone as according to Mark Harper people (unless they belong to a union) should get what they vote for…

    7.5% Probably the most sensible amendment is gone…

  • I see no Iceberg 16th Feb '11 - 10:11pm

    The Conservatives are wreaking havoc right now trying to get the 40% wrecking amendment through.

    I’m afraid this article looks ever more misguided and desperate in light of this.

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