LibLink: Nick Clegg: Brexit Lords have a cheek to complain about EU democracy

Nick Clegg turned to the subject of EU democracy in his Standard column this week.

He was quick to point out the irony of members of the House of Lords castigating the democracy of the EU:

With more than 800 members, the House of Lords is only second to China’s National People’s Congress in size and is about as undemocratic: unique in Europe, its members can revise and amend the laws of the land without anyone actually being elected. It is, in short, an affront to the basic democratic principle that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those who obey the laws of the land.

Yet this obvious inconsistency appears to have escaped Lord Lawson et al when they berate the EU as “profoundly undemocratic”. I find what they do every day in the House of Lords profoundly undemocratic too.

The rest of our democracy is riddled with faults too:

Similarly, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling and the other Brexit ministers appear to be entirely untroubled that they serve in a Government that garnered no more than 24 per cent of the eligible vote. Such an undemocratic outcome — wielding unchallenged power when three quarters of voters either voted for another party or didn’t vote at all — is, it seems, acceptable to these high priests of democratic virtue.

The truth is that our own democracy is in need of a complete overhaul. Westminster is hopelessly stuck in the past: MPs are not allowed to shake each other’s hands on the parliamentary estate; we can’t call each other by our names and must instead use arcane titles such as “my right honourable friend” or “the gallant and learned gentleman”. We are not allowed to clap in the Commons so we register our approval by manically guffawing and waving papers instead.

The EU has its flaws, but it’s not lack of democracy that causes the problem:

What I would never advocate, however, is that Westminster and Whitehall should be razed to the ground or that we should quit our democratic institutions altogether. Yet that is precisely what Brexiteers are inviting us to do: respond to the flaws in the EU, which are numerous, by turning our backs on it altogether.

EU decision-making is complex and laborious. Far from being some superstate rampaging out of control, my experience is that it is simply far too slow at getting things done because everything, by and large, has to be agreed between 28 sovereign countries.

It took the EU almost 30 years, for instance, to agree a common definition of chocolate — in part because the continental purists objected to the inclusion of vegetable fat, found in many British chocolate bars, as a key ingredient. A common definition was important to British chocolate exporters because it allowed them, once the vegetable fat dilemma had been resolved, to export to 500 million European chocolate consumers without any impediment.

A body that takes three decades to define chocolate can be described as many things — not least slow and bureaucratic — but an undemocratic conspiracy is hardly one of them.

And it’s not as if we don’t get our way:

The fundamental flaw in such a system is not that Britain fails to get its way — we win more than 90 per cent of the decisions taken — it is just that it is tediously long-winded.

You can read the full article here.

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  • This is a weak argument. The House of Lords is a waste of time and money but has next to no powers over us.

  • Stevan Rose 11th Jun '16 - 3:48pm

    With 108 Lib Dem peers, 0 for the SNP, this party takes a highly hypocritical stance on the Lords. We can’t credibly criticise whilst (a) participating, (b) appointing more from the ranks of electoral failures, and (c) permitting peers to use their undemocratically acquired titles in party communications, including on this site. We would have more moral standing if we stood by our principles and boycotted.

  • Peter Watson 11th Jun '16 - 3:55pm

    If only somebody in the last government had had responsibility for electoral reform.

  • Alex Macfie 11th Jun '16 - 4:25pm

    Stevan Rose: Boycotting the HoL would achieve nothing. It makes as much sense as boycotting elections fought under FPTP. The only people who would benefit would be the government, who would face no effective opposition. If we were not using our strength in the HoL, the government would be very happy indeed to keep it exactly as it is: it would be very convenient for them to be effectively given a majority in the second chamber by one of the opposition parties not participating in it.

    Boycotting the HoL would be pointless gesture politics. To do so would be supporting the Tories, and more importantly supporting the HoL as it is. The only way we can push for reform is to use our power there.

  • Stevan Rose 12th Jun '16 - 2:14am

    Alex, since when did avoiding hypocrisy and standing up for principles achieve nothing, unless you concede the general public perception of politicians. We, as a party, are where we are because we asked people to vote for a party with principles, then broke several of our key pledges showing to many of our voters that we are the same as the rest, willing to put our principles to one side in exchange for power and allowances.

    Boycotting the Lords would send a clear message that we will no longer compromise our principles by legitimising this affront to democracy. That’s not pointless. It’s not supporting the Tories or the current Lords. It is a first step to reestablishing our reputation of principled opposition to establishment vested interests. If the Labour Party and cross benchers joined us, the continuation of the Lords would be untenable. In the meantime we continue to say one thing while doing another, including the frequent use and promotion of the titles. About time our party took our nominated snouts out of this lucrative trough very publicly.

  • Richard Sangster 12th Jun '16 - 7:45am

    The European Parliament’s electronic voting is a lot quicker than the House of Commons’ Division Lobby system.

  • Alex Macfie 12th Jun '16 - 9:23am

    Stevan Rose: The Lords is already untenable. Boycotting the Lords IS supporting the Tories, because they would be the principal beneficiaries of such an action. And it IS supporting the current Lords, because the Tories would be very happy to keep it as it is, a chambe in which they would be the only participants. Our failure to participate in the Lords would be a gift to the Tories.
    Our using our power in the Lords to hold the government to account is not hypocrisy, because we have not only advocated reform of the Lords, but also we have actively attempted to bring it about, and have always failed due to opposition from the pro-establishment people in both the two big parties. But just like the FPTP electoral system, whether we like it or not, it exists and we have to make the most of it. This has nothing to do with broken pledges or principles, we are constitutionalists, and among other things this means working within the system. The only “principle” that we would be standing up for by boycotting the Lords would be the principle that we support the Lords as it is, but we don’t want to be part of it because we are too precious. We have always been a party of getting things done, as in our strategy of community politics. That’s what we should be, and we should leave the pointless gesture politics to Corbyn’s Labour, the SWP and the rest of the 57 varieties.

  • Thanks, Alex – very well and succinctly put.
    Whether it’s the House of Lords, First Past the Post (especially in multi-member local government constitutuencies), Elected Police Commissioners or whatever: no matter how rotten the existing system is, we have to work within it in order to make the best of it and ultimately to change it.

  • Stevan Rose 12th Jun '16 - 5:38pm

    And because we don’t take a principled stand against rotten parts of the system the electorate view us as untrustworthy, say one thing do another. (FPTP isn’t a valid comparison for any number of reasons). In which case our electoral standing is where it should be until we show otherwise. I note the SNP have no peers; I don’t think anyone remotely thinks this means the SNP support the Tories and the current Lords arrangement.

  • Peter Watson 12th Jun '16 - 9:29pm

    It does seem a sad state of affairs to see UKIP railing against the lack of democracy in the EU and the unfairness of representation in our ‘first past the post’ electoral system, while Lib Dems defend the EU because it is not as “profoundly undemocratic” as the unelected House of Lords that the party is happy to take advantage of.

  • Alex Macfie 13th Jun '16 - 8:39am

    And what effect has the SNP’s non-participation in the Lords had? None. And the point isn’t whether anyone THINKS that non-participation is supporting the Tories or the status quo. It is that that is the effect in practice.
    The Lib Dems HAVE taken a stand against the Lords: we have actively tried to reform it, and been thwarted by conservatives first in Labour (in the Blair years) then in the Conservatives under the Coalition.
    Voters don’t care a great deal about constitutional issues. And we have never pledged not to participate in the House of Lords, so the “say one thing do another” accusation simply does not apply. And it is EXACTLY the same as it would be with FPTP: a false equation of participating in a system with supporting it as it is. If we refused to participate in the Lords when our voting strength could help defeat the government, then we would be criticised and laughed at for throwing away the chance to hold the government to account. Indeed it seems that we have pushed Labour towards voting against the government in the HoL more frequently than they did at the beginning of this Parliament, as they don’t want to be seen as an ineffective opposition. And the reason Labour were not fully using their voting strength fully against the government is that many of them support the status quo, of an unelected second chamber muzzled by a gentlemen’s agreement. Provoking a constutitional crisis by inflicting a string of defeats on the government would be a much more effective way of forcing reform than refusing to participate, thus letting the government get its way and essentially “playing by the rules”.
    We take the approach we do in the Lords because we are a party of getting things done, not a party of handing out tedious pamphlets and magazines outside the student union.

  • Jayne Mansfield 13th Jun '16 - 9:15am

    @Alex Macfie,
    I don’t agree that the SNP’s non- participation has had no effect. It has made the party go up in my estimation, and maybe the estimation of others.

    I am not sure whether some politicians of our established parties will ever understand the devastating loss of trust brought about, I would argue, by politicians who seem to be able to justify any behaviour if it suits, no matter ho far remove from their espoused principles.

    This lack of trust is dangerous, because people just stop listening to the arguments of the mainstream.

  • Jayne Mansfield: I’m talking about its effect on the House of Lords. YOu may well think highly of the SNP’s policy of non-participation, if (i) you are the sort of voter who cares about constitutional issues, and (ii) you are the sort of person for whom futile gesture politics is preferable to actually getting things done. We Lib Dems are about (i), although we accept that most voters are not, but don’t think much of (ii).

  • @ Jayne Mansfield..I agree entirely with your comments of disagreement with “that the SNP’s non- participation has had no effect. It has made the party go up in my estimation, and maybe the estimation of others”.

    I go back as a party member to 1961 when I joined what I believed to be a radical party – it even published a leaflet with the caption ‘Which Twin is the Tory’ under a picture of Wilson and Heath. The belief that the party was radical has been eroded over the years with the dishing out of peerages, knighthoods and gongs in what can only be described as an attempt at patronage which echoes the establishment and appeals to snobbery and vanity. In my view it is corrosive and undermines any pretension to be a radical party. It is not compatible with Caron’s recent statement, “I’m a liberal. We shake things up. It’s what we’re for. We challenge established authority”.

    I personally will be glad when this Referendum business is over whatever the outcome (tho’ I voted remain). It has distracted attention from the real abuses of power and inequality in our society viz. most recently in the BHS business and Sports direct. The totally irrational unctuous nonsense surrounding an hereditary monarchy also fails to float my boat….. although Sir Philip Green seems to have a boat or two to spare.

    There is a need for a radical reforming party in this country, but I fear far too often in recent years we have not been seen to be it. Yes, Caron, we do need to challenge authority and there’s plenty to be radical and progressive about.

  • @ Alex MacFie “you are the sort of person for whom futile gesture politics is preferable to actually getting things done”.

    I rather think the dishing out of knighthoods and gongs is “futile gesture politics preferable to actually getting things done”.

  • So Dave Cam threatens : “Brexit mean cuts to pensions, defence and the NHS.”

    Maybe……………., but he could also tax the top 1% a bit more and ensure such as Ashley of Sports Direct pay proper wages to put a bit more back into the economy. The only Laffer Curve is the direction of such as Philip Green and Mike Ashley swerving round the revenue on the way to the bank.

  • Jayne Mansfield 13th Jun '16 - 11:58am

    @ David Raw,
    It seems pretty transparent to me that David Cameron is aiming his threats at older voters like myself who are more likely to vote Leave. Whether it will work with older voters is another matter.

  • Jayne Mansfield 13th Jun ’16 – 9:15am
    “@Alex Macfie,
    I don’t agree that the SNP’s non- participation has had no effect. It has made the party go up in my estimation, and maybe the estimation of others.”

    Yes mine too. It goes to the heart of whether a party ” walks the walk” as well as it ” talks the talk”. It actually makes the SNP look like the ‘ principled party’, that used to be the Lib Dems’ USP.

  • “And what effect has the SNP’s non-participation in the Lords had?”

    They are trusted by 6 times as many Scottish voters than we are. They aren’t criticised and laughed at for not participating in the Lords. They hold virtually every Scottish Westminster seat and run the Scottish Government.

    A party that dismisses principled stands as futile gestures isn’t the party I joined and if I thought that view was prevalent I’d turn in my membership card right here right now. The reason why FPTP is not comparable is because the public think they had a referendum and picked FPTP by overwhelming democratic majority. We are obliged to follow the will of the people, even if you sincerely believe they were conned because we really wanted a different system to the one we agreed to put on the ballot. That’s democracy, win or lose. Besides which, every voting system has its democratic deficits.

  • Alex Macfie 14th Jun '16 - 8:21am

    Whatever effect SNP non-participation in the HoL has had on the party, it has had NO effect on the HoL, and that is the point. The HoL functions with or without the SNP. It would function equally well with or without the Lib Dems. Our boycotting the HoL would not move the HoL one inch closer to reform, but it would mean that the government and other anti-reform people in the HoL would always have their way there. This is what makes it a futile gesture. An action should be measured by whether it would make a material difference. Sometimes boycotts do that (e.g. Apartheid South Africa, because boycotts had an economic effect), but it would not here, or the SNP’s gesture would have got us reform of the HoL.

    Sinn Féin refuse to take up their seats in the HoC (although they do contest elections there), and are also popular. This does not mean that we should imagine it is a sensible course of action — the HoC functions with or without Sinn Féin MPs, so again all it is doing is flag-waving and posturing.

    The AV referendum was 5 years ago. The Lib Dems and their predecessor parties were contesting elections under FPTP, while at the same time calling for a change to the system, ever since the early 20th century when electoral reform became party policy. We cannot say that this was respecting the will of the people because public opinion had not been tested. The outcome of the referendum, or even whether there was one, is simply irrelevant. We contest elections under a system we don’t like because it is the system, whether we or the electorate like it or not, and the best way to change the system is to work within it.

  • Richard Underhill 7th Jan '17 - 6:07pm

    Stevan Rose “the public think they had a referendum and picked FPTP by overwhelming democratic majority”. No, it was a small majority of those who were allowed to vote. The current UK government is legislating to widen the franchise for UK citizens living abroad. PM David Cameron MP signed an agreement allowing 16 year old British citizens to vote in the 2014 referendum but he did not allow the same for the 2016 referendum.
    Cypriots and Maltese could vote in the 2016 referendum but Italians, French, Spanish, Portuguese etcetera who had legally committed their lives to the UK were not allowed to vote and told us so.
    The Lords Speaker Norman Fowler reports on 6/1/2017 that “… there does need to be some special justification for the 65 Peers who in the last Parliamentary session have appeared less than 10 per cent of the time.” “There would be … little point in reducing the present number of peers but then appointing the same number as replacements.”
    An obvious option is to be repeat the process of election that was used for the reduction in the number of life peers but apply it to all peers. Please do not say that turkeys will not vote for Christmas, there are several precedents the other way.

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