LibLink: Stephen Williams – Where now for Lords reform

Over on his blog, Stephen Williams, Lib Dem MP for Bristol West, has penned his thought’s on Tuesday’s Lords reform result. Here’s a sample:

First the positive bit.  A vote of 462 – 124 in favour of a Bill that has a second chamber predominately elected by a proportional voting system is a major step forward.  This confirms the fact that there is a substantial majority of MPs who favour radical House of Lords reform.

But…the Bill may now be tripped up by petty party political games in the Commons.  The Bill will get nowhere without a timetable for consideration of 60 clauses and 11 schedules.  Rebel backbench Tory MPs colluded with opposition MPs to say that the Bill needed more than the ten days proposed by the government.  But apart from lone Green MP Caroline Lucas, who suggested thirteen days was enough,  none of  them said how long they wanted.  The truth of course, is that opponents really want the Bill to get stuck in the mud of endless filibustering and procedural devices to drag out consideration until the government gets fed up and withdraws the Bill.

The debate over the last couple of  days has shown two things.  First, a large number of Tory MPs oppose an elected second chamber. Some of them say they are in favour of a tidying up exercise, allowing “life” peers to retire.  But their heart is not really in it.  Despite their sabotage of a clear commitment in the Coalition Agreement I am not that angry with Tory coalition colleagues.  The Conservative Party has a long and dishonourable tradition of opposing constitutional reform.  But that’s what the Tory party is for – opposing change.  From 1688 to 2012 it is quite hard for even a constitutional nerd like me to to think of any reform positively supported by Tories.  Only the 1867 Reform Act, giving the vote to male urban heads of household, was promoted by a Tory PM, the politically mercurial Disraeli.  Their opposition to reform earlier in the century caused riots in Bristol in 1831.  They opposed further extensions of the male franchise in 1884 and were the most vociferous enemies of the Suffragettes. The in built Conservative majority in the House of Lords was used to obstruct all sorts of social reform, leading to the Liberal government of Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill to pass the 1911 Parliament Act, curtailing their Lordships’ power to delay legislation.  In the intervening century it was indeed MacMillan’s government that introduced Life Peers to sit with the dukes and barons. But this reform has not stood the test of time.

But all reformers should be really fed up with Labour.  The Blair government made significant progress on constitutional reform.  Power has been devolved to Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London.  PR, albeit the least radical version, was introduced in these devolved assemblies and  for the European Parliament.  But they botched Lords reform in 1999, abolishing the right of many but not all, hereditary peers to sit in the Lords.  In 2007 the Commons voted for a fully elected second chamber but the Brown government left the issue to rot. For Labour, Lords reform should be seen as unfinished business.

You can read Stephen’s full piece – including why he thinks there’s room for some cautious optimism – over on his blog.

* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.

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29 Comments

  • You missed out the interesting bit..

    “Some pro reform Labour MPs that I have spoken to say that their price is a referendum. I’m not afraid of a referendum – the case for an elected second chamber is much easier to make than the case for AV in the Commons. But if they want a referendum, we need to be clear that they are going to throw their weight behind a Yes campaign.”

    This is the first Lib Dem MP I have seen offering the olive branch of a referendum. If this had only been offered by the leadership rather than the route Laws took on Newsnight of it being definitely off the table..

  • ………………..You missed out the interesting bit……………..

    I wonder why?

  • @Steve Way . Do you honestly think the public would back what will be presented as Nick Clegg’s Lords reform plans? The pro ‘yes’ Tory side would be invisible, as would the Labour pro ‘yes’ side – though with Labour it’d be more through fear of being associated with potential failure .

    Add to this, the fact that you’d probably have the likes of Lord Ashcroft funding the ‘no’ side and the tabloid press making it a referendum on Clegg.

    It’d be another disaster like AV , we’d end up lumbered with the status quo for all the wrong reasons.

  • Tony Greaves 12th Jul '12 - 7:41pm

    I don’t like referendums full stop. But there is no doubt that if this Bill manages to get debated in detail the Commons, that House will vote for a refendum, When that happens there will be no turning back (the Lords will vote for a referendum whether or not the Commons does so).

    So the harsh truth is this. If we want this Bill we must accept a referendum. The politics behind it bneeds to shift to recognise this fact.

    Tony Greaves

  • I think the real problem with a referendum is that the proposals themselves are so deeply flawed. Just as with AV, it would be a choice between the status quo and a miserable compromise that is only too easy to pick holes in, and that no one is particularly enthusiastic about.

    Maybe the best thing to do is accept a pretty big humiliation now in order to avoid a monstrous one later on.

  • If those of us who want change cannot get the public to back it then the change itself would be undemocratic.

    Have a bit of faith in people. AV wasn’t just lost because of Lib Dem popularity but because it was a flawed system that was not seen as an improvement…

  • ……………………..Isn’t it rather hypocritical of Labour MPs to talk about a referendum now when they were strangely silent on that in relation to the 1999 House of Lord reforms?………..

    Shock, horror; a party that has changed a policy from 13 years ago. Thank goodness we haven’t changed any policies.

  • Agree with Tony, but we should welcome a referendum. Rory Stewart, Tory MP, has some bat-shit reasons for opposing reform, but his basic contention that constitutional reform should always require a referendum, is true.

    Oh, and we should remind Cameron that Boundary Changes should probably have a referendum too.

  • @Simon Shaw
    Yep this is probably hypocritical of Labour but has never been my point. It will only be a wrecking tactic if it is allowed to be one. They can point to their manifesto and say they are being consistent.

    The question is do you really feel that the British Public cannot be convinced to back Lords reform ?

    If the answer to that is yes then talk of having a mandate because of the three main manifesto’s will begin to sound very hollow. After all did voters really have a choice ??

    Clegg has argued about the cost of one, in the big scheme of these changes I think that is a poor argument. We shouldn’t be afraid of paying for democracy and as I would say most Lib Dems would agree to an element of public funding for political parties this argument holds very little water.

    The main point is the one I have said repeatedly on this issue, call their bluff put the pressure on them. Give them the referendum but tie them down to their role in it, and their agreement to utilise their Party resources. If they fail to either taker the bait or deliver they will be wide open to political attack, if they deliver they will have helped secure a real and tangible legacy for the yellow side of the coalition. I would prefer the latter but see the former as better than relying on the “new” Cameron proposals.

  • Charles Beaumont 12th Jul '12 - 9:50pm

    Very simple to have a referendum on both HoL and boundaries. And given that the public is likely to vote for fewer MPs it seem fair that might add to the votes for HoL reform. I think the arguments against (already in manifesto, cost) aren’t good enough: plenty of LDs argue that there’s a 70% support for reform and then in the next breath say they don’t want a referendum. And we say that the cost of the house is a fair price to pay for a better system. Well then, why not pay a fair price to get a better system?

  • The problem is that while many people don’t like the hodge-podge House of Lords as it stands, it’s very hard to find a majority in favour of any particular solution. Yes, most people would say the Lords should be 100% elected, but how would it be elected, for what terms, should there be term limits. If the Second Chamber is elected should they have the same rights as the current House of Lords or should it have stronger powers to go along with their greater democratic legitimacy? Should our model instead be towards the Bundesrat with local councils having legislative power? What about the Bishops, if 24 Bishops is too many why is 12 the right amount? Should we not ditch the idea of a Second Chamber completely, other countries cope without one. Should we not sort out the House of Lords when we finally give Britain a proper modern constitution? There are hundreds of very reasonable questions that Members of Parliament could have about reforming the House of Lords.

    Before anyone else blames Labour, answer why the Tories and Lib Dems didn’t include Labour in the discussions over what a Second Chamber would look like?

  • @Steve Way

    “AV wasn’t just lost because of Lib Dem popularity but because it was a flawed system that was not seen as an improvement”

    That is rubbish. In the few places where there was a proper AV campaign which managed to get the issues debated locally, where there were no anti-Lib Dem anti-Clegg local election campaigns going on in parallel, the AV campaign was very successful. In 2011 the vast majority of the AV ‘campaign'(sic) was entirely a proxy attack on the Lib Dems and a poor attempt at rebuttal. In fact, I do not recall seeing any proper argument about he issues being presented by either ‘side’ in the ‘debate'(sic). By ‘sides’, of course, I mean the trades-union-funded Tory campaign versus the Lib Dems and a few others.

  • Simon Bamonte 13th Jul '12 - 1:07am

    I’m in almost complete agreement with @Steve Way. If the price to pay for working with Labour and getting these reforms through is a referendum, then we must take it. Like @Tony Greaves (one of the few LD Lords I still hold a deep respect for), I’m not a fan of referenda either, but there are few arguments to be made against putting major constitutional change such as this to the public. Those who say we should not agree to a referendum because they are certain we will lose are bordering on contempt for the public, IMO. However, if a deal is to be made with Labour, we must get bloody good assurances that they commit fully to backing a possible yes campaign, not half-heartedly as they did with the AV vote. Let’s call their bluff and work with them to get this through, while holding them to the letter of the agreement. For all their broken promises and faults, Labour have done far more to reform the Lords throughout their history than the Tories ever have or ever will.

    Who knows, this could actually lead to better relations between our two parties. And god knows we’re going to need them if those of us on the centre-left want to do all we can to keep the Tories out of power come 2015.

  • Its perfectly possible for there to be 70% support for a policy and for a referendum on that policy to be lost, if the media and the political opponents turn it into a vote on Clegg or if too many of that 70% turn out to be more interested in coalition-kicking than in delivering these reforms.

    Of course given the woeful indiscipline and lack of leadership in the Conservative Party this referendum compromise may well be the last chance for us to even attempt delivering this. Looks like we’ll have till autumn to find out, but certainly we shouldn’t be closing the door to this. To do so would be to place entirely too much faith in Cameron’s negotiation and leadership abilities. Or, perhaps more fairly on him, too much faith in the willingness of the Tory right to be negotiated with and led by anybody.

  • Richard Shaw 13th Jul '12 - 7:58am

    I would like to quote Peter Facey, Director of Unlock Democracy, when he spoke a recent event in Sheffield on devolving more powers to local authorities:

    “I like referendums but I want them to be used positively, not negatively. Currently politicians only call referendums when they cannot bring themselves to agree on a course of action, picking and choosing which issues need referendums to suit themselves. Referendums should be used positively with the people having the power to call referendums. provided enough of them want one.”

    I back a referendum for Lords reform, once the legislation has been passed and only if 5% or more of the population demand one within a limited time. A “citizens’ veto” as UD put it.

  • @Simon Bamonte
    “I’m in almost complete agreement with @Steve Way. If the price to pay for working with Labour and getting these reforms through is a referendum, then we must take it.”

    This talk of a referendum is utterly, completely and totally barking mad. It is a recipe for a final political suicide on the part of the Liberal Democrats.

    There is no prospect WHATEVER of there being a fair debate leading to a victory in a referendum. What is more, the cost alone would turn people against us.

    This is insane. How can we even contemplate making such a concession to Labour and think we wont end up with an exact re-run of the AV vote?

  • What is more, if we let this through, we will be compelled to offer the Tories their boundary changes.

    We need to stick to a very clear, rigid line on this one: the whole package – Lords reform plus boundary changes – or nothing at all.

  • RC13th Jul ’12 – 8:14am…………………………This is insane. How can we even contemplate making such a concession to Labour and think we wont end up with an exact re-run of the AV vote………………..

    Short memories! It really wasn’t Labour who stuffed us over the AV fiasco ( it’s true they were split) it was our coalition ‘partners’ who not only campaigned against us but ‘got personal’.

    That episode hasn’t stopped us compromising, with them, on just about every belief I thought we had (NHS, Disability, Welfare, abstaining on Hunt, etc.). However, the mere thought of any compromise with Labour is viewed as absolute heresy.
    Those who complain about the possibility of Labour ‘shafting’ us seem more interested in ”shafting’ Labour than getting just one of our primary policies through. Oh, I forgot, we have already won 70% (or is it 40%,20%) of our manifesto; aren’t we doing well.

  • “We need to stick to a very clear, rigid line on this one: the whole package – Lords reform plus boundary changes – or nothing at all.”

    I think people really do need to wake up to the reality of the situation. The Tories have actually observed the letter (if not the spirit) of what was in the coalition agreement. If there is a fault there, it lies with your negotiators for not insisting on a commitment to legislate, and accepting one just to set up a committee.

    But above all, the Lib Dems are not in a position to insist on anything. Bringing down the government over this issue after supporting so many unpopular measures that people do care about would be the supreme act of political madness.

  • The problem is that negotiation is an art most politicians have lost. Like sheep most follow the whip until an issue is sufficiently against their views to ‘rebel’. The executive, as it did with Blair / Brown pretty much gets its way most of the time. There are grumblings but rarely real issues. There is far too much, my way or the highway, in both houses and the Lib Dems were meant to be the party that abhorred this and would deliver a new politics.

    Couple this with the fact too many politicians have never really been effective in other walks of life, and certainly few seem to have grasped the realities that most of us in business face each day. Every day businesses negotiate, be it about cost, KPI’s, delivery mechanisms etc etc. The thing is we rarely get are best option, or if we do we have to give in another area. The best deals are always those where everyone feels they have got something out of the negotiations, or at least can portray the outcome as such. If we restrict who we negotiate with we achieve little. I have reciprocal deals with several of my main rivals it’s how the world works. And that is the key, we cannot just negotiate with our friends (especially temporary ones).

    An astute businessman would not have laid the cards on the table Clegg did unless they were confident of success. Make no mistake he was humiliated by withdrawing the motion when he did and has lost some of his position of strength. Make no mistake Cameron will not be too sorry to see Clegg in a weaker position.

    An astute businessmen would have seen the problem coming and tried to win over those on the other side, but only those there was a a chance of winning over. An astute businessman would have kept his options open. Prior to the vote he offered Labour the chance to debate a referendum, but said he would be voting against it, not exactly offering Millibland anything to sell his back bench. Khan accused the coalition of walking away from cross party talks (something Laws did not refute) if so I would say that was a tactical error. Laws went on to say a referendum would never be on offer, not a great start to bringing more Labour MP’s onside.

    One of the biggest errors was over Hunt. The line taken upset the Tory right (in their mind giving them the green light to rebel over HOL) and Labour, who for once held the moral high ground. Either a vote with the Tories would have given Cameron a helping hand delivering his right, or a vote with Labour would have shown good will. Foster’s performance, basically saying voting with the party of Iraq was not an option would have hardened views of those on Labours benches who feel voting with the coalition was not an option. The same people he wanted support from a couple of weeks later. Was that a well advised an thought out approach ???

    But the biggest mistake by far was to threaten boundary changes if the vote failed. Now Labour have a quandary, vote for something they like or see the downfall of something they loathe. They have been handed a win win situation with the latter option also causing huge strain in the coalition when they lead in the polls. For some MP’s this is no a chance to see their job survive. This is true of Tory rebels as well. My own MP has been a critic of boundary changes and pretty silent on HOL reforms, he joined the rebels. This threat should have been for Camerons ears only.

    Basically, this appears to me to have been a complete tactical mess where Clegg has forgotten that first rule of business negotiations, keep in mind the acceptable outcome. Most of us on this site want 100% elected HOL, but would accept the 80% on offer. Most of want the Bishops removed (at least in my case I want their voting rights removed). Clegg favours 15 year terms, Labour are making noises at less, I think we would accept that.

    All of this points towards the need for advance planning and talking to the ‘enemy’. As Lib Dems are in coalition with Satan does doing the odd deal with Beelzebub have to be such a non starter.

    The nearest I saw to trying to woo, as opposed to insult, Labour was from Charles Kennedy. The trouble was he had platitudes not tangible compromise to offer and it got nowhere.

    I want HOL reform and it would have been great had it been able to have been delivered without the need to negotiate, but that is not an option. It appears to me the only way anything worth having can be gained is through meaningful negotiation with Labour. They will try to gain as much as they can from this, but they will also know they will stand to lose if the public see a decent offer was made and then refused.

    The final thing to remember is that the Bill needs to be in a good shape in the commons if the Parliament Act is needed….

  • Robert Hutchison 13th Jul '12 - 11:41am

    We need Lords reform. In my view, we need a smaller upper House and a majority of peers to be elected, with the remainder appointed by an Independent Commission for their expertise. Periods of office should be considerably less than 15 years in the first instance.
    Not keen on a referendums – though Lib Dems should agree to one if that is the price of reform.
    The Lib Dems, Labour and Green Parties are all seriously inadequate in so many obvious ways. They need to work together more. Now is the time to get that discussion, collaboration and negotiation going. And Lib Dems shouldn’t expect support from the Labour Party on Lords reform – or anything else – if we patronise the Labour Party leaderhsip or members or resort to childish confrontation. We need to get beyond Teletubby politics and recognise that there are many important issues that cry out for urgent constructive collaboration between political parties of the left. Clearly the next few months will be a key test for the Party’s political positioning, negotiating skills and fundamental values.

  • The interesting point about this situation is that both the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats had a commitment to reform of the House of Lords in their manifestos – indeed both expressed a commitment to an elected House of Lords. It is ironic therefore that the issue that is causing the greatest tension between the coalition partners so far is one where, on the basis of official policy, both parties share common ground. The explanation is that at the root of this tension is not a clash between the coalition partners, but the fact that a sizeable number of Conservative back benchers disagree with their own Party policy. It is therefore for the Conservative Party to sort this out, but someting must be delivered. Perhaps Liberal Democrats will have to accept something that falls short of expectations, but reform of some kind must be underway by the next election otherwise the coalition agreement is indeed broken. If it is broken, the coalition is still likely to continue but backbench discipline will be seriously undermined.

    As peacetime coalition is unprecendented for around 80 years, we are learning all the time how to navigate challenges and problems and of course set precedents for the future in the process. So far the coalition has effectively navigated the obvious problems and disagrements that arise between the parties, essentially by having healthly debate (often public) and then supporting the agreed line. How a coalition deals with an internal revolt in one of the parties that has wider implications for the whole government is a new situation and it will be interesting to see what the final outcome is. My guess is a compromise solution will be found because of the wider potential for indiscipline on other issues.

    The greatest prize for the Liberal Democrats is to prove that coalition Government can work, and the fact that the first coalition for many years contains the least obvious partners but has got through already indicates the most important constitutional legacy this Government is likely to leave.

  • Quote :”If we are to fundamentally change the way we are to be governed, liberals should not oppose a referendum on the proposal..

    If the proposal is democratically defeated, then try again, finding ways to make it more attractive to the majority of voters..”

    You don’t get another shot though, that’s the problem . These referendums cost so much to stage the cost itself becomes a big issue . And critics could portray it as asking the same question again anyway. Everyone would support an intelligent , truly open minded debate then referendum where arguments and options were aired and debated on their merits . Unfortunately we know Britain isn’t like that , adversarial politics and a hugely bias press make referendums wholly shambolic affairs . AV went from a majority in favour to a vast majority against , do you really think this was because all those voting weighed up the pros and cons objectively? Or because the tabloids ran stories about worst case scenarios and how , in their words “Clegg wants to ruin Britain”?

    So if a referendum is held it’ll be lost and it could take a generation to have another shot , This despite the fact that all things being equal, the public would be overwhelmingly favour an elected second chamber.

    To anyone who doubts this , what’s the chances of another referendum on the voting system ? Remember the,’ no to AV , Yes to PR’ group? where are they now? The ham -fisted AV referendum was, subject to misrepresentation , personalisation was it not? What makes anyone believe that HoL reform wouldn’t be the same boat? The press would be briefed that the leaderships of both big parties are privately against and Nick Clegg would be left fronting the ‘yes’ side on another mission impossible .

  • “AV went from a majority in favour to a vast majority against , do you really think this was because all those voting weighed up the pros and cons objectively?”

    It was because the ‘Yes’ side lost the argument – and fundamentally because what was on offer was a pretty poor compromise that no one was particularly happy with. Endless attempts to blame everyone else really aren’t very edifying.

    Having said that, there are obvious similarities between AV and the pretty poor compromise that is on offer now. Probably best just to forget about it now.

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