Lord McNally writes… Conscience and reform

Shirley Williams has recently been made Peer of the Year in one of the regular Parliamentary Awards. Eric Avebury was recently given a life time achievement award at a ceremony in the Speaker’s House. Matthew Oakeshott received praise for his persistence in pointing out that there is much in our banking system which is rotten and in need of reform. When issues affecting children are debated in the Lords it is often Joan Walmsley who holds the House with informed and practical opinion. Ditto when Margaret Sharp speaks on science, technology and higher education. Sally Hamwee and Martin Thomas head a legal team of such talent and expertise that, as I constantly advise the House, if we had to pay them, we couldn’t afford them. Space alone prevents me from filling this column with other examples of the dedication, hard work and commitment of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.

Why am I telling you all this? The reason is simple. All my political life I have believed in reform of the House of Lords. Every SDP, Alliance and Liberal Democrat manifesto and policy statement dealing with the matter since 1983 has promised reform to introduce a democratically elected element into the Lords. Few people would deny that, for the Liberal Democrats, it is unfinished business from the 1911 Act.

We know who we are and what we fight for. That is why we do not need, in the battle ahead, to cast doubts and aspersions about the abilities and dedication of those who work in the House of Lords. Of course it is an absurdity to have a House numbering almost eight hundred and fifty, some of whom definitely do not pull their weight. But it devalues the argument for reform to ignore the skill, talent and dedication of those who take their membership seriously.

As Paddy Ashdown has so powerfully argued, it is not what they do; but how they are chosen which sticks in the craw of a twenty-first century democrat. The people who make the laws should be sent to Parliament by those who have to obey the laws. The reformed House of Lords will, as now, be a revisory and advisory house. The existing conventions are strong enough to protect the supremacy of the House of Commons and reform will strengthen the role of the Upper House with a better spread of age, region and gender balance. So I ask colleagues in the wider party not to be churlish about the contribution that has been made by Peers of all parties.

But I also make a plea of equal strength to those colleagues expressing doubts about the Bill now before Parliament. It cannot have come as a surprise to anyone that the Liberal Democrats have Lords Reform deep in their DNA. No Party Conference, no manifesto has, or ever would, endorse a wholly nominated House as the answer to Lords reform. The Party has very few sanctions to demand discipline in the House of Lords. The way successive Chief Whips and Leaders have carried out their duties has always included a certain latitude in the exercise of deeply held personal convictions. However those of us who have accepted nomination to the Lords as Liberal Democrats must always temper our own policy preference with a willingness to respect so important a tenet of the Party’s beliefs. I have taken pride in the fact that, unlike my Labour and Conservative counterparts, I have always been able to lead the overwhelming majority of Liberal Democrat Peers into the Content lobby with me when the matter has come before the House. That unity of purpose has been our strength in times past. It will be our strength in the year ahead as we redeem a hundred year old promise.

* Tom McNally is Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and a Minister of State for Justice

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  • Shirley Williams has been rewarded for her support of the Tories’ NHS privatisation. A pity; I remember Shirley Williams MP, long before she became a Comservative.

  • Doktorb
    I remember Shirley Williams MP (for Stevenage as I recall); back then she would not have touched the NHS bill with a barge pole, she certainly would not have voted for something whilst claiming “not to like it one bit”. How 45 years can change a person!

  • Doktorb7th Jul ’12 – 5:48am……………..What gets me right in the heart is the behaviour of the Labour Party in all this…………

    And what gets ME is the behavior of our MPs since joining the ‘coalition’. NHS, Disability, Welfare, etc. not just voted for, but enthusiastically defended in the media (the fuel duty fiasco was the first time Alexander’s face was missing). In addition ,abstensions over Hunt (where any morality we, as a party, had left was lost) and the latest vote on a banking enquiry…and you criticise Labour?

    Our leadership have become almost indistinguishable from their Tory masters and now, when a few dozen on the Tory right rebel, putting our pet project in doubt, it’s, ” Why won’t Labour pull our irons from the fire?”

  • John Roffey 7th Jul '12 - 10:44am

    Seems as if Cameron is conspiring with his [mostly] backbenchers to ensure the bill does not get through.


  • John Roffey

    I saw this as well, and the issue Clegg has is that it is not the ‘usual suspects’ leading this rebellion.

    I think one of the other problems is the Labour Party are not particulalry well-disposed to the LD at the moment and will not be looking to make life easy for them. Labour are calling for the referendum (as recommended by the House committee) and there is some logic to this based on all the other constitutional reforms (mayors, devolution, AV etc) – and this is one of the more significant changes.

    If the Government loses the programme motion then I think it will be testament to poor tactics by Clegg. Labour will keep calling for a referendum anyway and I think it is more likely than not, that the bill will amended thus – Cameron is not against and could use it as a sop to his backbenches. In this case then offereing a referendum now will get Labour to back the motion and a HoL bill will get passed

    Labour’s tactics would bet on them being in a no lose situation for them

    i. Not many lost votes if the bill falls
    ii. They can claim that without a referendum they will not be subject to a Government-imposed timetable. Underhand certainly but not without some merit
    iii. If the programme motion fails then the focus will be on the Coalition anyway
    iv. If the programme motion passes they will get HoL reform, which they generally support, and probably a bill that requires a referendum anyway
    v. Added to that iare the problems for Cameron in getting the bill passed without the support of a lot of his backbenches

  • The word referendum is mentioned several times in this thread. It is strange how such tools of democracy are only allowed, if ‘feral voters’ can be assured of getting the ‘right answer’
    In truth, this is actually where our democracy is going.
    Don’t just read the article. Read the 500+ comments to get a feel of where people (voters), think our democracy is going.

  • David Laws was on Radio 5 yesterday saying that Tory MP’s should back the reforms because the coalition agreement said that a committee would be formed and make recommendations. He went on to say that the recommendations were reasonable and that there is no reason to object further. Shame he missed the bit where the committee recommended a referendum and that Clegg is refusing this . I just fail to see why this is not offered to get Labour onside unless the Telegraph is right and the plan is now to stop the boundary changes. Either way Millibland must be a happy boy and Clegg is playing high risk games.

  • Baroness Williams’ change of heart on the NHS bill (from opposition to support) was, in my opinion, pivotal in getting the bill into law. That fact is something that the LidDems or Lady Williams should not be proud of. I fear the party will pay a huge electoral price for this. The evidence shows that the electorate blames the LibDems as much if. If not more than the Tories for the NHS bill. Self-inflicted destruction.

  • John Dunn

    I am not sure of the point you are making?

    Referenda have been used in consitutional reform for a long time.

    I am not a great fan of them but I do not understand why electoral voting reform and mayors are subject to them when a HoL reform is not.

    I made the point that it is unavaoidable that there will be a referendum amendment passed and Clegg should say this now in order to put the ball back in Labour’s court.


    This consitutional academic makes the argument why better than I can

  • Also

    This is a good link on why boundary changes as proposed are not such a great idea. I think one of the issues is that the limit on seats m,eans that any changes cannot easily be absorbed without creating havoc nationwide. Credit to Mr Wells at UKPR for putting this on his site


  • John Dunn
    “I am not sure of the point you are making?”
    If you read the Guardian article I linked, and the comments that follow it, you will very much get the point that DEMOCRACY IS DEAD!
    And self serving politicians are seen as the blockage to getting it back.

  • The boundary changes are not a good idea, but looking back at the archive of this site will show that not many agreed with me when I was stating this. At the time everyone thought they would win the AV vote and that this would be an acceptable price to pay.

  • Re: my last post, here is a thread with Chris Rennard defending the changes. I think the Lib Dms were suckered by the Tories but it would be hypocrisy to change their minds now (but hypocrisy I would like to see).


  • For those who are too busy to read what the people think of democracy, I give you a flavour of the more popular views.

    Democracy is nothing more than the right to periodically choose your dictators
    1)MP’s expenses scandal.
    2)Murdoch’s deep links with both the NuLabour and Conservatives.
    3)Widespread tax evasion by the wealthiest.
    4)The Banking Scandal.
    5)The illegal Iraq war/invasion.
    These are just some of the things that have come out into the open. Not to mention the widespread devaluation of our education system.
    The ordinary tax payers have to pay for all it.
    Is anyone surprised that over democracy is dying/dead?
    As all the candidates are effectively the same s**t in different coloured wrappers, what progress would compulsory voting bring?
    I have two ideas which will help to re-empower the Public overnight:
    1) A proper “right to recall” of all MPs, including Government ministers. If MPs deceive, like Clegg did over tuition fees, they can be held to account by their own electorate.
    2) The abolition of Parliamentary Whipping . Every vote in the HoC would become a “free vote” – MPs are in Parliament to represent their electorate, not their Party’s interests.
    LibDem voters were voting for a party to the left of Labour, and their votes ended up putting a hard right party into power.
    Democracy died a long time ago in this country. Mps don’t represent the people anymore. They represent “Vested interests”. They promise you the world in the run up to an election. As soon as their feet hit the mat in Downing Street they forget everything and work to the plan of the “Vested Interests”.
    As someone said, MPS should be banned from working for a company their decisions have helped while in government for at least 10 years. MPS shouldn’t also be working in other jobs while they are representing the people.

  • John Dunn

    I am in fairly broad agreement with you

  • @Doktorb
    Labour have always been against boundary changes, and it would not be ganging up with the Tories to defeat them they are a Tory policy..

    As for AV, Labour were split on this with Millibland campaigning for. The stupidity of the referendum was that it was held in a period when Lib Dem stock was very low, Clegg was seen as untrustworthy because of Tuition fees and the might of the Tory machine was mobilised against them. Blame Labour all you want, but Lib Dems are sitting in government with the people who scuppers it, some of whom ensured Clegg had the worst possible publicity during the campaign.

    On Lords reform, all that needs to happen to bring the majority of Labour in line is a referendum, they campaigned on this basis and the committee established to look into the matter recommended one. It makes me question whether the Telegraph leader that Clegg sees Lords reform as an acceptable casualty to avoid boundary changes is in fact correct….

  • “LibDem voters were voting for a party to the left of Labour, and their votes ended up putting a hard right party into power.”
    This is precisely what happened in 2010,; the reasons for it happening are many and can be argued over. The way in which the intentions of the electorate were grotesquely distorted was the worst example of ‘anti-democracy’ in my (long) life. Is it surprising that people have lost faith in our “democracy”?

  • Leekliberal 7th Jul '12 - 3:50pm

    The problem with referendums is that the electors often answer a question they have not been asked! How can Labour justify the large cost for a referendum on an issue where all 3 major parties had HOL reform in their manifestos and where there is a consistently large majority of the public in favour of reform.

  • @Leekliberal
    Labour would justify it by pointing out that it was in fact in their manifesto. Also they would point to the fact that the committee established to investigate the matter recommended it.

    Part of the problem with the AV referendum was that brand Clegg was hugely toxic and the party managed to put Labours back up by linking the boundary changes with the referendum and refusing even the most obvious of compromises. I said at the time that doing so was a mistake as the alienation and enmity it caused was to the very people that were needed onside. The Tories were always going to make it hard but alienating those wavering Labour supporters was a huge tactical error, and won that it seems is being repeated.

    Of course the other problem was that AV was a miserable compromise that even those supporting it were hard pressed to get too enthused about….

  • Doktorb7th Jul ’12 – 12:55pm……………Labour are a disgrace. I would hate to be in a coalition with such an opportunistic shambles…………………..

    I note you choose to ignore all my points regarding our MP’s ‘opportunistic shambles’. In case you’ve missed it we have an agreement on Lords’ reform with theTory party, not Labour.
    As with the NHS, etc., it doesn’t matter what Labour does (as long as the coalition sticks together). Save your bile for those in partnership who refuse to honour their bit.

  • John. Dunn

    I totally agree.

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 7th Jul '12 - 8:30pm

    ““LibDem voters were voting for a party to the left of Labour, and their votes ended up putting a hard right party into power.”
    This is precisely what happened in 2010,; the reasons for it happening are many and can be argued over. The way in which the intentions of the electorate were grotesquely distorted was the worst example of ‘anti-democracy’ in my (long) life. Is it surprising that people have lost faith in our “democracy”?”

    Simplification, generalisation and false assumption all combined together. But it sounds so reassuringly plausible doesn’t it? Until you bother to think about it….

  • Paul Walter. I am afraid I don’t understand what you are attempting to say in your piece. I can say this; many people who voted in the GE of 2010 are very sick with the resulting “government”. No amount of exhortation for those voters to”think about it” will change that. Perhaps if the politicians elected in 2010 were to stick to their pre-election promises…….

  • Paul Walter
    Those many easy, comforting and confident pre-ection promises made by Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg right up to election day 2010 — now that is what I would describe as “reassuringly plausible”. (Mr Brown made similar promises but didn’t get his opportunity to act in direct contradiction of his promises, Insofar as he didn’t get power).

  • John Roffey 7th Jul '12 - 10:56pm

    @Paul Walker

    I agree with “This is precisely what happened in 2010,; the reasons for it happening are many and can be argued over. The way in which the intentions of the electorate were grotesquely distorted was the worst example of ‘anti-democracy’ in my (long) life. Is it surprising that people have lost faith in our “democracy”?”

    Unfortunately the Lib/Dems are as bad, if not worse, than the two main parties for being prepared to force policies on the electorate they do not want. I am afraid leading politicians have an agenda that it completely out of sync with what the people want. Leading politicians are acting in the interest of the banks, global corporations etc – not the people.

    The UK is crying out for a party that makes every effort to act in accordance with the will of the people. The Lib/Dems could fulfill that role and in so doing recover the popularity it has lost through acting as the Tory’s servants. This from today’s Guardian:


  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 8th Jul '12 - 8:06am

    DGN, OK just start with the phrase “Lib Dem voters were voting for a party to the left of Labour” – no they weren’t, they were voting for a Liberal party. This term “left” is non-sensical in the modern context.

  • Paul Walter – the idea that “left” is nonsensical in a modern context, is also a generalisation, and substantially untrue. Probably truer to say that in economic terms that the consensus – certainly in Britain – has moved to the right. However, we are at a pivotal time, with many of the assumptions on which this consensus is based rocking. I prefer to refer to the “new politics”, which the party definitely espoused. To me, and many others, this had more than a flavour of the left. If we say that the leadership were leading people up the garden path with talk of new politics, then what does this say?

    I think your comment has more than a flavour of denial. Is it too painful to admit the truth?

  • Paul Walter. Again I do not understand what point you are making; you seem to be blaming voter (several million?) for mid-reading the political direction of the Liberal democrats.

  • Voters at the next General Election will be much better informed as to the political direction and intentions of the LibDems, and I fear will vote accordingly!

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 8th Jul '12 - 4:51pm

    DGN. No I am not. I am just saying that every element of that block of comment I quoted earlier can be argued the other way. “Putting a hard right party into power”. No. There may be some Tory MPs who are hard right but the government could not be described as hard right in what it has done.

    “Intentions of the electorate grotesquely distorted” that’s extreme exaggeration, rendering it nonsense. It was a coalition arrangement based on the parliamentary maths which the voters produced.

    I don’t think people (beyond a core) have ‘lost faith in democracy’ – that’s just a lazy cliche. If “people” in large numbers had lost faith in democracy then we’d see anarchy or widespread rioting.

    “Anti-democracy”? Nonsense. We live in a parliamentary democracy. That means people elect a parliament and the parliament elects the government. That’s what happened.

  • Paul Walter tries to ‘bat away’ the deep structural unease, that people have, with the worth(lessness) of our illusory democracy and self serving politicians, with an unqualified statement :
    ‘Simplification, generalisation and false assumption all combined together.’
    Paul Walter continues :
    ‘If “people” in large numbers had lost faith in democracy then we’d see anarchy or widespread rioting.’
    Be patient Paul. August 2011 was just an aperitif.
    If you continue to drive the car, ignoring all red lights flashing on the dashboard, then you only have yourselves to blame when it blows.

  • patricia roche 8th Jul '12 - 7:05pm

    Paul I too agree with democracy, however the present coalition is a hybrid of different voter views. If the two parties go into the next election as a coalition, and the voters vote for this, then I bow to the will of the people. Do no forget, however, that this is not the case now. We shall see.

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 8th Jul '12 - 7:34pm

    Patricia, You fail to understand what a parliamentary democracy is. I don’t blame you, there seems to be a general misunderstanding of this. Under our constitution, such as it is, we vote for the person, not the party. The person who becomes an MP is the person we elect (he or she can change party after election and he or she remains in their seat until the next election unless they resign). The MPs then decide who is the government. That’s how it works. You don’t actually vote for a party to be the government. You vote for an MP who then makes the decision, with the other MPs, as to who the government is. Normally this doesn’t make much difference because one party often wins an overall majority. But this subtlety comes to the fore when there is no party with an overall majority.


    “…government is directly accountable to Parliament – not only on a day-to-day basis (through parliamentary questions and debates on policy) but also because it owes its existence to Parliament: the governing party is only in power because it holds a majority in the House of Commons, and at any time the government can be dismissed by the Commons through a vote of ‘no confidence’”

  • John Roffey 8th Jul '12 - 7:46pm

    @Paul Walter

    ‘The person who becomes an MP is the person we elect (he or she can change party after election and he or she remains in their seat until the next election unless they resign).’

    Now that politics has become a career – like no other time in the past, would you agree that the constituents should have the right to sack their MP on a 6 month or yearly basis – as is the case with the employers of similarly paid employees? The MP is, after all, paid from the taxes paid by the constituents, not by their party or party leader.

    Objectively, MPs have far too much discretion as mere employees!

  • patricia roche 8th Jul '12 - 9:40pm

    Paul thank you for that explanation. The thing is, I voted for a party, of whom the MP was represented, based on the manifesto. Does this mean that I should stop voting, as I cannot rely on the candidate to follow the manifesto? Pat

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 8th Jul '12 - 10:31pm

    @John Roffey – I agree with the need for the power of recall, certainly.

    Pat, no it doesn’t mean you should stop voting. It just means that sometimes the compromises involved in responding to the wishes of 27 million people are a little jarring.

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 8th Jul '12 - 10:34pm

    Tim13 I really don’t think you can define a liberal party as left or ring wing. We’re a liberal party.

  • Paul Walter. I am content to look forward to2015 and the voters’ verdict on our ‘democracy’, and the part played in government by the LibDems’ in that democracy. If you are correct and our democracy is working as it should and the LIbDems are judged by the voters (the only people that matter) to have contributed a worthwhile and popular role as a party of government, then can look forward to the voters rewarding the Liberal Democratics with a lot more parliamentary seats – that’s what contented voters do. If on the other hand the voters do not see things as you do, if they are not content with how our democracy worked in 2010–2015, if they judge the LIbDems to have not lived up to their pre-election promises, if the voters believe that the LibDems are an example of ‘saying one thing and doing another’, If……….. All I can say is that as things stand, in 2015, in my opinion the LIbDems will be lucky to get more than 10 seats, and I am an optimist and a realist.

  • Paul Walter, which of these two statement do you actually mean? “…..no they weren’t, they [Lib Dem voters] were voting for a Liberal party.”….Or …..” Under our constitution, such as it is, we vote for the person, not the party.” With due respect, these statements contradict each other. Either British voters vote for a political party, or they vote for an MP, (that is a person and not a political party).

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 9th Jul '12 - 3:36pm

    DGN. Well spotted. I meant they voted for candidates from a Liberal party.

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