Lord Paul Tyler writes…Votes at 16: Labour flunks it again

As soon as it was known that 16 and 17 year old would have a say in the referendum on Scottish independence, I tabled a Bill in the Lords for a comprehensive change in the franchise. I have long believed that there is a strong case for lowering the voting age, in light of the maturity and political awareness of this group, and the many, much rehearsed adult responsibilities they take on. There is a pragmatic argument too, which is simply that creating a seamless link for as many young people as possible between citizenship education in schools, electoral registration in the classroom, and then actual participation at the ballot box, is likely to instil the habit of voting throughout later life.

With the advent of the EU Referendum Bill, I thought that even those who had reservations would surely accept that 16 and 17 year olds who had so successfully been given a say in the 2014 Scottish referendum could not be excluded from the franchise in a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.  Labour told us that they agreed.

Our campaign then started out quite well.  With cross-party support for the principle at Committee Stage (when the Lords rarely votes), and then a thumping majority of 82 for the amendment at Report Stage, we were set-fair to force a government rethink. Or so you would think.

The Conservative Whips – inevitably – worked hard to overturn our amendment in the Commons, chivvying Tory MPs through the lobby. Yet they were aided by 42 Labour MPs who either abstained or went AWOL, assisting in a 50 vote defeat at that end.  Disappointed (to say the least), we asked if Labour Peers would stand firm with us in continuing to push for the democratic rights of our fellow citizens.  Would they be there in numbers to support their own policy of Votes at 16 when the matter came back to the Lords?

Labour said they would. And up the hill we all trooped on Monday, with 89% of Lib Dem Peers present and ready to defeat the government again. But where were our Labour companions on that march?  More than a third of them were absent or abstained.  Just as when they ruined the opportunity to stop the Government unilaterally striking two million people off the electoral register earlier this year, their approach seems to provide opposition right up to the point of ever making any difference.

The way in which Ministers scared the Lords into surrender was deplorable but predictable. They sabre-rattled that this essentially democratic, constitutional issue was actually one of ‘financial privilege’ for the Commons. As I said in my speech, when a whip is losing an argument on substance, he or she changes the subject. And yesterday it worked a treat.

This Government came to office worried that it might have to flood the Lords, or clip its wings, or both, since Labour and Lib Dem peers would outnumber Conservatives so substantially. Amid the recent hullabaloo over tax credits, Lord (Tom) Strathclyde was dispatched with the ‘urgent’ task of working out what should be done to give life to these threats.

Yet Tom needn’t waste his time, ink or breath while the Labour Party in the House of Lords is so supine. More concerned with preserving their own place in the rickety British constitution – or obsessed with their own civil war – the Government can rely on them to fade away whenever it really counts.

And so I am sad to report that 16 and 17 year olds will be left out of the biggest decision facing the country, and affecting their future, in a generation. We Lib Dems will continue the fight for their enfranchisement.  If you get the chance, remind any Labour politician you encounter, that it is they who flunked it – just as they have on so many other matters of constitutional reform. From the AV referendum, to Lords reform, to party funding, Labour has messed up every chance for real change.

Now – without Lib Dems in Government – Labour’s ineffectiveness means not just opportunities for progress missed, but opportunities to regressconceded. The chaotic shower of the resurrected Old Labour Party is giving the Conservatives a free rein to fiddle with electoral law in their own party interest, to retreat on Freedom of Information, to resuscitate the Snooper’s Charter, to turn somersaults on renewable energy, and to decimate social housing stock and to reduce support for low wage workers. And all with the endorsement of only ¼ of the eligible electorate.

With no effective Official Opposition, it is up to us to stop them getting away with it!

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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15 Comments

  • nigel hunter 15th Dec '15 - 10:01pm

    Labour are just s bad as the Tories when it comes to having power. Anything that rocks the boat of getting back into power, for the time being, is not on. This ‘ financial privilege’ sounds like they do as they are told. The British Constitution no longer fits todays world. For the Country to move on it needs to change, unfortunately those who wish to keep the status quo, like turkeys, will not vote for Christmas.. The contents of the last paragraph should be spread far and wide to wake the voters up.

  • So who’s telling the truth then :

    Here’s the BBC news website headline : EU referendum: Lords defeat Labour bid for votes at 16

    14 December 2015 From the section UK Politics

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Dec '15 - 8:49am

    Maybe on this issue it is understandable, but Lib Dems are still trying to overrule the Commons too much in the Lords. I think it is very dishonorable.

    It is personal for me. If Lib Dem Lords tried to block a policy with public support I would support physically stopping them from entering the doors of the House of Lords.

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Dec '15 - 9:02am

    In fact I’ll take my above comment back until the Commons vote on Lords reform, but it makes me angry when some Lords think they are as legitimate as the Commons.

    Apologies.

  • @Eddie Sammon Sorry, what does your second paragraph mean? I know they’re unelected and that isn’t ideal but are you saying that the actual job in the Lords is to be a decoration and ideally they should just take a snooze?

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Dec '15 - 9:18am

    Hi Ric, my understanding is that the supremacy of the Commons was established in 1911. The Lords job is to delay and revise, but not to ultimately block. Although if a policy does not have public support then I can understand blocking.

  • Jayne Mansfield 16th Dec '15 - 9:23am

    I am sorry but if the problem is one of a lack of effective opposition , surely the answer is to provide one having persuaded the electorate to vote for one’s arguments.

    Much as I agreed with the opposition to the tax reforms and my agreement that 16 and 17 year olds should get the vote, I find what I am learning about the House of Lords quite alarming.

    Whether one likes what they stand for or not, our MPs were voted into power by the electorate and the electorate can vote them out, which is more than can be said the members of the House of Lords.

  • Agree with Jayne and Eddie.

    The sudden enthusiasm many in the party suddenly have for this archaic beacon of anti-democratic patronage is alarming.

  • I’ve learnt over the years that nothing is as simple as it appears initially. For instance many Lub Dems were absent for the Lords Lib Dem vote on tax credits. There must an explanation for it. But if some Labour Lords genuinely believe that giving 16year olds the vote is a bad idea then they must vote against. They cannot oppose for oppositions sake surely.

  • I have always found that from a legislative standpoint the amendments and consideration of the Lords to be beneficial as populist knee jerk responses often make poor legislation yet are often passed by the Commons because they wish to be seen to be doing something.

  • I agree with Jayne and Eddie – to a point. What better way to get the abolition of the Lords and its replacement by a proper, democratic house, than to keep voting down measures proposed by the Tories in the Commons? Cameron’s two alternatives are to do that, or to stuff it with Tories to enlarge it further and protect his majority – hardly democratic. And if, in the process, some of the Tories’ policies that only around 1/3 of the population voted for don’t get passed, then is that really a big deal?

  • One of the things that I find jars is the way the House of Lords is used to provide an extra form of rest of life retirement income for ex MP’s many of whom have been rejected by the electorate. Just like the champagne corks from the Titanic…… they always seem to bob up again on the surface.

    If their Lordships are getting a pretty handsome pension as an ex MP I would set that against any income they get from attending the H.O.L.

    It’s an interesting contrast with the poor so and so’s at Sports Direct who don’t even get the minimum wage. No wonder folk are cynical. An elected Senate surely has to be part of the next manifesto……. and who knows…. getting rid of the inheritance system in the monarchy may be more apposite in 2020 than it is now.

  • , Phyllis 16th Dec ’15 – 10:21am…………….I’ve learnt over the years that nothing is as simple as it appears initially………

    On LDV, it is, Phyllis…If you can stick an anti-Labour label onto an article; no problem…As David Law pointed out it was a Labour bill that was defeated…Never mind we’ll still write a headline to bash Labour…

    I watched BBC’s Daily Politics yesterday and listened to Chris Mullin and Vince Cable discuss the possibility of an anti-Tory political pact…Both participants spoke seriously about finding ‘common ground’ to defeat Tory policies…Both spoke against ‘tribal restrictions’ preventing agreements…Coverage on LDV…zero..

    We seem to have forgotten that there is an extreme right wing Tory government hell bent on destroying “liberal Britain”…As someone on the left of LibDem policies I wonder why I bother…

  • We Lib Dems will continue the fight for their enfranchisement.

    There’s no need to fight; they will all be franchised automatically within two years anyway.

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