Lords reform, Labour and the three key tests

Ed Miliband’s decision to insist on Labour backing House of Lords reform at the Second Reading vote in the House of Commons is an important and welcome one. That it was opposed by senior Labour figures such as David Blunkett probably reinforces the views of many Liberal Democrats of Blunkett and co, but it should also remind us that Miliband’s decision and leadership on this is not trivial. It is something House of Lords reformers in all parties should welcome.

More cynical people may wonder if Labour support on the Second Reading will be a distraction tactic from them trying to sink Lords reform at a later date, whether with or without Miliband’s implicit backing. There are three main opportunities for that.

Timetable (programme) motion

Without a timetable motion, the Bill will be prone to filibustering. An unreasonably brief timetable would be fair to oppose (and of course the Lib Dems would if in opposition). Demanding an unreasonably long timetable would be a cynical way of trying to sink the Bill and would fit with Labour’s form in the last Parliament.

What Miliband has said so far is that he wants a reasonable amount of time for debate.

There will be plenty of lobbying and talking before that he has to put a number on that, but I suspect it will be more persuasive for Liberal Democrats to welcome the glass half full – second reading debate vote – than to talk up fears of glass half empty – what may happen on the timetable motion.

That is especially so as the comments of Labour peers suggest Ed Miliband has quite a fight to win in the Labour Party.

As I quipped on Twitter yesterday to Labour’s Chief Whip in the Lords:

Certainly is odd that the day after Ed Miliband says ‘we’ll support it’ you tweet lots of complaints about it…

… but I guess the virtue of being a whip is you know you can’t be sent to talk to yourself?

80% or 100%?

On this, I’ve certainly expressed glass half empty fears in the past, as previous comments from various Labour figures looked like the party was lining up to say, ‘if it isn’t a 100% elected Lords, we’ll vote down the whole package’.

But credit where it’s due, the official position of the Labour Party so far has not taken that turn. As with the timetable motion, there are grounds for caution but if we want to win this debate building on the positives matters.

Of course, it would be great fun if the government were to call the bluff of would-be filibusterers and simply say, ‘You want debate? Fine, take all the time you want. We’ll cancel the recess to give you all the time you’ve said you want’. That’s rather like how Palmerston got the 19th century’s big divorce Act through Parliament – keeping Parliament sitting through the summer.

Referendum or not?

Attitudes towards referendums are rather like those towards whether or not someone switching parties should trigger a by-election. In other words, people dress up their own immediate self-interest in words of grand principle that quietly get left to one side when self-interest prompts taking the opposite view.

Unlock Democracy’s suggestion on this is a neat one:

What is the principle behind holding a referendum on reforming the House of Lords, something promised in the three major parties’ manifestos and consistently enjoys support in opinion poll after opinion poll? It appears to be little more than a tactic by opponents of reform who are banking on being able to turn the referendum into another stick to beat up the Liberal Democrats…

What is all too often missed is that it is not referendums per se that are democratic, but the right for the public to debate and decide on a policy which would otherwise be foisted on them.  The only principled reason to hold a referendum is that you can demonstrate that a sizeable proportion of the public actually want one.  It is this principle, not grubby partisan advantage, which ought to inform parliament’s decision as to whether to hold a referendum on an elected second chamber.

In its evidence to the Joint Committee (pdf), Unlock Democracy proposed a solution which would both satisfy this and the Labour manifesto commitment to hold a referendum:  include in the House of Lords Reform Bill a clause which will trigger a referendum if at least 5% of the public petition for one.  This is what is most commonly known as a “citizen’s veto”.  Not only would we then only go to the expense of holding a referendum if there was sufficient demand, but the referendum itself is far more likely to focus on the issue itself instead of becoming a proxy for something else.

Even so, this is another opportunity for Labour (and other opponents of Lords reform) to oppose the Bill without actually having to say in public they are against it.

That would not be a surprise given the public overwhelmingly backs Lords reform, and views on referendums often divide Liberal Democrats. However, any such decision is some way off – and for the moment, looking for what can unite the most people around Lords reform is the smart option.

The chance now for Lords reform is one that has been frustratingly rare over the past century, especially with a Conservative Party officially backing Lords reform and a Conservative Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister willing to use the Parliament Act to force through the Bill if the Lords tries to block it.

It’s one we should try to secure by winning over doubters rather than driving them away, and a good way to start is by lobbying your MP through this quick and easy website.

* Mark Pack is a member of the Federal Board and editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire. He is a candidate for Party President.

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14 Comments

  • Firstly, when unlock democracy become democratic they can start to lecture….

    They say that “The only principled reason to hold a referendum is that you can demonstrate that a sizeable proportion of the public actually want one.”. Political parties point to their manifesto’s, and the fact that that people have voted for them based upon them as justification all the time. It was clear in the Labour manifesto. Despite some on another thread selectively quoting parts of the document any full reading of the section on Lords reform shows this. Therefore to answer the democracy uncut point Labour could say that over 8.5 million people have agreed with the need for one.

    To state that 5% of the ‘public’ would need to call for one in the future is folly. Can you name a single issue where around 2.5 million signatures were collected for a petition ? Most of us believe there is a sizeable groundswell in support of equal marriage but it has nowhere near this many signatures. Therefore this would be a clause without any practical effect.

    The reason I would wish for a petition is that it would take away ANY Labour MP’s ability to vote against the changes without having a justifiable charge of hypocrisy. Some could campaign against change, but I really think this would not be a repeat of AV this is a subject with popular support.

    Finally, the test for this Bill may be Government willingness to accept amendments to secure cross party support. The way issues such as the NHS, boundary changes and others have been handled do not fill me with hope.

    Many Tories are going to try to kill this. They will be joined by some from the Labour bench who have always been against it. Many Labour MP’s are still angry about the Lib Dem support for Hunt and may decide to stay away. This makes ending the tribal insults aimed at the entire Labour party (such as Stephen Talls’s recent thread and some of the comments on it) an absolute necessity.

    I doubt Labour will lose a single voter if they find a way to wriggle out of supporting this, for the Lib Dems this may be the last chance to secure a real and lasting achievement from their time in this coalition.

  • Toby MacDonnell 28th Jun '12 - 10:48am

    It’s funny that the Tories are angry we weren’t supporting Hunt and Labour are angry that we were supporting Hunt. We must be doing something right.

  • richard heathcote 28th Jun '12 - 11:45am

    @Toby I think people are angry because you sat on fence and did nothing.

  • David Allen 28th Jun '12 - 4:50pm

    Don’t be silly. Sorry, this isn’t something that needs complex argument. Just don’t be silly.

    Of course there has to be a referendum on an issue like this. Everybody knows that. Everybody will small a rat if it doesn’t happen.

    If it’s pushed through without a referendum, a future government will have no difficulty in abolishing a Senate it finds to be inconvenient. Then where will we be? If this major constitutional reform is approved by referendum, it will be much harder for any future government to reverse it.

    A referendum will also sort out the gridlock issue properly. We are now being told that gridlock won’t happen because there will be some sort of solemn and binding promise that the Senate won’t block what the Commons want to do. We know what happens to solemn and binding promises when the chips are down. We can easily visualise a “heroic” leader from the Senate declaiming that because what the Commons want to do is such an abomination, it is his duty to ignore the solemn and binding promise, stymie the Commons, and bring down the Government.

    A referendum will make sure we really, really don’t set up a Senate which can arrogate itself such powers. It will force the Coalition to make quite sure it has eliminated that risk, and convince the public of that fact.

  • Paul McKeown 28th Jun '12 - 8:08pm

    This does not need a referendum.

    90% of the electorate supported Lord’s reform at the General Election by voting for candidates representing parties which placed democratic reform of the Lords on their party manifestos.

    A call for a referendum is mostly little more than self indulgence by those who do not wist to lose their seat in the Lords or the possibility of eventual preferment to the Lords, or tribal haters who just want to stymie any LD proposal irrespective of the nature of the proposal. Those people should grow up and do something useful instead.

  • “90% of the electorate supported Lord’s reform at the General Election by voting for candidates representing parties which placed democratic reform of the Lords on their party manifestos.”

    That depends how many people thought Lords reform was an important enough issue to decide their vote. More than that, it depends how many people were opposed to Lords reform so strongly and thought it was so important that they’d throw their vote away by supporting a minority candidate. A fraction of 1%, I should think.

    And if you really believe that 90% of the electorate support it, why are you so frightened of a referendum?

  • @Paul McKeown
    The perfectly valid point being made by Labour is that their voters voted for a policy that explicitly stated the proposals would be put to a referendum. Plus if we ever got 90% of the electorate to vote for anything it would be a miracle, I believe it was about 65% at the last election meaning far less than 90% could be said to have shown support for this change without a referendum (if Lib Dem and Tory votes are combined this would be less than 40% of the electorate). Also the working party who recommended the system to be implemented also recommended a referendum.

    I think we need Lords reform and the best way to get it is to have the referendum. Cameron would not be able to do anything but put Tory resources behind it, as would Milliband as both have promised a whipped vote.

    Surely this is too important to allow it to slip because the coalition would not make this compromise????

  • toryboysnevergrowup 29th Jun '12 - 11:04am

    Sir George Young has described the reforms as the “final say” on House of Lords reform. Where is the binding commitment from the Lib Dems that its is no such thing – and that in future, whatever the government, they will support the removal of the nominated senators, ministerial appointments and bishops and the 15 year term for those that are elected, together with a proper review of the role and function of the 2nd chamber. Unless the LibDems are prepare to make a future commitment to supporting the further reforms that would be necessary to make the 2nd chamber a proper democratic chamber I see little reason maiking a commitment towards what is clearly an imperfect half way house.

  • Anne Forgettable 29th Jun '12 - 3:46pm

    Without a referendum, I don’t see any reason to believe that there won’t need to be another reform of the upper chamber in 10 to 15 years. But that’s a good thing, because the proposals as they currently stand are completely unsatisfactory.

    A few years ago, I strongly supported an elected upper house. But I’m not sure now that it is the best idea, to replace a meritocratic chamber with a second democratic chamber. I think much more thought should be given to its composition – for instance, dividing the electorate into constituencies based not just on geography but alternatively on membership of certain bodies (professional, voluntary, religious, etc). That could be the best way to keep the religious peers in, for instance – those who wanted to, could register to cast their vote as part of a religious bloc, instead of casting their vote in their local geographic constituency.

  • @Anne Forgettable
    “a meritocratic chamber”

    Lord Archer, Lord Ashcroft to name but two who it would be hard to find merit in……

    We need democracy, I support a referendum because it is a suitable compromise that calls both Cameron and Milliblands bluff. It also is in keeping with offering them on other constitutional reforms. This is a real chance for the Lib Dems to prove that plural politics works and that at times three way compromises can be made for the good of the country. As Mark said the support of the Labour leader is not trivial and should be welcomed. For him to bring sufficient numbers of MP’s with him he will need some compromise. If it is offered early enough he could even support the timetable motion, effectively removing the only real weapon the Tory rebels will have. And it is these that are the threat, they can kill this bill and Cameron will shed no tears.

    As for Bishops et al. Any retention of such interest groups should be on a contributing but non voting membership. Their voice can be heard, but only those with a democratic mandate should be able to vote.

  • @ Steve Way – regarding your challenge, I suspect that some of the Chartist petitions were more than the then equivalent of 2.5 out of 60 million. In fact I have a feeling they may have been absolutely larger in numerical terms.

    But anyway, why are we wasting time on this stuff? I don’t want any more elected place people ruling over me. We already have enough people elected to cover the work of a second chamber.

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