Lords reform: did we really expect any better of either the Tories or Labour?

All three main political parties fought the 2010 election promising the electorate that, if elected, they would reform the House of Lords. All three promised the same in 2005, too. And 2001. Yet in 2012 only one party is staying true to that promise: the Lib Dems. The Tories and Labour, in contrast, are happily indulging in party politics to block progress in advancing legislative democracy.

The Conservatives living up to their anti-reform name…

The Conservative Party has fought the last three elections promising to introduce a mainly/wholly elected second chamber to replace the current House of Patronage. They signed up to a Coalition Agreement which committed their MPs to back up that promise with real reform.

But now they appear content to junk their own commitment to reform, if the Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan is to be believed:

the suggestion I’ve heard [is] that Mr Cameron is giving private advice to his colleagues about the consequences of rebellion. You may recall that last year, at the time of the European vote that saw 81 Tories vote against the Government, we heard of all sorts of threats made about careers being ended and chances of preferment destroyed. Rebels were left in no doubt that they were defying Dave, and would suffer as a consequences. Not so this time. I am assured that those MPs who have troubled to ask the PM in private have been assured that rebellion on Lords reform will do no harm to their career prospects. Just as Lib Dems were allowed by Mr Clegg to withhold their support from Jeremy Hunt, so Mr Cameron will tolerate his MPs withholding their support for Lords reform.

(Perhaps Ben Brogan and the Tories can point me to which part of the Coalition Agreement specifically exempts Jeremy Hunt from an investigation into whether he adhered to the ministerial code?)

House of Lords. Photo: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of ParliamentSo much for the Tories. I expected no better of their reforming instincts. They are called Conservatives for a reason, after all.

But even if 100 Tory MPs defy the Coalition Agreement, there’s no reason why Lords reform should fall. After all, there’s another party supposedly committed to the policy — the Labour party — even if they did manage to govern for 13 years with commanding majorities without finding a way of implementing it.

… And Labour living up to their anti-reform reputation

But all the signs are that Labour will cheerfully sacrifice the prospect of Lords reform for the chance to play politics, putting much more thought and effort into how to embarrass the Coalition than into how they could save Lords reform from the natural conservatism of Cameron & Co.

Yet surely, I hear you cry, Ed Miliband has professed himself sincerely to be personally committed to reform? Has he not written today that Labour “will play our part in seeking to bring about the historic reform that is right for our country”? Mark Ferguson at LabourList recognises these tactics for what they are — cheap political expedience:

An elected House of Lords is an ideal that is attainable, and helping in any way to stop it coming into being is a big thick line that should never, ever be crossed. This time, tactics can’t trump principle. …

What Ed Miliband proposes is that Labour will both vote yes and no. Labour MPs will vote for the Second Reading of the Bill but oppose the proposed timetabled – providing an opportunity for Tory rebels to back Labour and sink the bill. A whips trick. Too clever by half. Like on welfare reform Labour will try and have their cake and deny the cake’s existence.

We should relish this debate, because we’re in the right. Make the Tories argue in favour of priviledge, and against democracy. We will argue for democracy. For our principles. And for a reformist ideal that has been a part of what Labour has been about about since the earliest days of our party.

Ed Miliband says “democratic election is the best system for our country”. If so, then support it. No ifs. No buts. No tricks. No tactics. Just principle.

I’d love to believe Ed Miliband and Labour would take Mark’s advice, and put principle before tactics. But we’ve been here before. For years. Many, many years. In reality, far too many in the Labour party are as conservative as the Tories for radical, democratic reform to stand a chance.

The two main parties are addicted to power, so much so they don’t much care whether its democratically obtained or not. Lords reform, along with ‘big money’ political funding, is a further demonstration of the inability of the Tories or Labour to break free of their own vested interests and instead serve the interests of the public.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Reminds me of

    Liberal Democrats not supporting Labour’s motion on Jeremy Hunt because of “Iraq” even though deep down they agreed with the motion and Jeremy Hunt should have been referred,

    Liberal Democrats are far to keen to abandon “democracy” in favour of “party politics” when it suits them.

    Really not doing very well in ridding yourselves from hypocrisy, and whining loudly does no credit either

  • ‘All three main political parties fought the 2010 election promising the electorate that, if elected, they would reform the House of Lords. ‘

    Er, no, they didn’t.

    Labour fought the 2010 election promising a referendum on House of Lords reform. As it says in their manifesto:

    “We will let the people decide how to reform our institutions and our politics: changing the voting system and
    electing a second chamber to replace the House of Lords.”


    “To begin the task of building a new politics, we will let the British people decide on whether to make Parliamentmore democratic and accountable in referenda on reform of the House of Commons and House of Lords,
    to be held on the same day, by October 2011.”

  • matt >Reminds me of Liberal Democrats not supporting Labour’s motion on Jeremy Hunt because of “Iraq”

    Eh? Got a link with evidence of that?
    I’ve read claims the Tories want to scupper Lords reform because they are angry the Lib Dems didn’t support them on Hunt.
    Haven’t seen Iraq mentioned in connection with anything.???

  • Sorry Stephen but both Matt and Nigel are right, having just checked the Labour 2010 Manifesto went on to say:

    We will consult widely on these
    proposals, and on an open-list
    proportional representation
    electoral system for the Second
    Chamber, before putting them
    to the people in a referendum.

    The best way to call their bluff is to add the referendum, after all it is what those chosen to investigate the options suggested. If they then fail to support it we get to call them hypocrites…

    As for the principle before politics bit, when a senior Lib Dem MP won’t vote for Hunt to be investigated because of lies over Iraq……

  • @Cassie

    It’s referred to here:


    If you go to Radio 4 you may still be able to podcast Foster on 13th June Today Programme linking the two…

  • @Cassie

    Link to Today here go to 07:36 listen to the audio it’s at about 40 secs


  • Cheers. I’ll have to see if I can find the podcast, rather than relying on a Telegraph blogger’s vague: “suggested that this was all something to do with the Iraq War.:

    If Foster did say give Iraq as a direct reason to abstain in this vote, it makes no sense whatsoever.

    If it was just a general dig at Labour and the Telegraph bloke has stretched that, ok. But there is no logic on Earth for choosing this vote (of all of this parliament so far) to somehow punish Labour for supporting a war the Tories also voted in favour of… that would be absurd.

  • ..ah, ok. Thanks for the second link.
    Foster says it’s a stunt and Labour haven’t got the moral high ground on this for various reasons, including Iraq.
    It’s not “we’re not voting specifically because of Iraq”.
    Clearer now.

  • @Cassie
    “It’s not “we’re not voting specifically because of Iraq”.”

    It’s clear that he will not vote on the principle that Hunt should be investigated because of unrelated incidents. This is what makes Stephen’s “put principle before tactics” hypocritical itself..

    I suspect significant numbers of Labour MP’s would vote against the reforms even were they to be offered a referendum, but as I said in my earlier post they are not being hypocritical for failing to support something they did not campaign on. Lib Dem MP’s should support an amendment for a referendum and call their bluff.

  • >It’s clear that he will not vote on the principle that Hunt should be investigated because of unrelated incidents.

    If that’s so, then it is completely illogical thinking on his part.

    But a referendum would be very interesting!

  • I wish LDV gave you the chance to edit comments!

    If that it so – rather than him babbling badly when interviewed –…

  • “The Conservative Party has fought the last three elections promising to introduce a mainly/wholly elected second chamber to replace the current House of Patronage.”

    No. All they ever promised was to seek a consensus on reform. Obviously you can always say you’ve sought a consensus but it hasn’t been achieved.

    The coalition agreement was even more vacuous. “We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals …” No commitment to support those proposals.

    If you jump into bed with piranhas, don’t complain when you wake up with no toes.

  • richard heathcote 27th Jun '12 - 11:08am

    If Labour was to adopt the attitudes the Lib-Dem MP’s took during the vote on Hunt they would simply abstain from the vote on Lords reform giving the Conservatives a clear majority on the issue anyway.

  • LondonLiberal 27th Jun '12 - 3:01pm

    @ Steve way

    I disagree with your reading of what foster said. he – rightly – called Labour’s bluff on their (typical) 6th form political gameplaying and gimmick politics. In any event, it was just the view of one man and not the whole party. Labour’s opportunism in opposing house of lords reform – and let’s call a spade a spade and accept the blindingly obvious there – shows that they are putting the short term tactica of seekign to destabilise the coalition ahead of a democratic parliament. they are scoundrels of the worst sort. At least you expect the Tories to shaft you, but Labour pretend not to do so and still do it.

  • Simon Shaw

    Are you going to offer Labour a referendum then?

    Also, I believe that Miliband says he will support it but not under a restricted Government timetable. Remember how your party used to throw up stink when Blair introduced guillotines over important bills.

    This change is the most important constitutionally since devolution, if not more so, and needs to be got right. I have no confidence in this Government to do that unless there is a proper debate

    The principle agreement is there and I hope that a good bill will emerge so we can have a second chamber that will logically, as well as constitutionally, defined.

    Imagine if you have a party with a 35% vote but overall majority, being able to push unpopular bills through a second chamber where there is a proportionally voted membership that better reflects the popular opinion.

    What is to prevent the second chamber being just made up of has-beens of the 3 parties?

    Is the use of a 1911 and 1949 act still the best way to define the relationship between the two houses

    Just because the three parties are agreed in principle doesn’t mean it should be nodded through without proper debate – not very democratic

  • Sorry, Simon Shaw, but your quote is deliberately misleading. The paragraph you quote is preceeded by one stating that they will hold a referendum and itself ends:

    “We will consult widely on these proposals, and on an open-list proportional representation electoral system for the Second Chamber, before putting them to the people in a referendum.”

    If Labour opposes reform, you may fairly criticise them as enemies of progress and even democracy, but unless you offer them a referendum and they refuse it, you cannot honestly argue that they are breaking their electoral promise.

  • LondonLiberal 28th Jun '12 - 11:19am

    @ Simon Shaw

    How dare you suggest that the Labour manifesto was internally contradictory, faced both ways on reform, and sent out conflicting messages, either through cynicism or incompetence or a clunky blend of both. This is the Labour party we’re talking about, how on earth could you – oh wait.

    No, that’s ok, carry on.

  • So how many LibDem MP’s are going to be ex-party members?

    The question is whether the LibDem MP’s will also put principles before political expediency and adhere to their (legally) binding constitutional commitments and vote against the implementation of this bill as it currently stands! Why? because the bill (as it currently stands) does not include any provision that supports the statement “We therefore acknowledge their [the people’s] right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs …” It is quite clear that HoL reform changes the ‘form of government’, hence the LibDem’s can only (currently) support the implementation of this bill if ‘the people’ are given the opportunity to determine the form of government.

    It is also obvious that a statement in the manifesto doesn’t satisfy the constitutional commitment …

    [Aside: the constitution does support “the promotion of a democratic federal framework”, which could be interpreted to include HoL; just not it’s implementation…]

  • Charles Beaumont 28th Jun '12 - 1:46pm

    Er… to get back to the text of the article, Stephen Tall writes: “Make the Tories argue in favour of priviledge[sic], and against democracy.” Surely we should be making Labour make that argument. Ultimately, the Tories are in favour of privilege. There are plenty of Tory voters who like hereditary peers, just as much as they like posh people with signet rings. The LDs’ biggest battle is currently with Labour who are increasingly successfully portraying themselves as the enemies of inequality (in spite of their hopeless record in government). Let’s make Labour argue against democracy and against the spirit of their manifesto, whilst arguing against a referendum on cost grounds.

  • It seems to me that the only major difference between Labour and Lib Dem opinion is the referendum. A sensible compromise would be to offer the referendum for agreement on timetabling. There is still debate to be had around length of tenure etc but no other real sticking points.

    Some Labour MP’s and Lords will still vote against, as will some Lib Dem Lords. But with the majority of Labour MP’s support it will pass.

  • Simon Shaw

    “Again, you need to read exactly what they said on page 67”

    I did read it, and it says exactly what I pointed out above. No more than a commitment to seek a consensus!

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