Lords Reform – reflection​s from Alaska in the rain

And so, what some, myself amongst them, feared as inevitable has come to pass, as serious Lords reform goes the same way as electoral reform, probably dead for a generation. Here, aboard the MV Columbia, shrouded in fog at the ferry terminal in Haines, it is hard, almost impossible, to tell what is ahead, a bit like the next few months of coalition. Better to look back, perhaps.

I’ve been something of a pessimist on the likely success of Lords reform from the early stages of the process. That could be because, whilst in retrospect the signs were always there, nobody much wanted to see them.From the perspective of a campaigner for Lords reform, I am moved to be critical there too. Too many people felt that influence needed to be brought to bear on the Coalition partners, either forgetting, or wilfully ignoring the fact that Labour, supposedly in favour of reform, could easily supply enough support to overcome the resistance of Conservative dinosaurs. Very little pressure was put upon Ed Miliband and the Shadow Cabinet, leaving them to play their own games. And yet, just as had been the case with the AV referendum, Labour will almost certainly walk away with their ‘reformist’ credentials untarnished.

But perhaps the most important failure, the one that makes the future so difficult to predict, was the failure to properly gauge David Cameron’s limitations, both as Prime Minister and as Leader of the Conservative Party. It seemed to be assumed that he could deliver his MPs – now we know that he couldn’t. Indeed, it is sensible to ask the series of questions, “Is this man’s word his bond? Can he deliver upon his promises? And if not, what do we do?”.

In fairness, my criticism is not reserved for outsiders. All of the evidence is that the Leader’s Office didn’t really understand the forces at play, took soundings only from those who were minded to see what they did, and seriously underestimated both the opposition within our own Parliamentary Party in the Lords and the extent of the games our opponents elsewhere would play. Combined with an almost nonchalant attitude towards how the Lords works in reality and a degree of contempt towards the Parliamentary Party in the Lords, the omens were not good.

And it is, on reflection, quite remarkable how the Parliamentary Party in the Lords has retained its cohesion. Called upon to vote through swathes of legislation that ran counter to its collective instincts, it did so on the basis of a rather grown-up sense that coalition is about give and take, and that the consolation prize was the passing of some of our long-term legislative aims. Despite a series of unhelpful comments from the Commons (and no, I haven’t forgotten the comments of the Party President), they bit their tongues, stood by their government, and, to use an Americanism, ‘sucked it up’, with little or nothing by way of thanks.

To do so under such circumstances showed discipline. To do so under the threat of abolition was remarkable.

So, in summary, the signs were there, if you knew where to look. The fact that so many chose not to was the triumph of hope over experience, of political theory over pragmatic practice. How we as Liberal Democrats respond to the lessons given will determine the course of the remainder of this Coalition.

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  • As disappointing as Ed Miliband’s approach was to the LDs, his priority was always going to be to try to force Clegg to torpedo the new boundaries. The legislative strategy had to be based on the Tories, and thus be threat-based.

  • “The Commons of England assembled in Parliament, finding by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England to be continued, have thought fit to ordain and enact, and be it ordained and enacted by this present Parliament, and by the authority of the same, that from henceforth the House of Lords in Parliament, shall be and is hereby wholly abolished and taken away; and that the Lords shall not from henceforth meet or sit in the said House called the Lords’ House, or in any other house or place whatsoever, as a House of Lords; nor shall sit, vote, advise, adjudge, or determine of any matter or thing whatsoever, as a House of Lords in Parliament. Nevertheless it is hereby declared, that neither such Lords as have demeaned themselves with honor, courage and fidelity to the Commonwealth, nor their posterities who shall continue so, shall be excluded from the public councils of the nation, but shall be admitted thereunto, and have their free vote in Parliament, if they shall be thereunto elected, as other persons of interest elected and qualified thereunto, ought to have.

    And be it further ordained and enacted by the authority aforesaid, that no Peer of this land, not being elected, qualified, and sitting in Parliament as aforesaid, shall claim, have or make use of any privilege of Parliament, either in relation to his person, quality or estate, any law, usage or custom to the contrary notwithstanding.”

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Aug '12 - 1:53am

    Lords reform was doomed from the time it became a “LibDem thing” rather than something generally accepted as a good thing by at least a majority of those involved in politics.

    We need to be quite clear about this – had Labour been enthusiastically pushing for Lords Reform, had opposition to it been exposed as a right-wing Tory thing, it would have looked very different. It’s no good Labour saying they didn’t actually oppose it. By the way they handled it they stopped it going through, and they did so knowing that. Labour put short-term “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah” stuff in front of long-term thinking. As with AV, they wanted to kick Clegg for forming a coalition with the Tories – a coalition which had to be formed for the simple reason that Labour lost the election. There was no choice, there were not enough Labour MPs (thanks to the electoral system which Labour finds so wonderful) for a Labour-LibDem coalition. They know this, so all this “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah you put in the Tories” stuff is really what we always see from Labour when they lose – BAD LOSERS who will put the blame anywhere but where it should lie – with themselves.

    To me it is incredible to say, as most Labour supporters seem to be saying “constitutional reform is an irrelevant side issue when we have this rotten government making all these cuts”. Er, don’t these people have the ability to think through just WHY we have the current government in the shape it has? We have it because our electoral system twists representation of the largest party upwards way above its real level of support and twists representation of broadly-based third parties downwards. That is why the coalition is so dominated by Conservative policy rather than a more equal division between Conservative and LibDem policy, and it is why a Labour-LibDem coaltion was not possible, so further weakening the influence the LibDems could wield. No-one who opposes electoral reform has any right to criticise the LibDems for “propping up the Tories” because what really props up the Tories is our distortional representation electoral system.

    The Tories are also able to get away with what they are doing because the unelected nature of the House of Lords means it cannot act as a brake against what is proposed in the Commons – even if due to the electoral system what is proposed has little real support in the country. The remaining hereditary element obviously also introduces a big Tory bias in the Lords. And Labour by their action have kept it there.

    So let our response to Labour be very clear – EVERY time some Labour person accuses us of “propping up the Tories” let us say “No, not us, it is you – you by your opposition to the sort of reforms which would deny the Tories the power they currently have, YOU are the ones who are REALLY the Tory stooges”.

  • @Matthew Huntbach

    I am afraid that is just utter nonsense.

    Cameron and Clegg withdrew the Lords bill because the government was going to face its biggest rebellion with 100 back bench MP’s voting against the bill.

    Regardless if Labour would have “fully” supported both bills, cameron would still have been given a good kick from his backbenches causing a huge embarrassed to himself.

    He would have been shown as a weak leader and needing the support of opposition to pass a government policy.

    That is why Cameron stopped Lords reform, nothing more, nothing less, in an attempt to save his own face.

  • Denis Cooper 11th Aug '12 - 10:07am

    Labour have done well out of this.

    Appear to support Lords reform, even voting for the Bill on second reading.

    But also allow Tory dissidents to block the necessary timetable motion.

    So get the angry LibDems to block boundary changes as a reprisal.

    And, as a bonus, stir up antagonism between the coalltion parties.

    They’ve played a blinder, for themselves if not for the country.

  • Dennis Cooper, Labour achieved more reform of the Lords than the Coalition.

    I know that might be slightly embarrassing to the Lib Dems, but nevertheless, that’s reality. So instead of imagining some cynical conspiracy why don’t you look to the performance of your own MPs and Ministers for explanations?

  • Denis Cooper 11th Aug '12 - 1:23pm

    I’ve read the article linked by Dan Falchikov above.

    “The Lib Dems should now propose a unicameral Parliament instead of trying to reform an unreformable Lords. It kills stone dead the two arguments that caused this attempt at reform to be dropped – the primacy of the Commons and opposition to the proposed electoral system.”

    Maybe that’s because this attempt at reform was based upon on hindbound thinking within the Lib Dem party, which basically has had no new ideas about electoral systems since the invention of STV, and which is so determinedly stuck in its own past that it rejects out of hand anything more innovative even when it would be to its own advantage.

  • paul barker 11th Aug '12 - 2:05pm

    The problem with looking back is that the past is fixed.
    Lets look forward, we can demand our fair share of appointed “lords”, as per the coalition agreement. We can then argue that as a body indirectly but proportionally elected the lords are now more legitimate than before & need to have a bigger role.
    That would be democratic reform by another route.

  • Mark Argent 11th Aug '12 - 2:09pm

    NIce to see David quoting the 1649 act abolishing the House of Lords…

    One good thing that comes out of this sorry saga is the maturity and professionalism of our parliamentarians. That augurs well both for the viability of future coalitions, and for electoral reform as it removes the idea that a single party having a big majority is the only credible way to run our system.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Aug '12 - 1:27am


    I do not understand your point. Yes, as you say, Cameron was facing a big backbench revolt in his own party. So what relevance does that have to my point that Labour ought to have expressed full support for Lords reform rather than let the impression be given it was just some irrelevant LibDem obsession?

    My point is that Lords reform should NOT be seen as “government policy” – it should be seen as something desired all round. Had Labour given it their full support, it would have been far harder for Cameron to drop it. As you say, it would have made Cameron look weak. Instead, Labour have given Cameron an excuse for calling it off and thus let him off from the problem.

    Of course, Labour’s strategy is to pick off the LibDems, and get back to the good old two-party system. Which means a majority Tory government sooner or later. Seeing how the Tory right-wing is moaning at all the things the LibDems are stopping them from doing, and seeing the horrendous nature of some of those things, and seeing in general how the Tory party, particularly its younger members, has become very right-wing indeed, that terrifies me.

    My feeling is that Labour needs to accept the 2010 forced the LibDems into the difficult position whereby there was no stable government possible except the coalition we have now. Instead of attacking the LibDems for “dropping their principles”, they should be building for an alternative coalition and constitutional reform which means we never again get into the situation of such an extremist party as today’s Conservatives having complete power thanks to the distortional effects of the electoral system and a House of Lords which lacks any real power due to its lack of a democratic basis.

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