Lords reform – what exactly have the ‘rebels’ achieved?

Here’s what I tweeted on Tuesday evening:

And I think this is still a pertinent question. There is one thing that the rebels clearly achieved, and that it to make Lords reform less likely to happen. Lords reform is by no means dead, but it would have been more likely had the programme motion been passed. But given that much of the rebellion wasn’t driven by hard principle (given most of the rebels have spent the last few months telling us how unimportant Lords reform is) but by a desire to give Nick Clegg a kicking, that achievement looks really rather modest.

And the victory does indeed appear to be a pyrrhic one when one considers what the Tory rebels have sacrificed by sabotaging the Bill. It’s plain to see that the nature of coalition has excluded many of the policy desires of this wing of the Tory party from the government’s legislative programme. And it’s perfectly understandable that they would want to change that. Yet I fail to see any way in which their actions on Tuesday make that more likely.

There are two ways for this group (or indeed any grouping within the coalition) can directly influence policy: they can persuade those of a differing opinion of the merits of their case or they can offer a quid pro quo to induce them into supporting their idea. More indirectly, Tory rebels can also try to make a Conservative victory in 2015 more likely. It seems to me that Tory rebels have not just not followed any of these paths, they’ve done precisely the opposite.

Any hope they once may have had (and I think there was some hope) of introducing a British Bill of Rights or securing a vote on our membership of the EU (for example) have now completely vanished. Why would Liberal Democrat MPs even contemplate entering a negotiation on the policy desires of backbench Tories now? And quite how displaying the splits in the Tory party for all to see helps their prospects in 2015, I really do not know.

And this is only to consider policies not adopted by the coalition – as David Laws has said, such a flagrant failure to honour the coalition could lead to a chain reaction the course of which is difficult to predict. Lib Dem MPs could have their pick of the Tory right’s favourite coalition policies, and skewer them at the moment of their choosing. Again, how that helps the rebels’ cause also remains to be seen.

Perhaps there is something I’ve missed, but all but the most ardent anti-reform Tories seem set to come away from Tuesday having achieved little or nothing, or even having put themselves in a rather worse position. Hardly what I’d call a victory.

* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.

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21 Comments

  • What they have achieved is making sure that in the public mind the Lib Dems will be associated in the public mind with worthy but not important issues. Lib dems will be seen getting irate about House of Lords reform – a minority issue – rather than some of the big issues that people actually care about. 1:0 to the Tories

    It doesn’t matter that this is actually an important issue, or that the Tories are the ones spending lots of time trying to stop it. As far as the public concerned the Lib Dems live up to their reputation as “slightly weird”.

  • Sadie Smith 12th Jul '12 - 3:07pm

    You may be overstating the logic of GBPublic:(
    But I think you are right.

  • The rebels have sprinkled a hatful of John Major fairy dust on David Cameron.

  • Quite simply, they are doing what will make them popular with their party members and the people who gave them their majorities. You’re right that displaying splits in the Tory party won’t help their electoral prospects. But they know this, and know that the leadership knows this. Cameron won’t want disunity come the Autumn conference season, so at the very least the rebels will have got the proposals watered down, or they will be dropped altogether.

    They have also probably calculated, based on previous behaviour but also current polling, that the Lib Dems aren’t in a position to ‘skewer’ anything. For example, there’s been talk of sabotaging boundary changes – since the arithmetic would require Lib Dem ministers to vote against the government, destabilising the coalition, is there any chance of this happening at all?

    I also don’t see how this affects a referendum on EU membership. That is now all but inevitable, some point down the line.

  • I might also add, they’ve apparently calculated that Cameron won’t be around forever…

  • ………………………………..since the arithmetic would require Lib Dem ministers to vote against the government, destabilising the coalition, is there any chance of this happening at all?………………..

    If we do nothing we will show how impotent we are; if our back-bench MPs vote against the government it will make LibDems look even more divided in the eyes of the electorate.
    All in all I’d say that the ‘rebels’, aided by Clegg/Law’s refusal to compromise with Labour, have dealt our party a real ‘body blow’. A win-win for everyone else.

  • @Aaron – why can’t Lib Dem Ministers vote against boundary changes? Who’s going to sack them?

  • “They have also probably calculated, based on previous behaviour but also current polling, that the Lib Dems aren’t in a position to ‘skewer’ anything.”

    Particularly as the Tories have already fulfilled their commitment, according to the letter of the coalition agreement (if not the spirit).

    The Lib Dems would be putting themselves technically in the wrong over an issue which is not only of little interest to the electorate, but which can also easily be portrayed as one of self-interest for the Lib Dems.

    Unless Miliband rides to the rescue, there’s precious little you can do about it.

  • The Tory rebels do not like the coalition. They think the Conservatives would be more popular without Lib Dem support and resent being relegated to the back benches. Also Conservatives are split on fundamental issues and have been for a very long time . A lot of them want to damage their own leadership, because they didn’t support it in the first place. Throw in u turns, poor election results , decreasing popularity and the fact that great chunks of the British press think the same thing and they come out emboldened, by the conviction that everyone else is various shades of loony lefty pink-o . Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, they also believe the General Public agrees with them. It’s conviction politics. To be fair some of them also see no need to change Britain’s political traditions, and institutions.

  • From their point of view no price would be too high to prevent a HoL elected under PR which will give, as they see it, the Lib Dems the permanent balance of power in the Lords. It goes much deeper than mere principle it’s about maintaining a winner takes all constitution so that at some point in the future they will be able to pursue their hard right agenda. This is why I think it highly unlikely Cameron will be able to buy the rebels off.

    As to the 2015 election. They hope to win it by a) pushing Cameron (or his successor)to pursue a more right wing agenda on the EU, crime, immigration and benefit reform and b) taking 30 to 40 seats off the Lib Dems.

  • @Stuart Technically, David Cameron. Ok, that’s not going to happen. But it would put the coalition in a bit of a mess wouldn’t it?

  • I don’t think the public care so much about lords reform OR boundary changes, if they were fussed about the inequities of the current system they’d have voted for AV. So while us anoraka may fret about boundary changes, I think we can block them without the general public caring greatly.

  • Err…I think it’s called muscle – flexing. All of the points above about the LDs getting worked up about stuff most people don’t give two monkeys about are true, but the main targets were:

    1. David Cameron (message: “you’re on borrowed time”)
    2. The LDs (message: “your views don’t matter, leaving the coalition now would hurt you even more than it would hurt us, so look at the polls and do as you’re told”)

    I would guess if you’re a big C Conservative, the n you’re probably pretty happy today.

  • Richard Dean 13th Jul '12 - 2:33am

    The Labour rebels have demonstrated that the Labour Party is just as much of an omnishambles as the Tories.

  • Martin Pierce 13th Jul '12 - 7:52am

    I do think the original article, and most of the posts here, over-emphasise tactics over principle here. These people are CONSERVATIVES (the clue is in the name) – they don’t typically want to change the House of Lords and never have. As one poster said, they think it broadly works well today. They probably didn’t like that it was in the manifesto but assumed if they got a majority it would never happen. They know there are enough of them to stop it. Good time to re-read Roy Jenkins’ “Mr Balfour’s Poodle” on the events of 1909-11 – the Tories have moved on a little bit since then – but not that much. Incidentally, did anyone else think Nick Clegg’s message to members the other day (‘huge triumph’) was one of the most laughable comms we have received in a long time? I have kept it for reference when we find out what happens in the autumn. Whatever Nick may or may not say behind the scenes to DC, there isn’t a Coalition majority for HofL reform – Cameron knows it, Clegg knows it (doesn’t he?) and the rebels know it. Unless Labour comes to the rescue (and their part in this is all pretty reprehensible) it won’t go through. So talking ‘triumphs’ just makes him a laughing stock. Again.

  • I’m genuinely interested – can anyone who favours a referendum on this tell me what should be in the referendum exactly? Referendum works as a yes-no mechanism, not for picking off a menu or designing a policy. The parties all claim via manifestos – which are not empty documents – but have some lawmaking consequences – see Salisbury convention – to be in favour of reforming to increase the elected element. I also don’t like the 15 year terms, I assume they were a sop to the Tories, but just as Labour introduced tuition fees opening the door for them to be increased later, I assume that if this reform happened under the coalition, then a future Labour government could extend the reform.

  • Good article from Nick. This is a key point. Coalition is ‘give-and-take’. Many backbench Tory MPs have announced, in word and deed, that they are no longer interested in ‘give-and-take’ (a reality I find too few Lib Dem MPs acknowledge). How do you have a unilateral Coalition? I just don’t get it.

    Having said all of this, I think an honest liberal would admit that this ’15-year Senators’ bill as it has been called, can be improved on and there is a chance to make those improvements now. If we are to have a red-line, I think it shoould be splitting the banks (retail from investment).

  • jenny barnes 14th Jul '12 - 9:38am

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