Opinion: Lords reform – the lies & lessons from the AV referendum

I invite you to join me in a thought experiment. Let’s imagine Lords Reform has been passed as an Act. But let’s also imagine the Act includes a commitment to a referendum…

A Lords Reform referendum will be perceived as a Liberal Democrat ‘fix’, much like the AV referendum. This perceived fix, in the eyes of the electorate, is personified, regrettably, in Nick Clegg. According to UK Polling Report, Clegg’s leader approval rating stands at minus 55. Clegg made a major strategic error after the Coalition was formed: he took on ‘special responsibility’ for political and constitutional reform, which gave the impression that he only cared about traditional Liberal Democrat ‘holy grail’ policies. Although unfair, this Clegg factor was a major contribution to the failure of the AV referendum.

Not only must Clegg take a back-seat in a Lords Reform referendum, he should also re-consider his role in the Cabinet Office. I am not calling for a resignation, but he should instead focus on Social Mobility; an area I have previously suggested is a fitting policy for our Party to pursue. For it has often been said that ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results’. We must learn from the mistakes of the AV referendum. During the Second Reading of the Lords Reform Bill, Thomas Docherty MP said “this is a Liberal Democrat Bill”. Of course it’s not; it’s a Coalition Bill based on a vast array of Labour Party Reports, not to mention the fact that all three major parties had a commitment to an elected Second Chamber in their manifestos. Neither is this a ‘whim’ as Penny Mordaunt MP suggested, for the debate started 101 years ago, with the most recent vote in 2007 ending in the majority of the Commons voting for either an 80% or 100% elected Second Chamber.

I was astounded by the number of MPs who, during the Second Reading of the Bill, equated AV with PR. The public are inevitably going to believe such lies, but we must make it clear that what was rejected was a majoritarian system, just like FPTP. This is just the beginning of the lies and we will have to hammer home the facts. Labour is the largest Party in the Lords, with 231 Peers (30%) and the reforms are to address an unsustainable and unfair in-built bias.

A commitment to implementing a mainly elected Second Chamber is already part of our Constitution. The Preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 described the composition of the Second Chamber as an interim measure until it could be constituted on a popular basis. The Labour House of Lords Reform Act 1999 was intended as the first of two stages, the second being to commit the Lords to a democratic element. There is therefore nothing ‘radical’ about introducing democracy into the legislature in the twenty-first century. Even MEPs have more of a mandate than nominated Peers.

I am not opposed to the idea of a referendum; it’s certainly better than reports that Cameron is planning to offer Clegg a watered-down deal. And if one does come to fruition, we are likely going to have to form a platform with the Labour Party, something that never materialised during the AV referendum. But rather than a problem, this could very well serve as the beginnings of negotiation between two parties faced with another hung Parliament in 2015.

* Alex Smethurst is a Parliamentary Assistant and candidate for Redland ward in Bristol in the local elections in May (written in a personal capacity).

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  • Even James Naughtie got it wrong on Radio 4 the other day about PR/AV

  • “Labour is the largest Party in the Lords, with 231 Peers (30%) and the reforms are to address an unsustainable and unfair in-built bias.”

    I’m afraid that’s a pretty weak argument. The proposals would essentially allot 80% of the seats in proportion to votes cast over three parliamentary terms. On the basis of the votes cast in the last three general elections, that would give:
    Lab: 28%; Con: 27%; LD: 17%

    The current figures in the Lords are:
    Lab: 30%; Con: 28%; LD: 12%

    The Lab and Con figures are actually pretty close to what they ‘should’ be. Admittedly the Lib Dems are short by 5%, but the last thing you want to do is present this as a measure to increase Lib Dem representation!

  • Well dealing with the assumption of the thirtieth percentile that people in shared houses are prepared to have someone unemployed, let alone someone with long term health problems move in with them, might make a start on social mobility. The upshot is simply forcing people through a tremendous amount of upheaval, since their only remaining option is social housing, which is counter productive in terms of getting people back to work. (According to a local council advisor I spoke to, that list of landlords accepting housing benefit aren’t taking those under 35 now, and even if they were, the shared room rate at present still makes it untenable.) The entire policy completely ignores any sense of pragmatism, and is out of touch with the realities people have to deal with every day, particularly when they’re already living on the bare minimum the state says they need, whilst trying to get to job interviews or medical treatment for which claiming any travel costs back afterwards can mean going without food until. The choice between paying a bill or eating is not an abstract one, but a very real one for many people, and I’d love to see the percentage of shared households prepared to welcome that (not to mention using electricity in the daytime, not having money to socialise and no data considered how well a person who has been on their own and has either a history of institutionalisation or with long term health problems is going to adjust to sharing and having to deal with people (factor in data on perception and prejudices towards people not working or long term ill, which regardless of whether it should, does affect peoples daily experience) in their immediate space every day. Things like this make apparent to many people (especially those who might be receptive to social mobility issues), that the party leadership- and Clegg are completely out of touch with the real issues affecting people’s lives. Now people expect that from Tories… But when Lib Dems do it, they feel they’re getting something very different to what it says on the tin. If they weren’t convinced the party leadership can’t be trusted because of tuition fees (No, they haven’t forgotten, and the main problem perceptionwise is that of deception, rather than policy) then things like this pretty much cinch the deal. It’s not really very suprising that Clegg’s approval rating is where it is.

  • The opportunity for a similar “confusion” to the PR/AV lie has already arisen. Within seconds of David Steel explaining his proposals on Lords reform on the BBC’s World At One a Tory MP was saying that this is the sort of reform that has consensus, and is the sort (and the extent) of reform the nation deserves, job done, etc.
    Perhaps we could seek a consensus on a referendum on the real issue between democrats and the reactionaries in the Conservative and Labour parties, it could ask if a second house should be appointed or not. Putting forward a specific proposal will again allow arguments on detail to obscure the issue.

  • Alex Smethurst………….Labour is the largest Party in the Lords, with 231 Peers (30%) and the reforms are to address an unsustainable and unfair in-built bias…………..

    Really? And there was I thinking that the reforms were to address the whole ‘unelected issue’.

    BTW…As Cameron is ‘making’ peers at an unprecedented rate, Labour’s +18 won’t last long.

  • Every opponent of reform who speaks on TV states that the voting will be for a closed list – by implying the result. I have not heard any journalist challenge this. The proposal is for a “semi-open” list . Any candidate getting over 5% of the vote in a list section immediately overrides the party choice on ordering. If the voting public decide not to take power away from the party machines, by setting the candidate order, that is just democracy in action. Not the same thing as a closed list.

  • Jason
    True. Has anyone worked out when membership of the Lords will break the 1,000 barrier ?

  • “If the voting public decide not to take power away from the party machines, by setting the candidate order, that is just democracy in action. Not the same thing as a closed list.”

    Just to clarify, the proposal is that each voter would have the choice of voting for:
    (1) a single party,OR
    (2) a single party candidate, OR
    (3) a single independent candidate.

    Considering the elections would be by region, with each region returning a large number of members, the opportunity for voters to influence the ordering of candidates within parties would be minimal – certainly by comparison with STV.

    Really in practice this would be close to the continuation of party appointment by another name. Maybe it’s a necessary compromise, but it’s far from ideal, and if the party machines continued to wield the power it wouldn’t be the fault of the electorate, as you suggest, because this system would make it very hard indeed for them to take that power into their own hands.

  • If we can get a compromise which:

    a) gets rid of the remaining hereditaries;
    b) reduces the size;
    c) creates a truly impartial/ independent appointments body *;
    d) places a limit on the proportion of recycled/ rejected ex-MPs

    then I’d happily take that for now.

    And then can our great and good concentrate on the economy, social care, health, education, social mobility, elderly care etc etc etc?

    * a modest ambition I accept!

  • Denis Cooper 16th Jul '12 - 6:11pm

    I’d suggest that it’s quite delusional to suppose that you could get the current proposals, or even a diluted version, approved in a prospective referendum.

    Of course it would help if Labour gave it wholehearted support, but that’s unlikely and even if they did that still wouldn’t be enough to get it through against unremitting and unscrupulous hostility and ridicule organised by the Tories.

    And it seems to me that Labour must know this, and if they did insist on it being put to a prospective referendum then that could only mean that at heart they wanted it blocked.

    I’m not going to go into the details of my own plan B here, but I described it in a comment posted last week in this other place:


    It ends with the words:

    “Otherwise, you might as well forget the whole idea and leave things as they are”

    which I believe to be the case.

    I know you probably won’t like it because many LibDems tend to be set in their ways and wedded to conventional forms of PR like STV and vile party list systems, even musing over whether a semi-open list system might be less vile than a closed list system – try explaining that to the man in the street, who struggled to get to grips with AV in the abstract, even though no doubt he could have managed perfectly well if it had been put into practice.

  • Yes to all of that, but none of you have mentioned how the media relish putting the LibDem down, never challenge the lies of our opponents and even repeat them.. always purveying the self fulfilling prophesy approach that the two old parties base their campaigns on; always plead fairness but don’t understand the word; bleat on about their ‘freedom’ but have no comprehension of the ‘responsibility’ that goes with it…

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Jul '12 - 11:08am

    Let us propose closed-list elections to the House of Lords where the lists consist of the current members. A Labour list consisting of the Labour Lords, a Tory list consisting of the Tory Lords, … plus a cross-bench list, a Bishops list and a Hereditary list. Then we’d have an elected House of Lords which is very similar to what we’ve got – and, yes, anyone who values Bishops and Hereditaries has the chance to show just how much they do so by voting for them. What objection to this could any supporter of the current House of Lords raise?

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