Opinion: Lib Dems should not fear a Lords reform referendum

We got battered last year. So it would only be natural if we were to be a little wary of plunging headlong into another referendum for changing our political system so soon after the public rejected our proposal for AV for the Commons by such a wide margin.

There are now rumblings from Conservative MPs and also the Labour leadership that any change to the Lords should be subject to a referendum. Nick Clegg has strongly argued that this is not necessary as all three main parties were committed to reform in their manifestos and it is also in the coalition agreement.

I’m with Nick on this one. I do not think a referendum is needed. However I am also a political realist. And if enough Tory MPs and the Labour party are determined to force a referendum on the issue then we may have no choice but to allow one to go ahead.

If that were to happen though I think there are plenty of grounds for thinking that it need not go the same way as AV did.

I am sure a putative No campaign is already forming and war-gaming their strategy. I can’t predict everything they will try and throw at us (Soldiers without bullet proof vests? Sick babies?) but straight away I can see that one of the main planks of the Yes campaign will be that reform is democratic and those arguing for the status quo are trying to keep an unelected and unaccountable chamber in place. That goes completely against all the democratic reforms of the past 15 years (Scotland, Wales, NI, London and other local devolution). The No campaign will be on the back foot trying to defend this.

Another thing that will come in handy is that there are still 92 hereditary peers in the Lords. This is utterly indefensible. Politicians of all sides regularly talk about how birth should not be destiny. The idea that someone can legislate in our parliament because of who their parents and grandparents were is completely anachronistic. I expect the No side will concede that the hereditaries should go but that the Yes campaign wants “the wrong sort of reform”. But they have had 15 years to get rid of them and still they cling on. A No vote would surely give the hereditaries a reprieve as reform went back to the drawing board yet again.

I’m sure cost will rear its head. The No2AV campaign lied about the cost of a change to AV (David Blunkett, one of the main supporters of the No campaign admitted as much at the time) and there is no reason to suppose the No campaign this time will be any different. But what price democracy? The devolved institutions all cost money to run and the Lords is not exactly free at the moment with around 800 members all with generous allowances and subsidised food, drink etc. I don’t think this argument will gain very much ground if countered properly. Also, the arguments about the costs of the referendum itself will be the other way round this time as Clegg has already pointed out it will be for those against reform to justify why the cost of a referendum is needed given the mandate is already there.

Like many from the Yes2AV side I still bear the scars of last year’s bruising campaign. But it needn’t be like last year this time. We have a strong argument to make. We are in favour of democracy and our opponents are essentially trying to prevent that.

We have a good chance of winning and should not fear the opportunity to make our case to the British people.

Oh, and one last thing. For every picture of Nick Clegg the No campaign uses we can use ten of Jeffrey Archer.

* Mark Thompson blogs here

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I can understand the arguments used here Mark, but I don’t share you optimism for success. As this policy is spearheaded by Clegg, I can easily see how the voters will use it to punish him / us again.

    The vast majority of Tories will be against it, and I expect Labour, whilst technically in favour, will find plenty of excuses to unofficially oppose it also (as they did with AV).

    Also – has our party learnt the lessons on the “Yes2AV” campaign? Sure that campaign must go down in history as one of the most badly organised and run national campaigns in British history – what assurances have we that a “Yes2LordsReform” (or whatever) will be run by people who are at least vaguely competent?

  • As long as there is an option on the ballot paper to scrap the whole thing

  • I can’t see the need for a referendum on this when other issues haven’t warranted one (the NHS bill springs to mind). On top of this I would expect the No campaign to use some fairly underhand tactics that you have not (and possibly cannot) anticipate. Why ask the British populace about this issue when they frankly don’t care? And on such an issue it is all the easier to manipulate opinion to the lowest common denominator, factors which favour the unscrupulous and vested interests.

    A more relevant question to ask us why we are considering at all the retention of unelected religious representatives. Without addressing this the lords is better to remain as it is.

  • The issue here is not just democracy. It is not difficult to imagine that reform will make the Lords democratic but less effective. It could be that the standard of its members is lower because they are not allowed outside paid interests. It could become more party political with fewer cross benchers. It could be filled with people who just get onto their party’s list (which makes it arguable whether it’s even democratic).

    The only message from the LibDems seems to be that the Lords must be made “democratic” at all costs. Unless there is a genuine desire to make it work at least as well, if not better, the proposals are unlikely to get wide support.

  • @Julian… You portray the Lib Dem position as wanting a “democratic” Lords at all costs. Err, yes, and…?

  • Daniel Henry 23rd Apr '12 - 7:25pm

    Perhaps we could make a deal with the Tories. A referendm in 2014 so long as we get further compromises e.g. a fully elected chamber, proper STV rather than this “above the bar” nonsense and a proper reduction to just 300 peers?

  • Paul McKeown 23rd Apr '12 - 10:43pm

    One of our most respected Prime Ministers had this to say:

    “Referendums are the devices of demagogues and dictators.”

    I doubt that Ed Miliband is either a demagogue or a dictator, he is far too ineffectual, for that. He is, however, calling for a referendum simply as a device to cause embarrassment to the coalition government. He knows that the Liberal Democrats believe strongly in a rational, modern constitution, and knows that many Conservatives are wedded to romantic notions of the Lords as the last bastion of Conservatism. Ed Miliband couldn’t give tuppence for Lords reform, as far as he is concerned it is, “heads I win, tails you lose”. If a referendum were to call for reform of the Lords, he would claim it as his victory in his referendum. If he were to lose, the brothers in ermine would happily remain supping on their gravy train, and the Laser Panda would blame it all on Nick Clegg.

    Miliband is playing a silly game, no one should fall for this nonsense.

    Whatever the public mood is now, after nine months of poisoning by the Daily Tory Prat & co., Nick Clegg would once more be the Spawn of Be’elzebub, and the Lords would be last hope to save the nation from Clegg’s Black Mass. Anyone who thinks a referendum is a good idea is a sucker: referendums are never held to decide the issue on the ballot paper, but are rather a desperate device to gull the public into choosing something they would normally not wish for. Indeed, the device of demagogues and dictators.

  • “Anyone who thinks a referendum is a good idea is a sucker: referendums are never held to decide the issue on the ballot paper, but are rather a desperate device to gull the public into choosing something they would normally not wish for. Indeed, the device of demagogues and dictators.”

    Coming from a supporter of a party which promised a referendum on the EU constitution, and then as a diversionary tactic called for a referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU, and then made a referendum on electoral reform a non-negotiable condition of entering a coalition, that seems a remarkably strange point of view!

    I wish someone could explain why it was appropriate to have a referendum on changing the voting system for the House of Commons, but why it is not appropriate to have one on introducing a voting system for the House of Lords.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Apr '12 - 11:07am

    The problem is most people find constitutional issues too abstract and boring. As a result, referendums on them tend to end up as referendums on something else, as the AV referendum ended up being treated by many as a referendum on Nick Clegg. In this way, constitutional issues are the worst thing to have referendums on.

    To my mind, the replacement of the committee system of local government by a leader system (a choice of systems was offered, but a fake choice – they were all variations of the leader system) was a HUGE constitutional issue, in terms of its impact on people’s lives perhaps bigger than Lords reform. Moving from power shared by a representative assembly to power held by one person is a big thing, its equivalent on a national level is what Mussolini pushed through in Italy in 1922. Yet it went through, pushed by the Blair government, not just without a referendum but with almost no media comment. Now see the result, there are referendums on May 3rd about which leader system people want with the question put in a very misleading way. “How do you want your council run – by an elected Mayor or by a Leader chosen by councillors?” they ask.

    If I had a vote in such a referendum I would scribble on my ballot paper “I WANT MY COUNCIL TO BE RUN BY A COUNCIL”. Asking people to choose between two variations of the same thing and then saying “Look, they endorsed it” is a typical trick of the opponent of democracy. It is shameful. Why have I heard no-one else pointing this out?

  • Jayne Mansfield 24th Apr '12 - 11:37am

    Can we vote to abolish them completely?

    Polly Toynbee gives good reasons why we should.

  • Jayne Mansfield 24th Apr '12 - 11:45am

    @ Paul Mc Keown- Labour have always promised a referendum on the matter.
    How refreshing, politicians who intend to stick to their promises.

  • paul barker 24th Apr '12 - 7:10pm

    I am against referenda on principle & we should fight hard to get the idea dropped. However we may end up with no choice. The important thing is to make sure that the ERS arent influential, they just have no idea how politics works. Lets make sure we get people who know how to campaign in charge.

  • “The important thing is to make sure that the ERS arent influential, they just have no idea how politics works.”

    Judging by the ERS’s criticisms of the proposed electoral system, I can’t see them in the vanguard of a ‘Yes’ campaign.

  • There is nothing democratic about a 15 year term. Like AV it is snivelling and miserable compromise. I hope the tactics of our Lib Dem leaders are to push for a Lords reform that is so dumb that it can’t win Tory support, and use this as a pretext to block the boundary review which will cripple us.

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