Opinion: Lib Dems should park Lords reform. For now.

I am an enthusiastic supporter of electoral and constitutional reform in this country. I have been arguing for years that the First Past the Post system for the Commons is hopelessly out of date and unfair and that there is no place in our constitution for an unelected second chamber. I was delighted when the coalition agreement included action on the latter and heartened by Nick Clegg’s various comments in the early days of this government that made it clear he was throwing his full weight as Deputy PM behind it.

But that was then. Now we are in a pretty parlous position regarding potential reform. The massive rebellion by Tory MPs a couple of weeks ago aided by Labour on the timetable has led to a great deal of uncertainty about whether anything like the currently proposed reforms will be able to get through parliament.

Putting aside the arguments for and against (they can be found across the internet not least in numerous posts and comments on this site) I think it is starting to look unlikely that we will be able to get the reforms we want through during our time in government. Unlike some I have seen sneering that it’s Clegg’s fault for coming up with “bad proposals”, I don’t think that is true at all. Every compromise that the Lib Dems made (keeping the Bishops, keeping 20% unelected, making the terms 15 years, not allowing re-election) were done to address specific concerns from one side or another. That those compromises are now being used to claim the bill is a “dog’s breakfast” is simply a function of how difficult it is to change the status quo when there is such a diversity of views on what should be kept and reformed.

There are noises off that indicate a set of watered down proposals might, just might, get the nod from “some” of the Conservative rebels. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we might, just might get a small sliver of elected peers alongside a load of appointees from mass membership organisations. Forgive me if I don’t climb up onto my roof to sing “Hallelujah” at this prospect.

I think we are at the point where we should park this bill. I say this in the light of the shocking GDP figures for Q2. -0.7% shows we are definitively back in recession and this is now the worst economic situation since before the Second World War. In that context, a prolonged parliamentary battle to try and salvage some vestige of Lords reform would risk looking like political folly and would really not be worth the fight anyway.

We need to focus very strongly on the economy and growth. Our ministers need to fight internally within the government and externally where possible to ensure that, at the very least, Plan A becomes Plan A+ if not a politically covert Plan B. I’m not suggesting that we should trade Lords reform off in exchange for this, indeed I am sure that would never fly. But we need to make our priorities crystal clear under the current economic circumstances.

I usually despise the phrase “now is not the right time”. For opponents of reform it is never the right time. However, I am afraid I have come to the conclusion that right now, for probably the only time in my political memory, that argument is correct.

For fellow Lib Dems looking for a legacy of our time in government, if we can spend the last 30 or so months helping to ensure growth returns that will surely reflect very well on us.

As for Lords reform, it will probably have to wait for a future coalition agreement. And next time we need to make sure it is worded very clearly to leave future partners no wriggle room.

At all.

* Mark Thompson blogs here

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38 Comments

  • The problem underlying all this is this;
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/tory-membership-in-crisis-as-the-grassroots-desert-7986155.html
    From the grass roots through to back bench MPs and even to some extent Ministers, the Tories think we need to compromise but they don’t. Deciding to park Lords reform when they try to vote down a key policy of the coalition agreement plays into that perception when we should be combating it for both our image in parliament and in the nation (and with out own grass roots).

  • No Offence Alan 30th Jul '12 - 10:58am

    The HoL is beyond reform. Abolish it, and let’s have a devolved English Parliament to handle Health, Education etc. along the lines of the Scottish parliament.

  • Steve Coltman 30th Jul '12 - 10:59am

    I agree the timing is all wrong, but more than that, we are ahead of the argument. There are three steps to solving a problem, 1- recognise you have a problem, 2-analyse the nature of the problem and 3-devise a solution. Being 1 step ahead of the rest is fine, being 2 or 3 steps ahead is not. We have formulated a solution to a problem when many people do not recognise we have a constitutional problem at all, and even those who do don’t necessarily agree with our analysis. I suggest we use the Tory rebellion over Lords reform as an excuse to ditch the parliamentary boundary changes which really will damage us.

  • I entirely agree. Focusing on Lords Reform as opposed to deep problems with the economy will make us look as if we’re much more interested in tinkering with the mechanisms of government rather than focused on delivering prosperity for all. Now is genuinely not the time.

  • I agree with Andrew. And given that, the LDs should stop pursuing this only when there is no further electoral advantage for doing so. The principle of an elected HoL is very popular. A referendum campaign comprising elements of the 3 major parties would have every chance. Failing that, Clegg should be trying to force eg Jessie Norman and Ronnie Campbell to either vote against or filibuster and then use this to campaign against them in 2015. Clegg’s problems so far have come from not fighting for what his 2010 voters expected. He needs to learn his lesson.

  • If not now, when? There will always be more pressing matters – but the notion that the government can only deal with one thing at a time is foolish.

  • Geoffrey Payne 30th Jul '12 - 11:28am

    Of course the economy is priority, but Parliament does not need to debate it all the time. There are other matters to attend to. So why not HoL reform?
    Within the Coalition there is a power struggle between the right wing of the Tory party and the Liberal Deomcrats. The question is who has the most leverage. On this issue it would appear to be the Tory right wing.
    They simply want to get through the Tory agenda and don’t care about the Coalition agreement.
    If the Lib Dems capitulate, then that gives then a green light to continue to do so. So what then would be our answer to the question that is always asked “what is the point of the Liberal Democrats?”

  • Parliament can do more than one thing at the same time. That’s why on 6th June 1944 the Commons was debating extra funds (not exceeding £30!) for the colonial office and there was an adjournment debate on the burning issue of the UN emblem!

  • I don’t accept the argument that if it doesn’t get done now it will never get done; there is nearly always another day. To focus on this rather than say, the rise of inequality is to miss much of what Liberal Democrat MPs were elected to do. Remember how “fairness” was the key word in the 2010 campaign?

    I understand the point of Lords Reform: I even agree that if we’re to unpick the hold the class system has on the country, it’s something that must be done. However making this a priority is simply not going to sit well with a public that is in the throes of a double dip recession.

  • Sid – not the preface to that, it’s a question of priorities. The economy and job creation are the main priorities. Divert attention from that at one’s peril.

  • At the weekend my nephew who is 21 and unemployed despite numerous training programs etc and attempts to find work said to me’ why is Nick Clegg obsessed with the House of Lords ? I think he’s totally out of touch ! I cant even get a job’ As a worker for the lib dems for over 30 years I thought he really summed up the situation we are in .25% youth unemployment….fighting this is what we should sacrifice our party for, not some area of minor current interest to political professionals

  • Kevin McNamara 30th Jul '12 - 1:05pm

    in the strongest possible terms, i disagree. we will not be remembered for any reason if all we aim to do is leave the country with a strong economy. an economy is the one thing that is constant. labour will be remembered for the minimum wage and iraq. the tories probably for the erm, mining and poll tax. it’s forgotten that both presided over both strong and weak economies. and we will be forgotten if we do nothing to show that politics is about more than the economy.

  • Tony Dawson 30th Jul '12 - 2:21pm

    @Christian De Feo :

    “I understand the point of Lords Reform: I even agree that if we’re to unpick the hold the class system has on the country, it’s something that must be done. However making this a priority is simply not going to sit well with a public that is in the throes of a double dip recession.”

    Quite. I would remind you all that the public were pretty much in favour of transferable voting systems, too, until this system became identified with certain personalities. In politics, the ‘hierarchy of issues’ is every bit as important as what people think about individual issues.

  • I agree with Mark’s piece. I have sympathy for people who say “but there will never be a right time” but I think we need to ruthlessly prioritise where we can spend political capital to push our agenda and Labour have made it clear that they wont cooperate on this issue, and this is not a natural reform for Tories to support, so its likely to absorb a lot of time and energy just to be blocked.

  • Tony Greaves 30th Jul '12 - 5:54pm

    At the risk of being tedious…HoL reform can get through this Parliament if the referendum is conceded (and approved by the Commons) at the start of the Commons Committee stage. This may mean talking to the Labour Party, but that is what grown up politicians do – talk to other parties to get things through. The referendum should then take place on 5th May 2015 when it has the best chance of passing.

    The alternative is to do a tactical deal with Cameron to drop HoL reform in this Parliament in return for scrapping the proposed constituency boundary changes. (Whether or not, we need to stop them anyway as they are a disaster, and not just for the Liberal Democrats but for communities throughout the country).

    Tony Greaves

  • Stephen Hesketh 30th Jul '12 - 8:15pm

    Thanks for raising this Mark. I too am in favour of shelving HOL reform and in favour of option 2 as outlined above by Tony Greaves. Turkeys voting for Christmas certainly springs to mind.

    I’d also keep the number of UK MPs as at present (pending the Scottish vote!). Yes, some of the inner city seats are over represented (not ideal but a relatively minor problem considering others facing our democracy). Many of those same seats also have some of the very worst problems and the highest concentrations of people least able to access the levers of power. They need good MPs!

    Select Committees also seem to be coming into their own right now.

    When we do reform the Lords, we need a proper (secular, modern, non-London based) reformed second chamber elected by PR not the sad compromise on offer right now. The 15 year single fix term is rubbish – bad representatives need to be kicked out ASAP, if re-elected, the good ones might very reasonably give valuable service for decades.

    Perhaps we really should consider abolishing the second chamber and have FPTP single member constituency MPs And multimember regional PR-elected MPs on staggered fix-term election cycles? Single Chamber/no power clashes, improved stability (Left/Right lurch) etc.

  • Mark Thompson.
    There are always bound to be faint hearts before any battle; no doubt before Agincourt there were many who thought it would be safer back home!
    But a deal is a deal; Parliament gave a very positive yes vote to reform; so that is their challenge; they must do it one way or another or look very silly indeed.
    Ministers don’t have to be much involved; they can concentrate the economy and inequality etc.
    Parliament can WORRY about these big issues but only the GOVERNMENT can do anything about them, leaving about 500 or so of the 650 to sort out their own two houses.
    Of course, in the spirit af Agincourt, we should not back off!!!
    Better an honourable defeat in which we can show what hypocrites there are amongst the blues and reds. They vote for reform, but not yet, and not that kind of reform, And the Brothers are as keen as the Tories to join the best club in London.
    Fortunately we can scupper the boundary reforms if our partners renege , and that we should surely do.
    Mark, courage, mon ami ; we have the opportunity of a good legacy; to have completed a reform that has baffled politicians for a century , and to have steered the Tories in getting out of an economic mess.

  • Charles Beaumont 31st Jul '12 - 2:26pm

    I think Mark’s point is a very strong one – the unemployed graduate is right to ask why the LDs are ‘obsessed’ about this issue. But if I am going to support Mark’s proposal I want evidence that the leadership will communicate its decision in a clear, aggressive and impactful way. Leave the public in no doubt that the time taken was of Tory and Labour making and the Lib Dems have dropped this because we don’t want the dinosaur parties to waste more parliamentary time on it.

  • If the Liberal Democrats give up on reforming the House of Lords now, then they might as well dissolve the party. Lib Dems have been arguing for coalition government for years. Dropping a key plank in their coalition agreement is tantamount to admitting that, despite rafts of studies and policy papers, Lib Dems can’t make the coalition work as it was supposed to; that they really can’t play the political game the way they thought it should be played; and that they have been manipulated and played by David Cameron with an embarrassingly contemptuous mastery of the game.

  • David,
    ‘give up’ is not the same thing as ‘park’.

    So that is an unhelpful comment and I hope it was well-meant.

  • I prefer to take a different tack, constitutional reform is too important to be tricked into over-complicated changes which are easily side-tracked.

    Weak, piecemeal reform is too easily manipulated by the crumb-throwers!

  • Mark Argent 1st Aug '12 - 11:34pm

    Parking House of Lords reform may be needed — yet again — but I wonder why we are talking as if the proposals are an awkward compromise. It strikes me that there are strong cases for the 15 year term, for the ban on re-election, and for the unelected contingent. All of these have wisdom, and also help to avoid the Lords being a re-run of the Commons. It’s a proposal I favour over any of the others I have heard.

  • Those who write that Lords Reform is just not important/appropriate/timely or whatever other excuse they use simply do not understand what it is to be a Liberal (Liberal Democrat). Lords reform has always been one of the most important changes which our party has had on its list of `to do’s’ and now at last we have a chance to do it. What we should be discussing is not whether we do it now but how we persuade those Conservative and Labour MPs, who are firmly stuck in the eighteenth century, that it cannot be right and proper for a democracy to retain an Upper House, which is unelected. That we should reform the Lords must be without question ; that it should happen during this Parliament is again without question to all who want to see a fairer electoral system. Do not be deterred by our failure to secure AV; Lords reform is a completely different issue. Let’s follow proudly in the footsteps of John Bright and all those Liberals and Liberal Democrats for whom democracy is not an empty word and Lords Reform is not an irrelevance..

  • A report (unreliable? inflammatory?) in the Guardian suggests that Lords reform is about to be dropped. To me this is a disaster: electoral reform is the single most decisive factor for supporting Lib Dems. Lords reform is clearly in the coalition agreement. I seriously wonder whether Lib Dems should consider removing ministers from government and shifting to a supply and confidence position. If no Lib Dems were on the government pay roll then they would not be bound by cabinet solidarity (and would be free to act as Tory backbenchers).

    If Lords reform were dropped, I would expect boundary changes to be put on hold and as an interim measure improve on the present gender and age imbalance in the Lords by further appointments. The onus would be on those who might complain about the large number of peers to press for due reform.

  • Im not sure which of our negotiating team ever decided that Lords reform and AV mattered more than tuition fees the NHS, free schools or police commissioners, but the sad reality is that, despite what the polls say’ the average Joe has no day to day interest whatsoever in constitutional reform. In fact that old sketch about “not caring who rules the country, as long as they have big t*ts” probably still holds true.

    At the time of the CA, we could have made the argument stick that, regardless of the number of seats delivered by FPTP, we had X votes to the Tories Y and therefore expected the relevant percentage of policies implemented AND/OR blocked – as in tuition fees, NHS etc. We made the fundamental mistake of bargaining away what was important to voters for what was important to us – and we havent got most of those either.

    Reform is dead in the water for a generation, and the current list proposals look like what they are; more well paid jobs for self serving politicians (mostly retreads from councils etc) who suck up to the leadership.

    Happily bury Lords reform IF we can get a coherent and deliverable (by both parties) CA2

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