Opinion: Lords reform – how Labour could learn from the Germans

Labour clears the way. So says the century-old Labour campaign poster depicting working men smashing down the door to the House of Lords. Oh dear. Given the opportunity earlier this month to live up to that proud boast they sided instead with rebel, anti-reform Conservatives and together succeeded in forcing the Government to abandon a vote on its proposed timetable for the bill.

Without the timetable, those who, for whatever bizarre reason, don’t believe that the governed should elect those who govern them could talk until the cows come home, ensuring the reform bill is killed off.

Labour could easily have sided with the Government. The party could have decided that after decades of worthy commissions, lengthy reports, long-winded committee hearings, and endless parliamentary debates and votes, there has been enough talk, and that now was the time to act. It is important to point out that if they had made that simple choice then we would right now be well on our way to securing a much more democratic upper house.

Sadly they did not. They prioritised scoring a fleeting partisan point that for a day or two gave the Coalition bad headlines. The smirks of Labour-supporting friends the next morning told me that the rank and file didn’t disagree with their leadership’s warped sense of priorities. Now, a week or so on, the media circus has moved on to reporting other stories, but the damage done by Labour’s utterly myopic decision-making means Lords reform is stalled – again.

All this was in my mind when I was reading an article in The Economist assessing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s current political position. It references key votes in the Bundestag on 29 June on the European fiscal compact and the European Stability Mechanism, and the parallels are striking.

Merkel suffered a rebellion on her own benches, just as David Cameron did. Thanks however to the support of her opponents, the Social Democrats and the Greens, she secured the votes she needed, and the measures passed. Without their support she would have lost the critical votes.

The Social Democrats and the Greens voted to secure the outcome they wanted. Despite being out of power they managed to ensure that Germany adopted a policy they supported. That seems so sensible, doesn’t it? The logic of it is common sense. If those two parties had joined the rebels and voted the measures down then, yes, they would have embarrassed and potentially damaged Merkel, but they would also have delivered a policy victory to those who believe the opposite of what they believe. How mature that all seems when contrasted with Labour’s petty victory last week.

Labour has another chance to ensure Lords reform happens when the policy returns to the Commons in the autumn. In the meantime if anyone from the German Social Democrats is reading this can you give someone in your sister party a call and explain to them how it is done? Thanks.

* Stuart Bonar was the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in Plymouth Moor View.

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  • Denis Cooper 19th Jul '12 - 3:13pm

    You could make a deal with Labour that if they helped the Bill to go through both Houses then you’d block the boundary changes, which is probably what they want; but could you trust them to complete their side of the deal once you’d performed yours?

    Or, you could put the present unappealing dogs breakfast reform proposals in the bin, and instead propose the much simpler and good enough FPTP-SPTP system; and because making that change would cost nothing and it would be easily reversible, you could say that it would be trialled for two Parliaments, and during the course of the second Parliament there would be a referendum to ask the people whether they’d prefer to continue with it or revert to the present system.

    Plus, you could then tell the Tories that if they went along with that you’d support the boundary changes they want; and like the AV referendum the strongest Tory opponents might well believe that they could win the referendum and get the Lords reform reversed.

  • I dunno, maybe they respect their manifesto commitments? Labour’s manifesto, remember, rightly promised a referendum on any Lords reform.

  • David Boothroyd 19th Jul '12 - 4:12pm

    Quiz question for you. When Labour was in government, how did the Liberal Democrats vote on the programme and guillotine motions on the House of Lords Bill in 1998/99?

  • Stuart Bonar 19th Jul '12 - 6:34pm

    @David Boothroyd – I’ll answer your quiz question if you answer mine: before Labour’s reforms to the Lords the percentage of peers who were elected was zero; what percentage was elected after their reforms?
    @jedibeeftrix – I have the simple belief that it is bizarre that we do not elect those who vote & decide on our laws; you disagree. I am prob not going to change your mind and you’re not going to change mine.
    @Denis Cooper & Duncan Scott – I think that we shld work to find common ground, and if that means adjusting what is proposed or upping the amount of time for debate then we shld do that. I just hope that Labour is agreeable, and won’t simply seek to score another cheap political point at the price of failing to deliver Lords reform yet again.
    @Jack – True, but I think we all need to compromise.

  • @Duncan – The Labour Party has refused to say how much debating time it thinks is apropriate, which is an indication that they arent willing to negotiate on the debating time.

    @David B – Yes the Lib Dems were rightly suspicious of Labour’s “reforms” of the Lords and wanted to draw out their plans, because Labour wouldnt commit to actually reforming the place properly (Blair was only really concerned about getting rid of the overwhelmingly Tory-voting hereditaries), and the current system of filling the place with cronies is hardly an improvement.

    If anyone wants to have a real laugh at those Tories who accused Lib Dems of “Playing politics with constitutional reform” have a read of this account of how dreadfully the Tories behaved during Lords reform in the late 90s:


  • David Boothroyd 19th Jul '12 - 9:21pm

    I’ll answer the question I posed. The Liberal Democrats didn’t vote on it, for the simple reason that:


    I had to put that in capitals for emphasis. At no stage of the debate on the House of Lords Bill did the Government even propose to restrict the time available for debate.

  • This has been mismanaged by the leadership who have played into Labours hands. There should have been more compromise, the most Clegg offered was to allow debate on a referendum then vote against it… Then the stupidity of offering to veto boundary changes (the single biggest threat to Labour winning in 2015) if the Tories didn’t back it.

    As the opposition Labour only need to support motions they agree with. I took the liberty of checking Nick Clegg’s voting record on programme motions. He voted against them even where neither he, nor any other Lib Dem had made a case for requiring more debate.

    On Newsnight after the vote Laws was given chance to dispute that the Government had pulled out of cross party talks, he didn’t. When offered the chance to resume them, he didn’t agree. When a referendum was mentioned he stated that it would not be offered. I’m sure his performance made huge swathes of Labour MP’s change their minds….

    At this point there has been no compromise offered to Labour and the result looks likely to be a far worse solution offered by the 1922 committee. I would suggest that instead of berating Labour it is about time someone tried bargaining with them.

  • Agree completely Stuart, and it just goes to show how childish are politics in the UK often are. We have much to learn from our European partners (as does the Labour Party).

  • Great article – provides some interesting food for thought!

  • Stuart Bonar 21st Jul '12 - 11:34am

    @David Boothroyd – You cannot get away from the fact that in the recent vote, Labour was in a position to decide whether or not Lords reform happened; the party decided to stop it dead in its tracks. I hope that Labour will change its mind, and if that means the Coalition offering some concessions to Labour then I hope they do that. If Labour could suggest exactly how many days’ debate it wants then maybe we could agree to that.
    @Steve Way – I just disagree with your analysis.
    @Giles & @Rebecca T – thank you 🙂

  • @Stuart Bonar
    Which part was that, can you show one significant compromise offered to Labour to gain their support ? Do you dispute Cleggs voting history ? Was it not Cleggs former aide who made the overt threat that would give Labour what they most want the end of boundary changes ? Did Laws hold out any olive branches I missed on news night?

    All I see is that if those who want reform keep insulting Labour rather than trying to do a deal with them then the only offer will be the Tory one which will be even more watered down.

  • Stuart Bonar 22nd Jul '12 - 12:07pm

    Where we disagree @SteveWay is that you believe that we stupidly allowed Labour to play politics and that that is our fault. I believe that Labour should have voted for the timetable motion because both our parties want the same thing – Lords reform – and all they have achieved is a day or two of bad headlines for the Coalition and in exchange they have given their opponents what they have spent a century defending (i.e. an unelected Lords).

    I don’t know whether the points you make are factually accurate or not, but even if they are they do not undermine my argument, they simply support your argument. And that is why I didn’t really spend too much time debating with you – you have your argument, I have mine, and I know that you won’t change my mind and I doubt I will change yours … we both have better things to do, tbh.

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