Opinion: Why a referendum on second chamber reform would be good for the party

The Liberal Democrats built their electoral success on the three ‘Cs’: Concentrate, Communicate and Campaign. The campaigning zeal of the Party took us from a handful of councillors and a few MPs dotted around the Celtic fringe in the mid ‘Seventies to a truly national party, with over 3,500 councillors, 60MPs, power and influence in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, power and influence in over 150 councils, from Newcastle to Newquay, Liverpool to Islington.

Campaigning is the life blood of the movement we endeavour to create around the drive to seize and redistribute power. We do this by the simple means of helping people to take and use their power in their communities. Campaigning succeeds by involving people beyond the party in our campaigns. It energies and strengthens communities and nurtures the tolerance that comes from understanding others and identifying the common causes that link us. These common causes centre upon the injustice stemming from subjection to illegitimate power – be that banks that gamble with our money and provide shocking service, supermarkets that drive farmers to ruin and fix prices or bureaucrats who entangle citizens in red tape and restrict people’s opportunities.

The last time the Party’s standing was as low as today, we campaigned our way back into political health and vitality. The materials for over twenty mini-campaigns were launched at the 1989 conference in Brighton, which culminated in a rally, ‘Putting People First’. The campaigns were fought both locally and in Westminster. They were transformative. They were integrated. They had a life of their own. They made a difference. They brought people together. They helped people take and use their legitimate power.

Faced with the difficulties of today, what campaigning that is going on is local and isolated. There is little integration. There is little use of the Westminster factor by local campaigners and little use of local campaigners to support the aims and aspirations of those of our Party in Government before decisions are taken.

So, when the Conservative leadership fail to provide sufficient support (under the spirit of the CA) for a ‘camel’ constructed by a committee of a Bill to barely reform the second chamber at Westminster, what does the Leadership do? Does it look to the Party to mount a national and integrated campaign to truly reform one of the least liberal, least democratic institutions in the world? Does it look around the Chamber of the House of Commons to build (in a New Politics way) a cross-party consensus for the creation of a truly representative, legitimate and democratically accountable second chamber?

No, it turns it back on the membership of the Party and the whole membership of the House of Commons, castigates Labour for doing the very ‘Old Politics’ that it itself is playing and goes back, like a lap-dog, to the Conservative leadership to beg for a compromise solution – a camel of a camel. That is not negotiation – it is capitulation. In a balanced Parliament, the Conservatives should not take for granted our support on each and every measure – especially when they renege on the spirit of a Coalition formed for the common good.

Let’s call the Tories bluff. They won’t do a deal with Labour to call an election on this issue. Let’s fight a referendum on a proper Bill to reform the Second Chamber.
Let’s build a consensus across the countries of the UK for real reform with proper consultation via that referendum. Let’s build consensus within Parliament, which means doing a one-off deal with Labour and others in a rainbow Coalition on this single issue. Good tactics, too, for the run up to 2015.

There is nothing to stop Nick Clegg inviting all the other party leaders (including the Prime Minister) to his office for a constitutional conference in September, whilst the Party in the country spends this summer building support for change and having fun campaigning. It is your office Nick: you can’t be sacked by Cameron, you can be sacked by the membership, you will be sacked by the people. Use a referendum to concentrate resources, campaign and communicate – you have nothing to lose but your future.

* Bill le Breton is a former Chair and President of ALDC and a member of the 1997 and 2001 General Election teams

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41 Comments

  • Very well said, but I would don helmet and flack jacket for daring to suggest such an approach. We voted for a different politics, it doesn’t matter if the dinosaurs of red and blue sides try to scupper it (not to mention a few in yellow) it is the attempt that is important. It will prove that new politics wasn’t as hollow as it currently appears…

  • Agree with the article. Although I think it a referendum will have to begin with:

    Do you think the House of Lords should be appointed or elected?

    This is the key question in the discussion. And I think the public will back an elected House of Lords.

  • I like this article, but I would go further on one point:
    “No, it turns it back on the membership of the Party and the whole membership of the House of Commons”

    It did a bit more than turn it’s back on the Commons, in some instances it threatened them with a sharp pointy stick – somehow failing to realise that it might cause a reaction that wasn’t very helpful. As to the threat, well in the case of some of the people the threat was to scupper the plan to make them redundant (I would guess that there is many an MP from across the House thinking “please please please”).

    “Campaigning succeeds by involving people beyond the party in our campaigns”
    Would the Party even be in the situation if it had accepted the recommendations of the Joint Committee? I think the whole thing may have been done and dusted by now.

    @Steve Way
    I’m not certain why you think this approach isn’t “new politics”, surely trying to work with the other parties is very much what you were supposed to be about?

  • @Chris-sh
    It is the current approach of the leadership not the one proposed here that I feel is not “new politics”.

  • Tony Greaves 13th Jul '12 - 12:57pm

    Given that there is certainly going to be a referendum (IF the Bill survives at all), I think Bill le Breton is 100% right.

    Tony Greaves

  • @Steve Way
    Sorry, I obviously misunderstood your meaning.

  • I agree with this. If Labour had backed the timetable for the bill we’d be on our way to an elected Lords right now; their objection is that there should be an election, so let’s concede that. The same is true of some of the Tory rebels.

    I would ask the party leadership seriously to consider this option, and put it to the other parties – yes to a referendum. And even if we lose, so be it, that would be the will of the people.

  • So we have to spend 100 Million on a referendum so that the Labour MPs will feel moved to vote for what they declare they want rather than tactically???

    Where can we send the bill for that? We should take it from the MPs’ pension fund, or maybe the Unions can pay.

    God knows the Tory rebels will vote for fox hunting, pheasant shooting and primogeniture til the cows come home. This one is down to Labour. Clegg is getting a lot of stick but he is not a magician.

  • Richard Dean 13th Jul '12 - 1:13pm

    Yes it would. We are the party of democracy, and a referendum is one way to show this. A referendum is also needed because the previous one demonstrated that many politicians and activists have no idea about how the electorate want the country’s electoral system to be organized. Without specific endorsement in a referendum, any changes to the Lords will not have credible long-term legitimacy.

  • Alex Macfie 13th Jul '12 - 1:17pm

    A referendum? And lose because of another dishonest campaign from the anti-reformists? I thiunk that before we consider more referendums, we should introduce measures to ensure that campaign organisations are held to account over their campaigns. An election candidate’s campaign would never have been allowed to get away with the lies over the cost of AV.

  • Fantasy politics.
    A deal with the oh -so -trustworthy Labour Party?

  • Charles Beaumont 13th Jul '12 - 1:24pm

    We have nothing to fear from a referendum. If we can’t win it we should accept the public’s will.

  • Alex Macfie 13th Jul '12 - 1:34pm

    Nothing to fear except lies. There is are laws in place that require election campaigns to be truthful. The same should apply to referendum campaigns.

  • jenny barnes 13th Jul '12 - 1:42pm

    test

  • Bill le Breton 13th Jul '12 - 2:01pm

    Thanks for the support shown by many of you … so far!

    Alistair, it may stick in the craw, but as Tony said in a comment yesterday, a referendum will be the price necessary for reform. Decent management would have known this in advance.

    Alex. Our Party has some of the best campaigners in the country. Sadly, they were not involved in the General Election and they certainly were not involved or engaged in the AV campaign. Deep down in the grassroots people are spoiling for just such a campaign against one of the pillars of vested interest.

    Campaigning is just what the Party needs at the moment. It is restorative. Sure there will be disinformation and mud flung about, but unlike AV this campaign starts from a position of general support everywhere beyond the Westminster Village.

    Caracatus, actually a campaign on this single issue is heaven sent. It is a very powerful wedge issue. (There is only one the Blue party managers would fear more.)

  • Which bit of the disaster over AV passed everyone by here?

    Unless we have a joint referendum tying together HoL reform and HoC boundary changes then a referendum is completely absurd.

  • The irony here is that the Lib Dem’s built up a vote as an anti-politics party, but a significant proportion of the public hold an anti-politics view that the Lords should be an apolitical “house of experts”. Having the three professional politicians who head the three main parties line up in favour of an elected house won’t help win them over.

    A referendum on this issue, which I welcome, will likely have both sides claiming to be fighting vested interests, but only one will be able to advertise the opportunity to shaft all three party leaders with one vote. I was No2AV, and am already looking forward to this.

  • @ Charles Beaumont

    “We have nothing to fear from a referendum.”

    Er, nothing that is apart from having our arguments shouted down and the referendum turned into a vote on “Do you like Nick Clegg or not?” We all know how that one went last time round, don’t we?

    ” If we can’t win it we should accept the public’s will.”

    89% of the electorate voted for parties supporting democratic Lords reform at the last election. The public will has already been expressed.

  • Paul McKeown 13th Jul '12 - 2:58pm

    What a load of nonsense.

    Large conservative swathes of both the Conservative and Labour parties would campaign to retain the retention of appointment to the peerage by the Prime Minister. All a referendum would do would entrench the status quo – and after the campaign was lost, Ed Miliband would turn around and blame it all on Nick Clegg.

    Fine idealism. Otherworldy politics.

  • ………………..89% of the electorate voted for parties supporting democratic Lords reform at the last election. The public will has already been expressed……………..

    Even the three parties involved have different understandings of what “democratic Lords reform” actually entails so, stating that the public understand exactly what they’ll get, is disingenuous.
    As for “the public will”; 100% of those who voted believed they voted for “No top down NHS re-organisation”; so much for the public will.

    There needs to be more inter-party concensus and, as it seems certain that a referendum will be needed, there are only two choices;
    compromise/referendum and almost certainly get reform.
    no compromise/referendum and certainly don’t get reform.

    I don’t believe the country as a whole will lose any sleep if this bill dies so it’s up to our leadership to ensure it doesn’t.

  • I support Nick Clegg as a leader and I think he is vastly better than his public image, but anything that to which his name can be pinned under present conditions is bound to lose a referendum. That was true of AV and it is true of Lords reform.

    I just can’t grasp the idea that party members could be naive and starry eyed enough to fall for this referendum trap. We all know the Tories will vote this down but why do you think Labour supporters, whatever their leadership might say, would troop out and vote for something backed by Nick Clegg. Look at the polling. It’s there in black and white. According to Yougov 88% of Labour supporters think Nick Clegg is doing badly as a leader, 63% of them saying very badly. They HATE him.

    This has DISASTER written all over it in capital neon flashing letters.

  • @ Paul McKeown

    Totally, 100% spot on.

  • All the anti-referendum ppl on here can jump up & down all they want, saying that all three parties committed to reform. They did, but it’s not stopping the Tories and Labour blocking reform. There is one possible route to bypassing their actions – and only one – and that is a referendum. If we want reform then calling, fighting and winning that referendum is the only way.

    And just because we lost last time doesn’t mean we will lose again. Plenty of lessons were learned. And for goodness sake, if we cannot convince people that they should have the right to elect those who govern them we might as well pack up and all go home.

  • Paul McKeown 13th Jul '12 - 4:37pm

    “And just because we lost last time doesn’t mean we will lose again.”

    The referendum would be lost, because it would be presented as a referendum on the Lib Dems. The LDs have never had anywhere near 50% support in the electorate.

    “Plenty of lessons were learned.”

    I doubt it. “Lessons were learned” is just media speak for “we were gubbed”.

    “And for goodness sake, if we cannot convince people that they should have the right to elect those who govern them we might as well pack up and all go home.”

    I can see a market run on luggage in that case.

  • @ Stuart

    “There is one possible route to bypassing their actions – and only one – and that is a referendum.”

    The “route” you are talking about is actually a booby-trapped dead end.

  • Tony Dawson 13th Jul '12 - 5:30pm

    @Alex Macfie:

    ” An election candidate’s campaign would never have been allowed to get away with the lies over the cost of AV”

    I think you are seriously naive. The ‘lies’ were got away with because the campaign on the other side was useless.

  • RC13th Jul ’12 – 5:11pm……………………The route” you are talking about is actually a booby-trapped dead end…………………….

    So the only way foreward is a referendum and that’s a ‘dead end’.. Let’s just cut our losses and shelve the bill.

    We can then spend the next few years blaming Labour over a bill that the country as a whole doesn’t really care about.

  • Tony Dawson 13th Jul '12 - 5:32pm

    @RC:

    “According to Yougov 88% of Labour supporters think Nick Clegg is doing badly as a leader, 63% of them saying very badly. They HATE him.”

    What has thinking someone is doing a poor job got to do with whether you like them?

  • Old Codger Chris 13th Jul '12 - 5:46pm

    The Lib Dems have EVERYTHING to fear from a referendum.

    Most people couldn’t care less whether the House of Lords is reformed or not – it will just be the Lib Dems on their hobby horse of constitutional reform instead of the issues people actually care about. I doubt if anyone actually voted for House of Lords reform at the last General Election – it may have been in the manifestoes but it wasn’t exactly a hot topic.

    The fact that the proposed reforms are not demonstrably better than the current system (single-terms of 15 years) has horrible echoes of AV. The campaigning lions would be sent over the top by leadership donkeys.

  • Bill le Breton 13th Jul '12 - 6:39pm

    Old Codger Chris,

    The failure of Cameron to ‘field’ sufficient members of his party to win the vote on the programme motion breaks the spirit of the deal made in the Coalition Agreement on Lord’s Reform and frees us from any obligation to fight for the Bill as presently drafted.

    The existing Bill is a ‘camel’ created by illiberal compromises which in these new circumstances become unnecessary to defend.

    We set out seeking support for a wholly elected second chamber with a five year term.

    We know we want to avoid party lists and to achieve as close to STV’s proportional outcome as possible.

    We use those members of the Commons and Lord’s who took part in the 1997 constitutional discussions with Labour to open negotiations towards these ends.

    We achieve support for a programme motion and along with all those who wish for reform on those lines we seek to amend the Bill in a Committee of the whole House, with the one proviso that any decision goes to the People in a referendum.

    The Lord’s will not prevent such a Bill provided it is to be tested by way of referendum.

    We use the summer to consult at grass root level and begin the campaign in our communities – we link reform to banks, to phone taping, to economic stagnation, to inequality, to the disconnection of elites to the general public.

    We take a draft Bill to our own Conference for ratification and when once Parliament resumes we take our campaign to the floor of the House at the same time as we wage it in the streets, villages, towns and cities – as part of the resurgence of this country.

    Our leader as the Cabinet minister responsible for reform holds a Constitutional conference to seek a consensus.

    We debate, promote, negotiate and agree. If we lose the argument, we lose. But we break new ground.

    At the moment we have nothing or at best something that at heart none of us believe in, or would fight for. 15 years and a party list. No thanks. It is a monster of a camel.

    If we gain 326 votes from wherever then we demonstrate a new politics and begin the transformation process.

    We seek to time the referendum to maximize the advantage it would give us in the next General Election.

    RC and Paul Mc, you make a strong and unanswerable case for the leader to resign and make way for someone who is not toxic to every campaign that the Party is associated with in the future.

    If we don’t believe he can win this, then we won’t win anything with him as leader. So, he should make way now so the rest of us can get on with achieving a Liberal Democrat agenda, based on reform and renewal.

  • Paul McKeown 13th Jul '12 - 7:05pm

    “We use the summer to consult at grass root level and begin the campaign in our communities – we link reform to banks, to phone taping, to economic stagnation, to inequality, to the disconnection of elites to the general public.

    We take a draft Bill to our own Conference for ratification and when once Parliament resumes we take our campaign to the floor of the House at the same time as we wage it in the streets, villages, towns and cities – as part of the resurgence of this country.”

    The reality is that none of that is remotely credible. You might think Lord’s reform is important, I might also think it is, but the large bulk of electors will simply find it irrelevant. Fine talk of “disconnection” shows rather a different sort of disconnect, that of the political activist from the elector.

    “Stuart” wrote above that “Plenty of lessons were learned.” My fear is that no lessons have been learned and your post rather confirms my fears.

  • The referendum would be lost, because it would be presented as a referendum on the Lib Dems. The LDs have never had anywhere near 50% support in the electorate.

    Hmmm….. on that basis you have to wonder why the party bothers to stay around for anything.

    Assuming that a. referendum campaign isn’t run with the same stupidity as the AV campaign, and the party stops talking about Labour supporters as if they were all red skinned sheep then I would think a yes vote for HOL reform is very winnable.

  • A Referendum eh, to outfox the Tory and Labour rebels ? A cunning plan indeed Baldrick : )

  • @peebee :”I would think a yes vote for HOL reform is very winnable.”

    No, it wouldn’t be ,for starters , those opposing would be well funded and their MPs’ would given equal or more TV time than the pro side . Plus they’d be running as insurgents against the unpopular leaderships of the established parties . If you hadn’t noticed the political establishment isn’t exactly popular at the moment .

    Moreover, you’d have the biased tabloids saying these plans endanger Britain’s constitutional arrangements and thus urging voters to ‘give Clegg’s barmy scheme a kick in the ballots’. It’d be absolutely unwinnable, this despite the merits , simply because of these powerful extraneous factors. A grown up objective debate , with all the options debated on their merits is nigh on impossible in this country. The referendum on AV proved that.

  • Andy,
    So HoL is dead? What have we, as a party, got out of our vaunted coalition? We have lost many of our long term supporters, the wider electorate feel we cannot be trusted and our Tory ‘allies’ regard us as either irrelevant or a hindrance.

    “We’re doomed, Mr. Mainwaring!”

  • Patrick Smith 14th Jul '12 - 5:49pm

    The House of Lords Reform Bill is not dead in the water and remains a runner but depends for eventual passage through parliament on support from Labour and their exhorted manifesto price would undoubtedly be a national referendum.These would be for political besides democracy reasons.

    On the face of it that ought to accord with `die-hard’L/Ds, as there has been a `Coalition’ tightening around the pledge to offer the people a referender on any significant transfer of powers in any future EU Treaty.

    Both HOLs and EU reforms would surely represent a constitutional change to the status quo of the British Constitution?

    I would say that Labour is probably most concerned about the Scottish Question that overlaps with HOLs reform and that one is by far the bigger test as the continuation of UK unity is the more vital question to win and the most important Constitutional issue to solve , in modern times.

    I believe that our DPM is a principled and gifted leader and whose star will eventually rise in line with his talents in government when or if the press report all his hard work fairly in his leading of many Liberal Democrat manifesto policy pledges into reality, as a result of being a partner and founder of an innovative style of consensus politics known as `Coalition Government’.

    The DPM has led and brokered in government : the abolition of ID cards,the scuppering of DNA data records and fingerprints of children,the founding of the `Green Bank’ with focus on ethical and green investment and jobs,the abolition of tax for the first £10K for all lowest earners,the pledge to take 400,000 young persons into study or work or apprenticeships at a £1 Billion spending on human potential,the unfinished separation of high street banking services from the roguish `casino’ banks,the delivery of the `Pupil Premium’, the retaining of the international arrest warrant and liaison with interpol and the focus on local people protecting their community assets like the local Post Office ,under the Localism Act….

    But with the Economy dominant as the main reason for the `Coalition’ being formed in the first place to serve the national interest, would the electorate see reform of the House of Lords as a cause celebre?

    The task of rebuilding from the all `wins’ in the Liberal Democrat shared responsibility of government is our mission in the run up to 2014/5.

    Liberal Democrats have taken national power, at the most critical phase of history, since WW2 and this has to pay dividends in winning new Elections and will happen when people feel trust in our L/D leadership priorities in their lives.

    The House of Lords reform remains on the agenda as it is also in the national interset to achieve but in getting there it should not be seen to be a `Bridge Too Far’.

  • Leekliberal 14th Jul '12 - 7:33pm

    Bill le Breton and Tony Greaves are right. Labour say they will support the bill if it includes a referendum as promised in their manifesto. So let’s see if they are being less than totally cynical by accepting this only if Labour promise to fully support reform in the vote so it doesn’t end up as entirely identified with the Lib Dems/ Nick. Surely if we are prepared to debate the details of the amended chamber on their merits we can move forward with this vital part of effective Government for the UK.

  • Old Codger Chris 14th Jul '12 - 9:43pm

    There is certainly a case for reforming the second chamber. But a “vital part of effective Government”? Really?

  • Tony Greaves 15th Jul '12 - 12:38am

    At the moment the HoL is indeed a vital part of the legislative process. If you don’t want that, you have to seriously reform the Commons in ways that would mean huge changes to the constitution (effectively detaching the Commons from the tight Government control that it is subject to at the moment).

    On the Bill, let me state again what I am saying, which is not that we need to tdo a deal with KLabour to get it through.
    (And whether or not the Bill is watered down I think the same applies).

    The fact is that if the Bill proceeds it will be amended in the Commons to include a referendum. If that happens the Lords will not change that. So we have no choice but to live with that. In those circumstances why try to stop it? W”hy not start planning and working now, as Bill suggests, to win the referendum? And in the meantime reinvent campaigning in this party?

    Tony Greaves

  • Bill le Breton 8th Aug '12 - 8:07am

    Paul, thanks for your thoughtful piece. Please consider carefully what David wrote immediately above.

    The actions of the rebel Tories gave us the opportunity to extend the way coalition works from the rather straightforward, unimaginative format which operates at the moment and which has a built-in advantage for the larger of the coalition parties – an advantage that is not inevitable.

    Because the two leaderships (and their apparatus in offices of the PM and DPM) are too closely linked, Cameron knows it is more important for him to pander to his rebels than to his *partners*.

    Imposing the ‘penalty’ of removing LD support for a boundary review is not sufficient. We needed to change the nature of the relationship within the mechanics of coalition. That is where it really hurts the Conservative leadership. That is what the rebels actually did on their side and it is what we should do as a response.

    Threatening to take this to a referendum in partnership with Labour would have given Cameron more headaches than conveniently bowing to his rebels.

    Yet again the strategic acumen of our ‘team at the top’ has been found wanting.

    This approach is doubly important for dealing with/changing economic policy, which becomes more important with each passing day.

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