Parliamentary pillow fight as peers face all-night sittings

Members of the House of Lords are bedding down for the first ermine sleepover in recent Parliamentary history as peers debate the government’s plans to hold a referendum on electoral reform. [Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill]

After eight days of the Bill at Committee Stage, there are still 165 amendments of the original 275 remaining for consideration.

From the Financial Times:

Labour peers are braced for the prospect of all-night sittings in the coming days in what the government has condemned as unprecedented “filibustering” by the opposition party.

Officials were setting out camp beds in several rooms in the House of Lords on Monday night for those peers who could not face debating non-stop from dusk until dawn on the “alternative vote” electoral reform proposals.

Labour has slowed the progress of the bill, which combines AV with boundary changes, claiming that the government is trying to alter the size of constituency seats to favour the Tory party.

Having already debated the bill for nine days in the Lords there are concerns within the government that it may not reach the statute book by the deadline of February 16.

That date is crucial because, under law, the Electoral Commission needs a full 10 weeks to prepare the literature for a referendum, including its precise wording. Lord Strathclyde, Conservative leader in the Lords, said it would be “extremely serious” if the tactics led to a delay in the referendum, due on May 5.

Ministers were tiring of the opposition’s “consistently and deliberately slow” debating techniques, he said. Labour had “had their fun”, he insisted, as he urged peers not to stand in the way of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies bill.

Commenting, Deputy Convenor of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, Baroness (Jane) Bonham-Carter, said:

Labour peers have started abusing the House’s procedures for blatant and petty party political point-scoring on the Bill for a referendum on fairer votes and they must desist.

Frustrated and unable to accept their loss of power, Labour have resorted to filibustering through tabling a great number of amendments and pontificating at length on their merit.

It is worrying that primarily former MPs are working so hard to stop the people having their say on the way they elect their MPs. It is almost as if they are afraid that their chums in the Commons will have to work harder to convince people that they will represent them in the best possible manner.

So round about now, peers tell me, Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard are covering the Lib Dem bench, while others can stay for the debate, or sample the entertainment that’s laid on elsewhere in Parliament: Lord Coe is just winding up a talk on the Olympics, there’s a bridge group going, and separate men’s and women’s makeshift dormitories have been set up with camp beds. They will be woken by a bell if they need to vote. There are restaurant facilities for tea, coffee, toasted sandwiches and soup, though the bar closed at 10:30pm. Breakfast will be served at 6am.

For the wide-awake, there’ll be an audience with (Lord) Julian Fellowes at 1am, where the acclaimed screenwriter will be talking about his work.

“Never mind Seb Coe’s Olympics,” one peer told me, “they are boring for Britain – this is a marathon session! The Lords has always worked on people behaving decently – there have been all night sittings before, but this is a matter of Labour filibustering.”

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  • This really does underline the Labour Party, really. Labour will get Milliband to support AV so that they look progressive on the entire policy, then the rest of the party seeks to undermine the referendum to the very best of their ability, as their logic dictates that as their voters are worth more than all the other voters on average, they need to have less voters over all in their constituencies…

    How can Labour ignore the obvious flaw that if the constituency sizes are more equal, the party who is in power can be considered more legitimate? If the Coalition seeks to even out constituency sizes, if there’s a Tory advantage *that’s because the Tories win more votes*. No, it’s not nice that the Tories have a huge amount of brainless support. But that support is given by free individuals! Labour oppose any reform and refuse to accept there is a problem in that some MPs have to get fewer votes than others to be there. As Bonham-Carter said, it’s petty.

  • The May date for an AV referendum would not be in doubt if Clegg had not insisted on putting the other issues into the Bill. There is no rush for these to be decided and the loss of natural constituencies and the ridiculous merging of seats accross boundaries (in my area a seat will end up covering Devon and Cornwall you’d have to know the South West to understand why that is not a good idea!). A more considered approach to these issues could be taken and still be in place before 2015. The Tories want it earlier so they can jettison the Lib Dems if the electoral maths look good enough.

    Of course none of this would be an issue if a proportional system was being offered as the effects of constituency variations could be mitigated. Still neither of the parties of Government seem to want that anymore preferring dirty little compromises.

    There are conventions about the Lords allowing manifesto commitments through. Unfortunately the public did not get a say in either a 5 year term or the boundary changes. The Government will always win due to the makeup of the Lords, even if Labour could get a majority the parliament act can be envoked.

    This is a wholly avoidable problem that just needed a less confrontational aproach to the big issue (AV) and a slower considered approach to the remainder of the Bill.

  • tonygreaves 18th Jan '11 - 1:58am

    Don’t worry, the peers-only Bishops Bar is open all night. There is some hope that some of the Labour peers will drink themselves out of action. Me? I’ve got my sleeping bag and mattress in my office. I thought of putting up my tent on College Green but decided against it on grounds of rotten weather.

    The first two amendments today took four hours – and then Labour accused us all of “ramming the Bill through.” thi sone will run and run. We are still in Monday (at 2am Tuesday) and we will probably be in Monday for the rest of Tuesday and overnight into Wednesday (and beyond??) Who knows.the behaviour of many Labour peers (particularly backbenchers fresh up from the Commons) is pretty despicable really.

    Tony Greaves

  • Partly this is trouble-making by some in the Labour camp but there are also some serious issues. Why should there be 600 MPs rather than any other number? Do the numbers in the executive or the Lords need to change too? Which constituency boundaries can be treated differently? Etc.

    The Lords is there to carefully scrutinise legislation, particularly that of constitutional importance. It’s a shame that the coalition dynamics have made this impossible in this case.

  • As I have said before, I am strongly against this bill simply because of the proposal to cut the number of MPs, which will greatly strengthen the power of the executive over the legislature – something I would have thought LibDems would oppose!

    This whole fiasco could have been avoided by separating the referendum proposals from the other measures, something Labour has consistently called for.

    It is the calition’s intransigence that has caused this brouhaha. One job of an opposition is to oppose faulty legislation, which is what Labour peers are doing.

    For the record, I support voting reform.

  • Rebekah Gronowski 18th Jan '11 - 8:11am

    At 08.02 hrs the Lords are still debating!

    I think this is a mistaken idea to conflate the two issues. Each of the two issues should be separate from the other – the fact that they have been placed in the same debate confuses matters and muddies the water. What is the rush? Constituency Boundary changes ought to be taking much longer to be considered properly than the vote on AV. The voting on AV is a simple matter of a Referendum, whether or not we agree with it. Consituency Boundary Changes are another matter and require much more thought and very careful consideration.

    As has been said already – the constituents who will be affected by the Boundary Changes have had very littkle say in the matter, if any at all. There have been petitions and other protests, especially with the proposal to attach the Isle of Wight to the mainland (presumably Hampshire) – this is a nonsense.

    The Lords are quite rightly pulling this Bill apart – and so they should. It is an ill-conceived Bill proposal and needs to go back to the drawing board.

  • As I have said before, I am strongly against this bill simply because of the proposal to cut the number of MPs, which will greatly strengthen the power of the executive over the legislature – something I would have thought LibDems would oppose!
    Hmm. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Although we do have very large chambers of Parliament from a global perspective, so cutting 50 should not damage things too much surely – didn’t the LDs argue for a reduction to 500 at one point, or was that just one of the options proposed? imagine the furore if that was policy now!

    There are many issues to be had with this bill, and I for one am glad the Lords are able to give a great deal of time to scrutinize legislation, as is their primary function, and so bring their diverse experience to bear upon it. However, from the reports I have seen the opponents of the bill are increasingly going off topic and barely tangential ramblings. In any sort of assembly some amount of this is to expected, and we’ve certainly seen it before, but at some point I think one has to concede, for the time being.

    The bill has the votes to get passed eventually – hopefully after the Lords have done their duty and ironed out the egregious errors – and so will not be defeated by revealing it is fundamentally broken, so the level of obstruction is designed on a party political basis to harm the government rather than analyse the legislation; that they reportedly keep bringing up things like the Venerable Bede illustrate that well enough, showing they have made their arguments against matters but the chamber disagrees. That is unfortunate for opponents, but since they cannot prevent the bill coming into law, even if it misses the wished for deadline, pointlessly obstructing is probably a step too far.

    That said, people are correct when they say the AV referendum date would likely not be in doubt had the bill not included all the rest of the changes. A deliberate tactic by the tories to ‘accidentally’ miss the AV referendum date? I severely doubt it, but the decision has caused headaches.

  • @Rebekah Gronowski “It is an ill-conceived Bill proposal and needs to go back to the drawing board.”

    No it isn’t. It’s a very simple Bill with well understood effects. You may not agree with (all of) it, but that is politics. Such a Bill is not an excuse for these sort of tactics.

    Why have the Labour peers chosen to filibuster on this Bill rather on one of the many others which deals with issues closer to Labour’s hearts or the public’s interest? Why not free schools, health reforms or even, given the huge fuss they made about it, the increase in tuition fees?

    The true reasons are pure political maneuvering and the self interest of the Labour party. Their simple hope is to preserve their electoral advantage and drive a wedge between the coalition partners. Having lost these arguments in the Commons and the wider media consensus, to now resort to filibuster tactics in the Lord’s is pathetic.

    The ability to filibuster has its place, but it is a nuclear option which should be used sparingly. By using it for this Bill, Labour show both their weakness and their intellectual bankruptcy.

  • How is this affected by the usual convention of the Lords not blocking a bill which was in a manifesto? The boundary changes was in the Tory manifesto, and electoral reform in ours, so by rights there shouldn’t be much of a challenge.

    On the other hand, I’m wondering at what point delirium will set in through lack of sleep. Now, that should make for some entertaining debate….

  • I see no Iceberg 18th Jan '11 - 9:26am

    “I’m wondering at what point delirium will set in through lack of sleep.”

    How would we notice that in the House of Lords ?

  • Just when I think my opinion of the Labour party cannot get any lower, they find a way to prove me wrong.

  • Emsworthian 18th Jan '11 - 9:36am

    We should never have pushed into this do or die position. At best it’s never going to be more than
    Clegg’s miserable little compromise, It’s unlikely to increase our strength in parliament
    and it’s been hooked up to a chaotic re-drawing of boundaries without any public consultation.
    I don’t buy the argument that it’s only a first step. It’s the only step for a generation in the wrong direction.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 18th Jan '11 - 9:48am

    The proposed boundary changes, in their current form, will result in a shift of power from some of the most deprived inner city areas to the leafy suburbs. I can see why the Tories are in favour of that; it saddens me to see LibDems supporting them. Labour peers are simply doing their jobs by subjecting the proposls to detailed scrutiny and attempting to improve them.

    If that delays the referendum, so be it. Clegg will have no-one to blame but himself. The enabling legislation for the referendum and the contentious proposals to reduce the number of MPs and revise constituency boundaries should have been the subjects of separate bills

  • I support AV but I think Labour are dead right on this one – putting the two only tenuously linked proposals into the same bill is a very cynical move. It’s just as shameful a tactic as filibustering. Besides, the boundary changes are highly dubious – it’s just a case of picking one arbitrary factor in the constituency system (number of voters) and deciding that it ought to be prioritised over any other factor; there’s no particularly convincing argument for this. And then, of course, they are even proposing a small number of exceptions to this – constituencies allowed with smaller numbers of voters – which totally undermines the whole thing.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 18th Jan '11 - 1:31pm

    Alex P,

    Andrew Tennant,
    This bill is not about “treating all voters equally and strengthening them to make democratic decisions”. It’s a cynical piece of Tory gerrymandering and I am ashamed to be a member of a party whose leader has put his name to it.

    So Labour are using a filibuster to frustrate the government. Oh, how dreadful!!!

  • It’s a cynical piece of Tory gerrymandering and I am ashamed to be a member of a party whose leader has put his name to it.

    So Labour are using a filibuster to frustrate the government. Oh, how dreadful!!!
    The current system is not fair – whether one agrees they are better than the Tories or not, it is unfair that Labour are favoured by it, and they are – and it is not as though the Tories will hand draw boundaries to their liking; but it was always going to benefit them if parity were put in place, because of the current slant in Labour’s favour. And it is good the Lords scrutinize legislation, especially such complex, important and rushed legislation. But the Labour Peers reportedly seem to be increasingly going off on tangents solely in order to delay the AV referendum, as there is no benefit to rambling if the amendment being discussed is relevant, as they should be, which also means less time can be spent on the amendments which actually are important.

    A certain amount of this type of obstruction is expected and tolerated, and it’s all been seen before, but their actions do not fit if they were only concerned about scrutinizing the legislation – if it did, I would applaud the action, even if it led to a delay in the AV referendum (a reasonable first step, best that could be hoped for at the moment)

  • It’s a cynical piece of Tory gerrymandering and I am ashamed to be a member of a party whose leader has put his name to it.
    It is much harder to Whip the Lords as well if Mark D’Arcy’s blog at the BBC has any truth, so I don’t think one can pin all this on Clegg. The party has collectively put its name to this legislation it seems; if they didn’t think it was good they would have far less compunction about rebelling on the issue as well, in the Lords, but they seem to have considered it and agreed the extent of Labour’s blocking on the bill is unwarranted, something their delaying tactics (which will not prevent the bill being passed eventually, merely embarrass the government about the referendum date – which might even please those angry about the date) would seem to support.

    I hope the animosity growing over the debate has not prevented proper scrutiny of those amendments that were necessary and relevant though.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 18th Jan '11 - 11:14pm

    All those who believe in fair constituency sizes – should perhaps ask themselves what they want to equalise?

    Is it the registered electorate in each constituency – or the numbers who are entitled to register. Given there are 4m unregistered voters whose occurnce is far from regular – perhaps they should think about whether they are replacing one unfair system with another.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 18th Jan '11 - 11:17pm

    And for those who say it is not possible to equalise on the basis of those entitled to register – could I suggest they go and look what statistical sampling and modelling might achieve if they are given some time to be undertaken. But as they say legislate in a hurry repent at leisure.

  • Nick (Not Clegg) 19th Jan '11 - 8:25am

    Your faith in the collective wisdom of our parliamentary party is touching. I’m sorry that I cannot share it.

    “The party has collectively put its name to this legislation, it seems”. Ok, so I have to be ashamed of the whole party, not just its leader.

  • Jonathan Featonby 19th Jan '11 - 8:44am

    Nice to see that after going for nearly 24 hours, the Lords adjourn Monday’s business, only to complete Tuesday’s in a matter of hours.

    Call me a cynic, but this screams of peers wanting to get their pay and expenses for two seperate days. Also suggests a deal has been done or else the Government would have surely pushed for another all-nighter. As Clegg was very firm in his commitment to equal sized constituencies in Deputy PMQs yesterday, I can only assume that it will be to increase the wiggle room around the average size of constituencies to 10%, as opposed to the 5% currently contained in the bill.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 19th Jan '11 - 12:46pm

    “but to make voter registration even easier” – and what if this doen’t happen beforehand and is allowed to have an impact on the initial size of constituencies. Strangely enough this is not being addressed in the legislation on the boundary changes – while the unrelated AV referendum is – why do you think that this is.

    “if they choose not to then they choose not to be involved in selecting their representation” – that is not the same as saying that they don’t want to be represented. Sounds very much like the no taxation without representation debate.

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