Paul Tyler writes: A victory for democracy?

Doubtless some peers now believe that they can go off for the long summer recess, secure in the knowledge that the status quo in the House of Lords is preserved.  The thought of a shake-up is so uncomfortable for some inhabitants that they have resorted to calling the Coalition’s House of Lords Reform Bill ‘rushed’, despite its genesis in over a decade of cross-party discussion, and a hundred years of gestation.  Yet after subjecting the legislation to a painstaking Joint Committee, which met thirty times to take evidence from almost everyone who has ever thought about the subject, my bets are strongly against the Government giving up at this point.

The House of Commons has voted by a majority of 338 for the Bill to proceed.  Labour’s position, supporting the principle but not the means of realising it, is obviously craven in the extreme and should not withstand further scrutiny in the Autumn.  Their objection that no ‘programme motion’ – a mechanism for timetabling the legislative passage of the Bill – is acceptable just rings too hollow.  It was they who first introduced such motions, when they brought in another constitutional Bill: that to bring about a Scottish Parliament.  When they promoted the “Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill” in 2009, with more than 15 separate constitutional reforms to everything from the House of Lords to human rights, they permitted only four Committee days in their programme.  The Coalition had suggested 10 Committee days for the House of Lords Reform Bill, which has already had a year of pre-legislative scrutiny.  No one really believes this was insufficient.

For my own part, I believe the Government must now start setting out the unpalatable alternative to progress with the Bill.  Complacent peers and mischief-making MPs might think that they can make the whole issue go away with a little parliamentary game-playing.  But they can’t.  The Coalition Agreement provides for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to appoint enough new peers to make the House reflect the 2010 General Election result.  That would mean the elevation of more than 200 Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, with no appointments at all for Labour.

Doubtless the latter would cry foul if the Coalition stuck to the letter of this particular Coalition promise but if Labour won’t play ball on reform, why should Clegg and Cameron restrain themselves any longer?  The Lords is stuffed full of Blair’s appointees, all making quite partisan, tribal trouble for the government.  Without democratic legitimacy on their side, why should they do so?  The reform opponents must remember that they are in the business of defending appointment by patronage.  They cannot therefore posit any intellectual objection to the appointment of lots more Prime Ministerial acolytes and Deputy Prime Ministerial allies.  If they are determined to maintain such a system, let them see its effects.

Some of the Tory rebels claimed that the Government’s withdrawal of the programme motion earlier this month was a “victory for the House of Commons”.  It signally was not.  What kind of Pyrrhic victory is it for MPs collectively to vote by a large margin in favour of progress and then to permit it to be thwarted by any one member with a talent and a tendency to talk, and talk, and talk?  If a small blocking minority is allowed to filibuster this Bill to death, that will no more be a victory for democracy than it would be for one man to stand outside polling stations, blocking the doors, while hundreds queue to vote.  If that happens, Labour – fairly and squarely – will be to blame.  If they ever return to government, they will deserve to do so finding the conundrum of Lords Reform still in their in-tray, waiting to be sorted out.  And they will deserve to do so, facing a House of Lords which – as per the Coalition Agreement – had been “rebalanced” to reflect the 2010 election result.

Ed Miliband has a choice over the summer.  Does he show his weakness by permitting the minority of only 26 MPs in his party who were against the second reading of the Bill to dictate the way forward?  More cavilling, more tactics, no progress.  Or does he stick to his principles and permit the will of a clear majority of MPs on all sides to prevail?  Labour voters themselves – a clear majority of whom favour reform – should make clear in the coming weeks which option they view as the real victory for democracy.

Meanwhile, if you have questions about the detail of the Bill, many are answered in Lords Reform:  A Guide to MPs, which I published this month with nine other supporters of Lords Reform from both other parties.  You can view it online here.

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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3 Comments

  • The composition of the House of Lords has never been in proportion to the number of votes won by parties at the previous election. Labour didn’t have a plurality in the House of Lords until 2005, but I’ll accept for now a dramatic need to make that happen now.

    Labour currently have 226 Lords, that’ll stay the same, Labour had 8,606,517 in 2010, so that’s 38,081 per Lord as our quota.
    Tories currently have 213 Lords, that would need to be increased by 68 to 281.
    Lib Dems currently have 90, that would need to be increased by 89 to 179.

    So not sure where the “over 200” comes from, but it’s close enough. But if the Coalition set the precedent, what do we do after 2015. Imagine a result something like Labour 39%, Conservative 37%, Liberal Democrats 16%. Now the benchmark would be the Lib Dem lords, 179 Lords for 4.75 million votes, or 26,536 per Lord.

    Labour would then have to appoint another 210 Lords and the Tories would get another 132 Lords. The total size of the Lords would be over 1,200 with crossbenchers and bishops and the problem would only increase as every shift in election votes cause a new raft of Lords to be appointed. Soon there would barely be a politician in the country that wasn’t a Lord. It’s a silly proposal and you know it’s silly, that’s why the Coalition haven’t actually done it.

  • I am glad that we cancelled the scheduled internal elections for the peers list, but I entirely agree that we need to fill up our quota in the Lords to get the Coalition agreed bills through. The quickest way is for Nick to appoint from his list of PPCs or councillors, ie people with some democratic legitimacy. But when appointed it should be clearly on the basis that they will support Lords reform, the present nonsense of LIbDem Lords who oppose the policy is shameful.

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