The House of Lords needs to go, but it still has a job to do while it’s here

eyelordsThat image is from the latest Private Eye, but it’s echoing something that’s been all over the right wing of the internet in the last few days, as a harrumph of commentators and keyboard warriors have declared themselves to be shocked beyond all measure that members of the House of Lords have voted against the Government. Suddenly, people who not so long ago were defending the hereditary principle in Lords appointments are now solemnly proclaiming that members of the Lords daring to have opinions is the gravest of constitutional crises. Peak silliness comes in this article by William Hague in which he presents himself as some great scholar of the British constitution while completely forgetting that he was Tory leader at the time Lord Strathclyde declared convention dead and claimed the right for the Lords to vote down statutory instruments.

(On an aside, it’s interesting how rarely countries that actually have written constitutions tend to have constitutional crises, compared to how often they’re threatened in Britain…)

The other common theme in this week’s torrent of bloviation – and features in both Private Eye and Hague’s column – is the implication that there’s something especially illegitimate about Liberal Democrat lords daring to have opinions counter to the government’s. (For all the resistance some people have to electing the Lords, the zeal they occasionally show for the representatives in there to reflect the results of an election is odd) What gets neglected in this – and in the Eye’s quote especially – is any mention of what happened in 2012. There’s a reason Farron’s quote comes from then: it’s because that’s when the Liberal Democrats in government were trying to reform the House of Lords to make it elected. However, thanks to the mutual ambivalence of David Cameron and Ed Miliband, the House of Lords Reform Bill died in the Commons. If Cameron and the Conservatives had shown the same desire for Lords reform then as they do now, we probably wouldn’t be facing the situation we’re in now.

To be frank, I think there are too many Liberal Democrat Lords in Parliament. There are also too many Tory, Labour, UKIP, Green, Plaid Cymru, UUP, DUP and crossbench Lords as well because in my view, any number of unelected Lords sitting in Parliament greater than zero is wrong. That’s why I don’t want to reform the Lords, I want to abolish it and replace it with a much better upper house/Senate. As far as I’m aware, that view – or variations on it to similar ends – is held by most members of the Liberal Democrats.

So yes, Liberal Democrats want to see the House of Lords reformed or replaced, and will happily work with others to make that happen if they want it. However, we’ve been waiting a hundred years or more to see that elected upper house come about and while abstentionism may work as a tactic for some, most conventional political parties seek to work within the systems as they are currently constituted, with most people understanding that working within a system doesn’t mean that you can’t also seek to change that system. All governments need to be challenged and scrutinised, and while the House of Lords might not be the best way of achieving that, it’s what exists within the system at present.

At the moment, the Conservative complaints are sounding very much like ‘we were promised an elective dictatorship, how dare you try and stop us!’ and the Strathclyde review (with irony not yet being dead, the man who declared the convention on statutory instruments dead is the natural choice to lead it) appears to be designed to try and strip away some more of what few brakes on executive authority there are in the current system. I want to see a system where we have two elected chambers in Parliament that are both capable of holding the Government to account in different ways, but until such time as we get to that point, there’s no nobility in refusing to act because the current system isn’t perfect.

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Labour’s political reform proposals: some good ideas, but where’s the detail?

labourreformLabour have launched their plans for political reform (there’s a PDF with more detail here) and at a first look, they’re not that bad. Not perfect, but definitely steps in the right direction and with a bit more coherence to them than the rather random nature of the combined authorities/city regions plans currently being scattered across the country.

The good news is that Labour remain committed to having a Constitutional Convention and are looking at how devolution within England works as a whole, not on a piecemeal basis. There’s no detail on how the convention will be made up, though, and I’d be concerned that it could turn into another top-down attempt at reform where a convention of the great and the good tour the country for some set piece events rather than a proper convention where a wider range of people get to take part.

They also commit to replacing the House of Lords with a Senate, and I’m not going to rehash old arguments about that, but would point out that they only mention removing hereditary peers from the Lords, which makes me wonder if the current appointees will be allowed to remain in place. Like with the constitutional convention, the commitment is good, but the devil is in the detail.

The promise to change the way the Commons work is interesting, especially wanting to “discourage off putting and aggressive behaviour in the Chamber”. However, that is something they’ve got the power to at least partly deliver now. Indeed, if Ed Miliband really wanted to do something dramatic at Prime Minister’s Questions, he would instruct his MPs to sit quietly throughout it, and perhaps do something really transgressive himself like asking David Cameron a question that’s a test of his knowledge, rather than his spinning skills.

Introducing a ‘public evidence stage’ for bills going through the Commons is an interesting idea, but like any public consultation it risks becoming a gimmick and a box-ticking exercise rather than a meaningful input into the process. What measures will be put in place to ensure that the public’s input gets properly considered rather than included in a report that no one pays any real attention to? Also, will the public evidence stage be limited to those who can get to Westminster, or something encouraging wider participation?

We also have a promise that “Labour will reform elections so everyone has their say”, which sounds promising, but is mostly tweaks in administration of elections (votes at 16, changes to registration and trials of online voting) and doesn’t include any commitment to electoral reform. If they truly want a system that gives everyone their say, then they can’t get that with the current electoral system. However, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and the many Labour MPs in safe seats would be up in arms if the party started campaigning for them to have a harder time of it.

It’s good to see Labour putting forward proposals on political reform, but as we’ve seen before from Governments of all stripes, good intentions in this field don’t always lead to good outcomes. There’s more detail needed on all the proposals to make them more than just positive soundbites, and they need to be something that makes a real difference, not just a bit of PR that’ll make no real difference to the way things work. Are Labour serious about changing the way power works in this country? These proposals suggest they might be, but they need to demonstrate that commitment not just mouth a few platitudes.

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The smell of hypocrisy in the morning

We all remember some of the shameful things that happened in Parliament during the last Labour government. Chief among them, of course, were the repeated times when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats used their majority of votes their to repeatedly block any attempts to discuss House of Lords reform. Then, when it managed to get through, they repeatedly voted down Labour’s proposals for a 100% elected second chamber and referendum on the issue. They certainly weren’t a government who got extremely half-hearted about Lords reform after removing most of the hereditary peers, and allowed whatever meagre Parliamentary time they allocated to discussing it to end in inconclusive votes that achieved nothing beyond kicking it into the long grass for years.

I don’t recall any of that happening, but it must have done for this to make any sense. Otherwise, it’d just be someone blocking the chance to have any further reform of the Lords in order to play political games.

Oh, and the whole ‘we should be concentrating on the economy and not doing anything else in Parliament’ argument? Take a look at this list of bills announced in the 2009 Queen’s Speech when the economy wasn’t doing too well either. Oddly, that seems to have a number of bills included in it (including ones on constitutional reform and Lords reform) that are nothing to do with the economy. Perhaps the Labour Party of 2009 – unlike their modern-day counterparts – were able to understand that it’s possible for a Government and a Parliament to do more than one thing at once.

What might have happened if someone had told William Beveridge there was no time for him to waste writing reports on social insurance while there was a war on?


Trapped in ermine

Remember when the Tories appeared to be in favour of reforming the House of Lords, and even electing it? Well, looks like that’s been sacrificed on the altar of their all-consuming hatred of Peter Mandelson.

Yes, the very idea that Mandelson might be allowed to – like almost anyone else in a free society – resign from one position to seek another is just so anathema to the Tories that they’ll attempt to stop it from happening. The fact that this just prolongs the absurdity of the existence of the House of Lords (where, let’s remember, Jeffrey Archer is still entitled to vote on the laws of the country) is neither here nor there – no principle is too high to be jettisoned in the desire to stop the people being able to vote on whether Peter Mandelson should be in Parliament.

I’m no fan of Mandelson, and I’m sure a Labour Party led by him would go down to defeat just as heavily as one led by Gordon Brown, but next time you hear Tories complaining about the ‘unelected’ Mandelson, do remind them that it’s in their power to remedy that situation.

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