Over on Next Left, Sunder Katwala makes the case for 1910 being the most underrated year in political history. Reading this, a thought occurred to me: will the Labour Lords respect the Salisbury-Addison Convention if Cameron wins the general election later this year?
As long ago as 2005, Lord McNally refuted the continued legitimacy of the Convention on behalf of the Liberal Democrats (pdf), much to the consternation of the government:
… I do not believe that a convention drawn up 60 years ago on relations between a wholly hereditary Conservative-dominated House and a Labour Government who had 48 per cent of the vote should apply in the same way to the position in which we find ourselves today.
I hope that the Lord Chancellor will approach the issue in a constructive way. However, if the Government’s aim is simply to clip the wings of this House, so that a Government who have already demonstrated hubris and impatience on any check to
their powers check the powers of this House even further without proper reforms both down the corridor and in general governance, then Salisbury convention or no Salisbury convention, we will fight those proposals tooth and nail.
McNally’s argument makes good sense; the purpose of the Salisbury convention was to stop an illegitimate legislative chamber from thwarting the will of a democratic one. Fast forward to 2005 and we had a second chamber which roughly reflected the balance of votes cast in the previous general election and a first chamber which frankly did not. The same is likely to apply in 2010, unless the Tories begin stuffing the red benches, in which case the argument that the Salisbury Convention needs to be reviewed becomes unavoidable.
It looks almost certain that one of Labour’s favourite lines in the run up to the general election will be that if you vote Lib Dem you’ll be helping the Tories. They used this line in 2005 and it was partially effective, and I have no doubt that in their bid to stave off the Lib Dems in their marginals they will try the same. Fair enough. But if they maintain as they have in this parliament that Salisbury still applies, then it will be Labour politicians we will be seeing marching into the division lobby to support Tory policies, not Lib Dem ones.
In some ways this sums up the problem with the current Labour Party. For all their bluster, they have become all too comfortable being the establishment. Now that the ultimate establishment party is poised to retain control of the wheel, for all the bluster, what they can do except go along with it? They’ve blown every chance they’ve had, from taking big money out of politics to electoral reform, to ensure that when the Tories eventually increased their popularity there would be some proper safeguards to ensure they wouldn’t be able to abuse their position, mainly because Labour itself has grown so fond of these little abuses themselves.
2010 is going to be a decisive year for Labour. Possibly the worst thing that could happen to it would be to win a fourth term (whether this would be better or worse for the country is another question entirely). Fortunately for them, this is highly unlikely to happen. But what kind of opposition will they be? If the Straws and Browns have their way, they will continue to mouth opposition whilst only offering a superficial alternative. If control skips a generation by contrast we will probably see the party become more genuinely radical in terms of constitutional reform at least, but never underestimate the reactionary small ‘c’ conservative elements that lie at the heart of the party and the trade union movement. It is going to be a fascinating spectacle.
On a not totally unrelated note, I recommend people read Martin Kettle’s Is a Labour-Tory coalition unthinkable? Only until you think about it.