The Times poll today showing that the majority of peers are not only opposed to Lords reform but feel it would be “unconstitutional” to proceed without their blessing begs an important question: in a country without a codified constitution, what on earth is “constitutional” anyway?
Where the peers may have a point is that when the courts looked at the Parliament Act’s applicability with regard to the Hunting Act in 2005, there was a suggestion by some Law Lords that judges might be able to strike down attempts to use the Parliament Act to affect constitutional changes. Of course, this has not been tested, but it is at least contestable and it is just conceivable that the Law Lords might come down hard on any attempt to use the Parliament Act to force through an elected second chamber.
Yet while the use of the Parliament Act may be considered illegal, it could equally be argued that for the Lords to block reform, and thus make the use of the Parliament Act necessary, could only be done by steamrollering over the conventions which have allowed the House of Lords to stay its execution for the past 60 years. The Salisbury Convention was introduced specifically to prevent the unelected Lords thwarting the will of an elected Commons. Its precise formulation has come under strain with the advent of governments being formed with just 36% of the vote – and let’s not get started on how it should work with a coalition government. Despite this, nobody has contested the basic underlying principle at its core: public will, as expressed through the ballot box via the party system and the House of Commons, should always win out.
It is with this in mind that I feel the need to point out that all three major parties fought the last election with a specific manifesto commitment to reform the Lords. It would be an absolute scandal for the Lords to presume to exercise a veto, akin to the worst examples of clericocracy that we are all too ready to condemn when it happens in Iran. By all means let’s see the Lords doing their job and scrutinising the legislation with a fine tooth comb, but blocking it outright should be considered out of bounds.
All three party leaders should come down on this, and hard. Anyone else wondering why they haven’t done so already?
UPDATE: I’ve written a piece on Comment is Free, building on this.
You might also be interested in Mark Pack’s article about dissolution honours on Left Foot Forward.
And finally, I should have urged everyone to sign Unlock Democracy’s petition on reforming the House of Lords.
Busy, busy, busy… but I did find the time to write a piece on Lords reform over on Comment is Free last night.
I had originally written a totally different article, but in researching it I got increasingly annoyed by the same old canards against elections coming up again and again. Get with the program people: the House of Lords is not full of sober, independent individuals who eschew their party whips – they are more slavishly loyal than MPs. This is a fact. Get over it. Sheesh!
What bugs me about the whole debate on Lords reform is that it never seems to move on and the same nonsense arises again and again. It has probably been this way for 100 years. Maybe the only answer is to put some basic facts up on the side of a fleet of buses. Anyone got a spare Â£100,000?
If you can ignore the fact that the Conservative policy is for the House of Lords to be elected using the first past the post system, which is itself a closed list system, you could be forgiven for thinking they had quite a principled take in the Lords reform debate a few weeks ago. To quote Theresa May:
Yes, under the Government’s proposals 50 per cent. of the new peers would be elected, but the Government propose that those elections should use a list system. Effectively, therefore, the parties choose who is elected, so peers would owe their place in the Lords to their party bosses. Crucially, it would make it much harder for independent candidates to run for office successfully. We should do all that we can to encourage independent elected Members in the other place, and I doubt that the Leader of the Opposition believes that a list system would make for a truly independent upper Chamber.
That was all, so, last week though. Now they are considering tearing up the existing rights of party members to order the closed lists for the European Parliament elections. No doubt Theresa May’s response to this will be, as it was at a Hansard debate last month, that the Tories use primary selections, so it shouldn’t matter how the choice of candidates is restricted (as it has been by the A-list), but it doesn’t wash. The hunger for control from the centre is just as strong amongst Cameroons as it was amongst the Blairites.
Say what you like about the Lib Dems, but we tend to take these rights for granted. We have real debates at our conferences in which the leadership occasionally has to fight to save their cherished policies; the Tories pretend to be on Dragon’s Den. If a commitment to democracy doesn’t actually run through you veins, faking it tends to make you look slightly ridiculous.
(Hat tip: Iain Dale. More info: MEPWatch)
Ahh, you’ve got to laugh:
Forty-two members of the General Synod of the Church of England have issued the challenge to their national leaders as the Government considers a fully elected second chamber, and whether the 26 bishops of the state church should keep their exclusive places on the coveted red benches.
In a letter signed by lay members of the Church’s ruling body, the bishops were told that the arguments for retaining the unique privileges enjoyed by the Church of England in the upper house would be severely negated unless the bishops, enblock, turned up to vote against the introduction of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation Regulations) 2007 when debated by the Lords on Wednesday.
So, in short, if they don’t all vote to entrench homophobia (which, given their attendance records, is very unlikely), then there’s no point to them. Some of us might argue that if they do vote in such a way, the case for kicking the Bishops out of the Lords speaks for itself.
Last week, John Redwood was complaining about how his speech 10 years ago on single mothers had been deliberately distorted by Labour spin doctors. He has a point, particularly given that Labour has now gone far further than the Tories ever did in this area, but I don’t think anyone should be too sympathetic when he writes this sort of piffle to his constituents:
Unfortunately, the government is unlikely to want to change its mind on how peers should be elected. They favour shorter terms, the right to stand again, and party list systems. This will put many people off, by strengthening the grip of the party machines over the last part of the UK constitution which sometimes shows some independence and commonsense.
To be clear, some of what Redwood proposes for Lords reform makes a certain amount of sense, partly because it isn’t a million miles away from what reformers have been calling for for years. But at the risk of sounding like an apologist for Jack Straw, the government is NOT calling for shorter terms or the right to stand again: both are explicitly rejected by the White Paper on Lords Reform. And while they do advocate a party list system, it is a “partially open list”, meaning that people would be able to vote for specific candidates, rather than parties, if they prefer. It might not be my first preference, but it offers the voter more choice than any other system currently being used in the British Isles – including the Tories’ blessed FPTP – with the obvious exception of STV.
I’m quite confident John Redwood must know this since the White Paper was published more than 2 weeks before he made his post. Distorting what people say is one thing, one might even say is politics. Outright lies on the other hand discredits the whole enterprise and disentitles Redwood from the right to complain when his own words get twisted.
Sorry to keep going on about this, but it does really annoy me. Of all the things a Labour MP might rebel against over the last ten years, changing the method of voting in the Commons – ONCE – is a pretty pathetic one.
Where were you, Denis, during the Iraq debate, the tuition fee debate and internment without trial?
Denis MacShane’s article on the evils of the government’s proposals for Lords reform is, to be charitable, a little confused. Let’s get this straight:
So why, then, will I go into the opposition lobby next week? It is over the proposal to tear up more than seven centuries of history and require MPs to sit rather than stand to vote. The Government wants MPs to take a multiple-choice exam on its proposals to reform the House of Lords. Instead of MPs voting in lobbies for or against different proposals, scratch cards will be handed out, which we can take away to list in order of preference what the composition of the Lords might be.
Don’t you think it says a lot about the Labour Party that one of its most senior MPs regards the “innovation” of a ballot paper as tantamount to a “scratchcard”? Makes you think about how much they value your vote and indeed the whole democratic process, doesn’t it?
Also, how do you square his “deeply held” belief that such an innovation would “tear up more than seven centuries of history” with his claim that “All my political life, I have argued that a smaller, elected chamber is the only way forward.” So, changing the way the Commons votes ONCE is too great a step, but fundamentally altering the way the Lords is composited is fine?
He seems to have barely read the White Paper, claiming that it would lead to the British second chamber to “grow like topsy” when in fact it proposes cutting the size of the Lords. Perhaps not to the extent that he would like, but a cut (by one third no less) is still a cut.
(I could extend this point to Vernon Bogdanor’s piece on Lords reform in the Telegraph yesterday. Quoting approvingly from John Major is always a fraught with danger, and citing his statement “If the answer is more politicians, you are asking the wrong question,” when the White Paper proposes reducing them is particularly foolish).
A lot of politicians appear to be imagining up all sorts of “principled” reasons for throwing out the government’s proposals before even getting a chance to vote on them. The bottom line is, if you want a fully elected second chamber, the free vote next month is your best and last chance to do it for a generation. Moaning about scratchcards is pathetic beyond belief. It makes them sound like they have become so completely institutionalised in Parliament that if they were released into the real world, they’d quickly starve to death.