Tag Archives: house-of-lords

Revolution! MPs to question ministers shocker!!!!

I’m sure all the people involved are well meaning but there is something soul destryoing about this story on the front page of the Guardian today:

Lord Mandelson is set to make history by becoming the first cabinet minister from the House of Lords in modern times to answer questions in the Commons.

John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, is planning to use his mandate as a moderniser to break centuries of tradition which have kept the Commons and Lords apart in an attempt to make ministers who sit in the upper house accountable to MPs.

Nicholas Watt goes on to describe, in miniscule detail, how the convention that MPs never talk to ministers sitting in “the other place” might be allowed to address the House of Commons (note how he writes all this down, seemingly irony free, yet can’t even grasp a basic fact such as whether the Alternative Vote system is proportional or not – it isn’t just MPs who are the problem here). As long as they don’t cross the bar, they’re safe. One can only speculate what might happen if the big toe of an ennobled minister were to inadvertantly slip over the line. Chaos! Apocalypse! Revolution!

For some reason I am reminded of Egon Spengler’s grave warning in Ghostbusters not to “cross the streamers” – of course at the end of the film it becomes necessary to do that to prevent the end of the world. Somehow I suspect Peter Mandelson setting foot in the House of Commons won’t be anything like as spectacular. Or involve quite as much marshmallow (I could be wrong about that last bit, I will concede).

The normally sensible (he has a blind spot when it comes to the House of Lords, it must be said) Vernon Bogdanor doesn’t exactly help, describing this move as “radical.”

I have to admit that I’m in two minds about this myself. On the one hand, clearly the House of Commons should be free to scrutinise any minister of state, in the House of Commons, without having to worry about bars or go off to the much smaller Westminster Hall. On the other hand, I don’t think there should be ANY ministers in the House of Lords full stop.

This convention about having to ennoble any non-MP who is to serve as a minister is total nonsense. It leads to people like Digby Jones getting a peerage simply for doing five months in the Department of Business, Enterprice and Regulatory Reform (a department which itself existed for twelve months before Gordon Brown insisted on reprinting all the stationary yet again). The argument for it is that ministers must be accountable to Parliament – but they aren’t. They get to answer questions in Parliament – however lamentably – but they are only actually accountable to the Prime Minister.

If we want ministers to be accountable to Parliament then we should have confirmation hearings. Parliament should have the authority to throw out any nominee that it believes to be weak or incompetent. The quid pro quo of that would be that anyone in principle should be able to serve – and not be a parliamentarian. A side benefit, I suspect, is that reshuffles would be less frequent (as they would be become more bureaucratic) and thus ministers would be given the space to do a job rather than spend six months getting up to speed before the Prime Minister moves them somewhere else to cover up for his own failings.

Better ministers with more of an opportunity to do their job? I’m sure the reactionaries in Westminster would be outraged. It might just lead to better government for the rest of us though.

Marx, Marquises and Marquand

David Marquand is offering the Liberal Democrats some advice, graciously for free, over on Our Kingdom.

First of all he denounces us for having “more unelected legislators than elected ones” and concludes that this proves that we “can’t be taken seriously as an agent of democratic change.” Unbeknownst to anyone else until now, this is apparently the magic formula for testing whether party is establishment or not. On this formulation – praise the Lord! – Labour is the most anti-establishment party in the country. The fact that they happen to actually run everything is a mere detail that we can safely ignore. Either way, it is likely to rejoin the establishment in May after which point David Cameron will be leading the anti-establishment vanguard.

He goes on to suggest that “surely it would be possible for the Lib Dem leader to announce that he will hold party elections – including Lib Dem voters, not just members – to decide which people will be nominated to serve in the Lords.”

A few points. Firstly, unlike any other party we do elect our peers – or at least a panel of individuals get to select them from an elected list. We don’t run elections for specific places because we don’t know when the next rounds of appointment are likely to take place, or how many will be appointed at that stage, and when we do know we typically get just a few weeks’ notice. With that in mind the panel option is the best one available. Secondly, with the sole exception of Sue Garden, the Lib Dems have had no new appointments to the Lords since the dissolution honours in 2005 – this in stark contrast to the swelling Labour and Tory ranks. Thirdly, dissolution honours are only available to just-retired MPs – no chance of an election there. Fourthly, if Labour hadn’t reneged on its promise in the Cook-Maclennan agreement to ensure that the Lords was roughly proportional to the votes cast in the previous general election we would have something like 100 more peers. The idea that the Lib Dems are somehow sitting pretty in the Lords is laughable.

Could the Lib Dems make the process more democratic? Certainly. We could have ordered lists for instance and insist that people should be selected in order (although since the list would have to be published it would quickly become apparent which candidates had been blackballed by the authorities). However, a proper selection process would cost tens of thousands of pounds and amount to a serious drain on resources. If we were to take Marquand’s advice and let the public participate in these elections they would cost even more. Either way they would amount to a serious distraction for the party. And that is assuming that we will ever see another Liberal Democrat appointed to the Lords at all.

Marquand argues that we should do this because it “would punch a huge hole in the present system, shame the other parties, and infuriate the Whitehall mandarinate.” Would it? I would imagine that most people would react with complete indifference. The fact that we already have the most democratic system doesn’t seem to impress anyone. I write as someone who sat on the working group that came up with the current system. It certainly was a fight to get the party whigs to concede every minor point. When I started on the party’s Federal Executive I was a true believer and really thought that such posturing made a difference; now I’m not convinced it amounts to anything. We need reform, not a vanity project so we can pat ourselves on the back for being so worthy. Empty gestures do not an anti-establishmentarian make.

There is an alternative proposal which has been aired from time to time and that is to boycott the Lords appointments entirely. If anything I think I have veered towards this view in recent years. It certainly has the merit of being the simpler option. Once again however, would anyone care? If we’d started a boycott four years ago it would have meant we’d have one fewer life peer. Big deal. Would anyone have noticed?

Even more radical would be to get our people to walk out of the Lords entirely (let’s leave aside their willingness to not claim attendence allowance and other expenses for a second). But here’s the thing: in the real world (as opposed to that bubble in which a lot of people seem to exist where the House of Lords is full of independent-minded sages), the Lib Dems hold the balance of power in the Lords. If they hadn’t been sitting there doing their jobs then, however illiberal government legislation is right now, it would now be significantly worse. Given that this fact is widely unrecognised, do you really think people would even notice a boycott? It is Trot tactics and is likely to make as much impact in the public consciousness as all Trot tactics.

But wait, he has more. Apparently we should also reject any notion of attempting to reform the current system and instead “transcend capitalism altogether.” He helpfully adds that “I don’t begin to know how to do this” and that “it wouldn’t be practical politics in the short term” but suggests that the answer lies in reading more Marx.

Would it be uncharitable of me to point out that David Marquand, a public school educated Oxford graduate, a former MP, a protege of the ever clubbable Lord Jenkins, a reformed Social Democrat and Blairite, a longstanding member of the mainstream media’s commentariat and an admirer of David Cameron, is a little bit on the establishment side himself? Most of his advice here amounts to little more than ‘japes’ of dubious tactical or strategic merit. Former members seldom make the most objective of critics; are we really to believe he has our best interests at heart?

The House of Lords is a dreadful anachronism and not democratically legitimate, but at least the fact that no party has control of it means that it is a place where politics actually happens. The House of Commons by contrast is totally dominated by the executive and, in a very real sense, apolitical (unless you count jeering loudly at opponents as some kind of meaningful activity). The control of the whips is so absolute that even pragmatic amendments get blocked in the Commons for fear of giving MPs ideas above their station. Obsessing about the “establishment” nature of the Lords is simply posturing while the Commons is an open sewer. No doubt Marquand’s answer to that should be we should boycott Commons elections until we have “shamed” the other parties into reforming it. But the other parties don’t have any shame; that’s the point.

As for economics, if the Green Party wants to spend the next 30 years discovering an alternative to capitalism, then good luck to it. This investigation hasn’t done it much good over the previous 30 years and we are still paying the price for the Communists’ alternative. If this is what it means to be anti-establishment, I hope you don’t mind if I carry on with actually trying to make the world a better place.

The House of Canards (Comment is Free)

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 £100,000?

Is it time to revisit rules on lobbying Lords?

Cameron is to capitulate over Lord Oakeshott’s private members’ bill aimed at ousting peers who are resident abroad for tax purposes. The clear target of the bill, Michael Ashcroft, who is currently running a Messagespace advertising campaign to push his two latest books, has this to say about his beloved Belize on his website:
Michael Ashcroft website screenshot

Belize – “if home is where the heart is, this is my home”

Michael Ashcroft grew up in Belize after his father had been posted there by the Foreign Office.
In 1982 he revisited the country and fell in love with its people and culture for a second time.

Michael Ashcroft is now a major investor in Belize. He also funds educational charitable projects in Belize and neighbouring islands.

Between 1998 – 2000 he was the Belizean Ambassador to the United Nations. He was nominated for his knighthood by the Belizean government.

All of which is fair enough, but doesn’t exactly scream suitability for the UK legislature. I fear that Lord Ashcroft would fail Lord Tebbit’s cricket test.

But the point of my post is not (just) to make cheap shots at Ashcrofts expense. It is to question whether, in the light of this and the ongoing debate over Parliamentarians and expenses, it is time for the Lib Dems to revisit their policy banning members of the House of Lords from working for lobbying companies.

The Lords Parliamentary Party has consistently blocked these proposals on the grounds that many peers require supplementary income. Since then, two facts have emerged which undermine this argument.

First of all, the level of expenses which peers can claim for has become apparent – £37,000 tax free. Secondly, those unwilling to give up their cushy lobbying jobs have a simple option: take a long term leave of absence. If Andrew Phillips can do that, so can Tim Clement-Jones.

Should we have another go at this at the autumn party conference? In the current climate it seems to me this is one loophole we can’t afford to leave gaping.

Brown Meme

Praguetory has tagged me with Matt Wardman’s Brown Meme. Unlike a lot of memes, this one seems to have the potential for an interesting debate, so here goes:

* 2 things Gordon Brown should be proud of.

– Helping to make Labour electable
– (Most of) Labour’s constitutional reform agenda in their first term of office – although none of it was as systematic or as well thought out as it needed to be.

* 2 things he should apologise for.

– Helping to make Labour electable (too cheap I know – this one doesn’t count)
– The tax credits fiasco
– The PFI fiasco
– The monstrous centralising target culture

* 2 things that he should do immediately when he becomes PM.

– Declare an intention to establish a fully elected second chamber – and follow through quickly.
– Restart the SFO’s Al-Yamamah arms deal investigation

* 2 things he should do while he is PM.

– Establish a Citizens’ Constitutional Convention
– Reform municipal taxation, decentralising local government revenue, scrapping council tax and introducing a system of site value rating as part of a package of measures of fiscal measures which local authorities could use to raise their own money.

I have to tag eight people, which will be Anthony Barnett, Stephen Tall, Tristan Mills, Duncan Hames, Jock Coats, the Millennium Elephant, Tom Papworth and Ming Campbell.

Is Cameron actually leading the Conservative Party?

I’m really starting to wonder. Readers might recall earlier in the year that I pointed out that Cameron could not command majority Tory support for their manifesto commitment for a substantially elected House of Lords and failed to persuade them to back his stance on the Sexual Orientation Regulations. This week, we find party’s MPs running riot over the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, and going bonkers over David Willets repudiation of Grammar Schools.

Most bizarrely of all, Cameron has chosen to take a firm line on the latter, but go all soggy and wet over the former. He might not have deliberately set out to make the showdown on Grammars a “clause 4 moment” but he isn’t backing down. Nor should he: neither Willets nor Cameron are arguing for anything that is particularly distinctive from views of the Blessed Milk Snatcher and the fact the Tories are so ready to go to war over such a totemic change is ludicrous.

In terms of Freedom of Information, he has firmed his position up to the extent that he is now, cautiously, suggesting that he wouldn’t vote for the Maclean Bill and that he “will act to stop the bill in its current form in the House of Lords,” (my emphasis), but he has given himself enough wriggle room to fit an aircraft carrier inside.

All this despite the fact that the Lib Dems and pretty much all of the media are roasting his ass on the fire on the subject. Why won’t he simply stand up to Maclean and slap the more reactionary elements of his party down?

The answer is, it seems, his Parliamentary Party would just laugh at him. Those cynics among us who always thought this “change to win” guff was empty rhetoric are finding new evidence that the Tories are still the same old reactionary, swivel eyed loons on a nearly daily basis. Cameron’s great achievement of the last 18 months has been to distract the public’s attention from this, not to introduce meaningful change.

It all bodes pretty ill for these disparate policy reviews that are now just weeks from being published. I don’t believe that the edifice that Cameron has constructed can survive many more weeks like this one before coming crashing down, and I’m not at all clear what he can do to prevent it. Will the Conservative Party pull themselves back from the brink and, at the 11th hour, sign up en masse to Cameronism? The portents don’t look good.

Internal party democracy – Tory style

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)

Synod Members Bash their Bishops!

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.

Redwood on the red benches

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.