Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Rumours of Lords Reform: Three criticisms.

 I'm sorry, I really am. I'm a pro-Coalition Conservative. I used to be a Liberal Democrat, long ago, and I have many friends who remain of the yellow persuasion. I normally try to see the silver lining in whatever storm-cloud currently besets our government. But this is too much.

 I've heard it elsewhere, but one link will suffice: Liberal Vision report that, if the Liberal Democrats lose the AV referendum, David Cameron will have to throw them a serious bone. Worse still, rumour is that the bone in question could be a fully elected House of Lords. As support for AV "collapses" this scenario is looking ever more likely. It cannot happen. I'm not the biggest fan of much of what goes on on the Conservative back benches, but if David Cameron tries to push this through I may have to stain forever my reformist credentials and go to the trenches with them.

 There are three main problems that need to be addressed: first, what is an elected Lords actually for; second, David Cameron can't simply continue making concessions he has no mandate for on issues as serious as the constitution; third, the Liberal Democrats need to grow up and get used to losing.

  The House of Lords is a revising chamber. It doesn't have the power to initiate or veto legislation from the Commons. It is a mixture of appointed experts, party dinosaurs and fascinating constitutional relics who between them bring experience and specific expertise to legislation drafted by career politicians in the Commons, and then compile recommendations that the politicians with a mandate debate.

 Before you can insist that the House of Lords needs to be elected to have a democratic mandate, you need to work out what it actually needs that mandate for. It doesn't require an electoral mandate to carry out its current duties - indeed, elections would probably negate its current function. Making the Lords elected would grant it a mandate to challenge the Commons - do we want that?

 One thing I've not heard much (if at all, in my recollection) is why Britain needs a bicameral, American-style legislature. The logic simply seems to be:
 We have a House of Lords = It is unelected! = Let us fix that.
 That isn't good enough. If the House of Lords' role as a chamber of revision is unnecessary, that on its own is simply a case for its abolition. Supporters of Lords reform need to first articulate their case for an equally-weighted bicameral parliament, and then win the country round to the idea.  Until they do that, they have no right to enact it. 

 It certainly can't be delivered as part of a grubby ransom payment, which brings me to my second point. Quite simply, the constitution of the United Kingdom is more important than David Cameron's premiership. Labour screwed around with the constitution, instituting the Supreme Court in place of the Law Lords and assaulting the integrity of our kingdom with devolution, but at least they changed the constitution because they believed in change. 

 David Cameron has never given much (if any?) indication of being in favour of serious reform to the Lords. He's certainly never articulated clearly why we need a powerful second chamber. The manner in which he's going about this is a sorry reflection on him. He should not - and certainly should not be allowed to - play fast and loose with the constitution of our union to try to preserve his rule in Number 10. He bounced his backbenchers into supporting the AV referendum, and that is quite far enough. They didn't sign up to anything more, and he has no mandate for it.

 Really though, the final share of the blame must rest with the people putting Cameron in this position: the Liberal Democrats. As a Coalition supporter I'm very disappointed, but the Liberal Democrats are - to put it mildly - not performing particularly impressively in government, and their behaviour on this occasion is little short of disgraceful.

 They lost the General Election. They didn't win a majority for their arch-reformist ideals, even on total share of the vote. They're a protest party that hasn't propped up a government since the 1970s and hasn't participated in one since the Second World War. Yet their stars aligned, a hung parliament combined with a particularly daring Conservative leader and they have their chance in government. This is their opportunity to demonstrate that they are a serious party capable of governing the country.

 Their primary focus during this government should be accruing credibility, aiming for a payoff in 2015 when they can claim credit for helping steer our country through a dire economic crisis as part of a stable and effective coalition government. That would be a long-term view. Instead, they're constantly fretting over short-term popularity, and pandering to a party base completely unused to the discipline and realism required in a party of government.

 Both the Conservatives and Labour have been very unpopular in the past. Both have had their 1983's and their 1997's, periods in which their rivals were totally in the ascendant and serious soul-searching was required. That both these parties remain the big players in British politics is testament to a key lesson the LD's need to learn: if you're doing anything important or difficult, to govern is to be unpopular. Governing parties do haemorrhage council seats whenever they have to enact a tough, serious measure, or tell the electorate something they don't want to hear. Short-term unpopularity is less important in the long run than being perceived as a sensible, mature party in the long-term. I don't think many people can claim the Liberal Democrats are there yet.

 The other thing the Lib Dems need to learn to do is learn to lose with grace. They got a referendum on changing the voting system out of a Conservative party deeply opposed to the idea. They never got a guarantee of victory nor did they ever get promised some kind of insurance against defeat. If AV is defeated in May, the Liberal Democrats should stop, assess the campaign and try to work out why they lost. They should not turn to David Cameron and ask what serious constitutional form he's going to offer them without a referendum to keep then in government, to make up for the one they have failed to acquire from the electorate. That is not the way a mature coalition partner behaves, it is the thought process of a spoilt child.

 Despite the macho talk of Vince Cable's 'nuclear option', the Liberal Democrats have a lot more riding on the Coalition than the Conservatives. This is their chance to prove two things: first, that the Liberal Democrats are a serious party of government; second, that coalition governments are strong and stable enough to steer the country through even this most tempestuous of times. If they terminate the coalition mid-term, in some fit of petulance over not being given something they had no right to extort from their coalition partner, that will stick in the minds of the electorate long after the ever-fickle anti-cuts storm has faded away. It will not only tar the Liberal Democrats, but it will taint the perception of coalition government - the very thing they claim to champion - in the minds of the electorate. The LD's terminating the coalition will just demonstrate that, when times are tough, coalitions don't work.

 Lords reform is a terrible idea that hasn't been put before the public even as a debate, let alone a vote. David Cameron should not butcher our constitution to hold onto power. And the Liberal Democrats should learn that being in government involves disappointments, defeats and dirty tactics, before its too late.

 Update: Almost as if to prove my point, Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron writes in the Times (23/4/2011) that a House of Lords elected by PR would have more legitimacy than a First-Past-The-Post Commons. That's the best argument against PR for the Lords I can think of.


  1. "Wad gae the gift to gae us, to see ourselves as others see us!"

    To paraphrase - the UK has a electoral dictatorship - Hailsham.

    My Burns quote could be appropriate for my spiel on PR. When the UK politicians rant about a lack of democracy in the EU, do you not think with our skewed electoral system and undemocratic upper house that continental Eurocrats do not laugh spluttering into their vino at the chutzpah? Or maybe some dictator somewhere mebbes.

    The UK constitution 100-200 years ago was maybe the Model-T Ford of democratic constitutions. A lot of European lands had hereditary upper houses but unaccountable executives. However that was then and the bulk of Western countries have moved on. And would you use the Model-T Ford on the M60?

    Your statement "Making the Lords elected would grant it a mandate to challenge the Commons - do we want that?" - yes if the Commons, whipped through by a powerful executive makes bad law, then it should be questioned somewhere.

    For an apparent Europhile you seem to ignore the European systems where if there is bi-cameral system, then in most cases the government is accountable to one chamber and in the bulk of cases the "upper house" is inferior to the popularly elected house but still has teeth.

    The Lords (we are still talking about having a chamber named after a class system!) is full of people appointed for LIFE and can claim money just for turning up, whatever they have done.

    I know the Mother of Parliaments has bequeathed bairns that have shown the same DNA. The Canadian Senate is stuffed everytime there is a vacancy by someone from the PM's party to "represent" a province - even if the party is not popular in that province. However Canuk Senators last only till they are 75.

    And in a number of Carribean countries the upper house political composition is set out by law. After a general election the governing party and the opposition have set portions of the upper house regardless of their seats won in the lower house.

    To Scotland. If Lord Watson had killed anybody as a consequence of when he set fire to some curtains at the Prestonfield Hotel in 2004, do you think it would be fine for a convicted killer to take his seat in the Lords after the end of their sentence?

    To models of a revising chamber. Well lets look at the Irish Senate (apparently endangered at the mo) which is a revising chamber constitutionally inferior to the Dail. I suppose the Senate was set up to ape the virtues of the Lords. It has representatives of groups such as Labour, Agriculture, Industry and Commerce.

    Candidates for the Senate are nominated either by Dail TDs or by organisations linked to these groups (for example ex-Aer Lingus Exec Garret Fitzgerald was nominated for the Commerce group by the Irish Association of Hoteliers). The candidates are then elected by an electoral college composed of the democratically elected members of the Dail and local government councillors. So they represent "expertise" but also have an indirect democratic mandate.

    The Senate has slightly more power than the Lords. For example it has the power to review the budget - but not veto it.

    To name one example.

    The Dutch Upper House is elected by councillors.

    The Austrian Upper House is elected by the regional assemblies

    The French Senate elected on a "department" basis with 3 Senators per "department/county". They are elected by a college of local government councillors and MPs for the "department" with one third elected for nine years every three.

    Frankly again I think it is a question of whether the British are considered "too thick" to get their heads around a system that is taken for granted on the continent and other places or maybe they just enjoy centralised, strong government?

    "The British like their politics to be plain - like their food" - a quote from the BBC's "Fall of Eagles"

  2. Right, I'll respond to your essay on PR tomorrow but I thought I'd tackle this now. Unlike most Conservatives I'm not fundamentally against the very principle of reforming the Lords, I'm just unconvinced by the case for it. Many of the arguments against the Lords are valid but alone they're just the case for its abolition. I am also worried by the suggestion it would chip away at FPTP - but thats a topic for tomorrow.

    One upside for me that would stem from modelling our upper house on a mould similar to the Irish Senate would be that it would allow for the restoration of parliamentary representation for universities, of which I am fond.

    I like that you take the time to comment, but on a personal level I'd appreciate it if you avoided calling people who disagree with you 'thick', even if its just people in general. It lowers the tone of the debate and detracts from your point. Personally I think a lot of British people do support centralised, semi-unicameral government, there's nothing wrong with that.

    P.S.: Not knowing the constitutional arrangements of the various less relevant houses of European legislatures is not sufficient grounds to demote me to a mere "apparent" Europhile, in my view. ;)

  3. Concerning the "thick" comment, please see my reply on PR.

    I would like to pick up on your thing about "screwed with the constitution" concerning devolution. The Scottish people wanted self-government, it is not a major thing to aspire to. We had the referendum and it was granted. Are we the colonies?

    Andrew Marr in his tome "The Battle for Scotland" hit upon a phenomena in the English Tory mindset.

    Marr pointed to the Tory paradox of believing in responsibility, self-reliance and belief in small government with their inate believe in a strong centralised British state. Or as he put it in terms of Thatcher "in constitutional terms her English monarchist heart always overruled her radical American head".

    He also charged English Tories of "ancestor worship" which was backward and equally no more progressive than the "least forgiving strain of Scottish nationalism".

    He said that Tories looked upon the aspirations of the old Royal High School in Edinburgh (the planned site of the Scottish legislature) with the same irritation and disdain as Plantaganent monarchs looked upon the fastness Edinburgh Castle.

    Fair accusations?

  4. No. As a Conservative I do believe in strong local government and individual responsibility, I just oppose that being done along national lines. My ideal UK would be strong county and city councils (or Mayors) and then Westminster to deal with national issues. Localism without nationalism is possible and an entirely legitimate belief.

    I have no idea what this 'ancestor worship' thing is in the context of this debate, could you elaborate?

    As for 'screwed with the constitution', it was a reference more to the inept way devolution was handled, in addition to the way Blair deliberately left the (incredibly tight) Welsh referendum until a week later to try to ensure a Yes vote in Wales. Granting devolution to Scotland is one thing, actively trying to make the Welsh get a devolved government is quite another.