COMMENT: Don’t listen to the doomsayers

Since the publication of the Government’s White Paper and Draft Bill on House of Lords reform, the old guard have lined up to cavil about its detail, to deride its democratic principles and to defend – in the last ditch – the status quo.

This has augmented the popular media’s predisposition towards arch cynicism and trenchant pessimism. Yet there is firm evidence to contradict their lazy assumptions. Just because Labour engaged in over a decade of dither and delay does not mean that a determined government, with the resolve of the House of Commons behind it, cannot succeed.

The Coalition Cabinet – both parties – is firmly behind the proposals, and the likes of Theresa May and Liam Fox have come out in force to speak up in their favour. Meanwhile senior Conservative figures in the Cabinet have always believed in reform: Ken Clarke and George Young (with whom I co-authored a report on reform ‘Breaking the Deadlock’ in 2005) are just two. Both George Osborne and David Cameron voted for an 80% elected House in 2007. No wonder the Prime Minister says, “I think that Parliament as a whole will be increased in terms of authority and respect. It is right to insert into the House of Lords some elected peers, so that we recognise that in the modern world, it is right to have two Chambers that are predominantly elected. That is the policy of the Government…to achieve what was in every manifesto: elections to the House of Lords”.

Even the recent debate in the House of Lords was not as bad as some of them have been. Of course, the self-satisfied arrogance of those who will not acknowledge the fatal weaknesses of the present House did dominate. It always will. But the perennial advocates of ‘expertise’ (much more chimerical in the Lords than many people realise, anyway) do not have a monopoly on wisdom. Former Labour Ministers Joyce Quin and Larry Whitty eschewed the divided, opportunistic line of their front bench to make passionate, cogent speeches in support of reform.

New Conservative recruit, and Tory Leader on Richmond Council, Nick True, questioned “the prevailing assumption that a committee of seven or nine people, chosen from the ranks of the great and good, should be charged by statute for all time with controlling the peopling of a whole House of Parliament.” He continued, “I cannot accept as readily as some that it is axiomatically wrong that 40 million people should have a say in who might come to this House, while it is right that seven people should determine in secret who comes and why”.

And in summing up the debate our own Tom McNally did a magnificent demolition job on those who would stand intractably in the way of reform. “it takes the breath away, he said, “when speaker after speaker, all of whom have been sent here for life, start lecturing us about the dangers of somebody being sent here for a limited 15-year term.”

A few days later the House of Commons debated reform. That morning, two articles appeared in the national press, one by Paddy Ashdown (see Times, 27th June: paywall) and one which I co-authored with a passionate pro-reformer in the Labour Party, Andrew Adonis. In the chamber, excellent Liberal Democrat speeches from Mark Williams, Dan Rogerson and Duncan Hames, supporting the case Nick Clegg made for reform were by no means the only positive signs. Would-be Labour Leader David Miliband said “The fundamental issue at stake is whether a stronger, more assertive, more legitimate House of Lords will be good for the governance of the country, not just in democratic theory, but in real life and practice. I believe that it would. I am a believer in strong government. I also believe that a strong governments get stronger and better when they are more accountable to a strong legislature…That is a recipe not for gridlock but for better government.”

Even Labour front-bencher Chris Bryant put his partisan disdain aside to support reform. The Conservative Party itself – unbeknown, I venture, to many of its own members – has been committed to a substantially elected Lords since its 2001 manifesto. Perhaps it’s little wonder then that recently elected Conservative MPs Thérèse Coffey and Laura Sandys made thoughtful speeches, advancing the cause of full democracy in our Parliament.

Perhaps the most notable Conservative of all is Mark Harper, the Minister responsible (save for the Deputy Prime Minister himself) for taking the legislation and the reform programme through. He is bright, well-briefed and articulate in equal measure and dealt with all the questions of detail brilliantly, while putting the remaining Commons dinosaurs in their place.

All in all, though the Labour Party is hopelessly divided (see an extraordinary spat between Sir Stuart Bell and his frontbench), and there are detractors in both other parties too, the political weather for progress is set fairer than at any point since the passing of the 1911 Parliament Act. So don’t listen to the doomsayers. A new chapter in this long story has begun, ending the decades-long hunt for an elusive, all-encompassing consensus. The Government’s solution may not delight any one single person in the reform movement, but it should please everybody who believes that the time has come to bring down the curtain on heredity and patronage as a source for seats in Parliament. It is time for merit and for mandates to have their day.

Paul Tyler is Liberal Democrat Constitutional Affairs Spokesperson in the Lords, and a former Shadow Leader of the House of Commons. Named links in the post above take you to the respective parliamentarians’ speeches on House of Lords reform during the 21st, 22nd and 27th of June 2011.

This article was first published on Lib Dem Voice.   If you’d like to comment, join the debate there.

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