Lords Reform update – Spring 2008

As we enter another year, we approach another anniversary of the Parliament Act 1911.  Only three more years until a century will have passed since that hostage to fortune ‘[the Act] is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation’ passed into law.

I am an optimist, and in a political time when the ‘audacity of hope’ is the order of the day, I hope that I am not exhibiting gross audacity when I say that progress is in sight.  Perhaps the most significant outward factor is that the House of Commons has now expressed its firm view that the second chamber should be elected.  In fact, in the series of options put before MPs last year, a 100% elected chamber was the most popular option.  The idea of maintaining a 20% appointed element also found favour with a majority of MPs, though by a smaller margin.  We Liberal Democrats were by far the most united in favour of democratising the second chamber and the only party voting in both Houses for our party policy.

There is, though, a more important factor at play.  I have argued for years that there is a political consensus in favour of reform; what has been absent has been a Government prepared to lead that consensus towards action.  Credit where it’s due, Jack Straw, as Secretary of State for Justice, is doing sterling work in convening a cross-party group to iron out some the detailed issues that surround new elections.  Perhaps most significant among these is the electoral system that is used to choose people for what we have argued should be called The Senate.

This is a crucial crossroads to ensure that electors are indeed allowed to choose people not just parties.  Jack Straw has form on this since it was he who was responsible for the quite unsatisfactory and unresponsive electoral system introduced for the European Parliament in 1999.  In those elections, only political party members get a say as to who should be the candidates at the top of their lists for each region, and those people are more or less guaranteed election, whether or not they meet with personal public approval.  Straw claims to be a reformed character in this area, so I’m hopeful we can persuade the Government that an alternative system, the Single Transferable Vote should be introduced for the Senate.  It’s ideally suited to a chamber in which we specifically want to make sure that characters of real substance and independence are elected; the system lets voters cast votes across the parties, preferentially for candidates in order.  What is more, voting “1” for one candidate doesn’t prejudice the chances of those who get your second, third, or fourth preferences.  That means an end to tactical voting and real freedom for the voter to support whichever candidate or candidates they like, without fear of wasting their vote.  Perhaps more critical still is that the Government seems to be putting on ice any prospect of reforming the way MPs are elected until it knows what system it has decided upon for the reformed Lords. 

Another significant point of principle is that of the day on which Senate elections are held.  People could go to the polls to elect their senators on the same day as they elect the European Parliament, but this would surely have three key defects.  First, EP elections happen only once every five years – a very long interval; secondly, people typically use EP elections as a ‘free’ opportunity to kick the government in office, without recourse either to national competence or local issues; and thirdly, EP elections tend (alas) to be about whether people do or do not like the European Union as an institution.  While I, of course, support people’s right to vote for whomever they wish in European elections, I do think it would be a shame to infect the democratic mandate for Britain’s second chamber with the rabid, myopic British debate about European integration.   

So, what are the alternatives?  A cross-party group, which I convened, settled on General Election day; this had the obvious problem that terms of office in the Commons are not fixed, so Senate elections would become just as unpredictable.  Also, whether or not General Elections are technically there to choose your local MP, people feel that they are about electing a government, and that is precisely not what we would want Senate elections to do.  I have therefore come to the conclusion that it would make sense to tie Senate elections to elections to the devolved institutions.  These are on a fixed, four-year term, and one of the key functions of the Senate ought to be to represent the nations and regions of the United Kingdom more effectively than the present House of Lords.

There is a danger that the desire to consult widely on these matters will trump the imperative to act.  That’s why my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I have urged the government to bring forward a draft Bill for a joint committee to consider.  House of Lords reform has been considered and reported on at length by too many committees of the great and the good; what we need now are firm legislative proposals and clear legislative progress.  Straw has so far conceded that draft clauses might be brought forward, and Ministers in the Lords have been sympathetic to the idea of a joint committee.  While I am the last one to defend turkeys’ right to veto Christmas, I know that getting this legislation through will likely be dependent on persuading Peers to be sufficiently pliant when a reform Bill reaches the House of Lords.  There is the final longstop of the Parliament Acts – and the Government should not be afraid to wield it – but it is a clumsy, blunt instrument.  Peers do have a role in making sure we realise the right solution in the final event, so involving them in a joint committee, which will lack neither the democratic legitimacy to drive progress nor the credibility with Peers to obtain their assent, should be the obvious direction of travel for the Government to gain broad parliamentary support for any proposals it makes in its promised white paper later this year.

If Labour’s approach to democratic reform in Britain has been anything, it has been piecemeal.  The debate about the English Question, presently exercising a vocal, vexed minority both in the political establishment and among the public, is perhaps the most clear example of how that approach has failed, since no one house in the constitutional terrace can be demolished without affecting the others.  Similarly, the Government’s Review of Electoral Systems, published seven years late, turns out to conclude that it can’t reach any conclusions until proposals for reforming the Lords are finalised; but, as I have outlined, Ministers aren’t yet sure what their conclusions on that will be.  Sometimes it seems their only direction is delay.  Liberal Democrats have long acknowledged that constitutional reform ought to be contiguous, comprehensive process not a sporadic series of projects.

To that end, we not only proposed a wholly elected Senate in our recent policy paper but a full British Constitutional Convention, formed partly of members of the public drawn by lot.  We want to put the status quo, the whole stuffy Westminster model on a real ‘jury trial’, and develop a comprehensive constitutional settlement with true popular ownership.  Both David Cameron and Gordon Brown have signalled their desire to work with Liberal Democrats on these issues; when they accept our premise that they will need to work with the people too – and not just where it will gain them partisan advantage – we will accept that they take serious reform of the political system seriously.

For now, though, we continue to work with both other parties, and with the Crossbench contingent in the Lords to end both 18th century heredity and 19th century patronage in our second chamber.  In 2008, the public is ready to move towards democracy; the question is whether Parliament will be prepared to follow.

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