Will Labour Lords stick to their EU principles?

As the Lords prepared to vote this week on the Queen’s Speech, I have been asked often about whether the so-called “Salisbury-Addison Convention” applies during this Parliament, to proposals from a Government which did not obtain a majority in the Commons.

Briefly, the Convention holds that the Lords does not reject Bills predicated on manifesto commitments, nor introduce “wrecking amendments”. The convention was first formulated in 1945 between the post-war Labour Government and Conservative leaders in a heavily Tory- and hereditary- dominated House.  The Liberal group was never party to it.

Speaking in the Queen’s Speech debate, I urged Peers – Labour Peers in particular – not to be bound into believing that the Government’s Faustian pact with the DUP gives it the right to railroad legislation through Parliament.  Unlike the 2010 Coalition Government, this administration cannot claim that its composition enjoys anywhere near majority support in the country, and the ‘deal’ is in any case only on big ticket votes.  There is no agreed programme for government between parties who together can claim a mandate.  That means that the Official Opposition should see no need simply to roll over during parliamentary “ping-pong” at the very first whiff of ‘pong’ from the Commons!

On Brexit, I pointed out that Labour voters had a far more positive view of the UK’s relationship with the EU than the Labour leadership. Messrs Corbyn and McDonnell may still regard the single market as a capitalist conspiracy, but most of their supporters do not.  With some 69% now thought to support the UK’s continued membership of the EU customs union and 53% favouring a referendum on whether or not to accept the Brexit deal, the Lords will should be fearless in making sure the public is heard.

Parliament as a whole will also be in a more powerful position to take its own initiatives than when the Executive has an unassailable majority. In particular, the longer parliamentary session planned for this year and through 2018, makes the opportunities for gaining traction with Private Members’ Bills more substantial.  I had good luck in the so-called ‘ballot’ (really a raffle) for getting a debate on a Bill, and have resubmitted in revised form my Bill for comprehensive reform of the party funding system.  After another General Election in which vast sums were spent by all parties on ‘national’ direct mailings to swing constituencies, and centrally-directed social media grew again in importance, it is plainly time to revisit the law.  Likewise the rules of referendum expenditure which have been shown to be inadequate, with some key campaigning costs going undeclared, and a shadowy role for the now pivotal DUP.

Even the Conservative Party headquarters now agrees.  Six days before polling day they told the press that “there is a broad consensus that election law is fragmented, confused and unclear, with two different sets of legislation, and poor guidance from the Electoral Commission”. While their intention was probably to explain away in advance any infringements of the rules, I have put this admission straight to Cabinet Office Ministers.

After more than forty years in and out of one or other House of Parliament, I thought that the 2017-2022 cycle would be one in which the Executive through its Brexit legislation would wrest yet more power from the legislature.  It is not to be.  On the “Great Repeal Bill”, and all of the legislation put before us, both Houses now have the opportunity and the right to take extra special care in deciding what to agree and what to reject.  After all, this is supposed to be the year when Parliament “takes back control”!

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