Lords reform: did we really expect any better of either the Tories or Labour?

by Stephen Tall on June 26, 2012

All three main political parties fought the 2010 election promising the electorate that, if elected, they would reform the House of Lords. All three promised the same in 2005, too. And 2001. Yet in 2012 only one party is staying true to that promise: the Lib Dems. The Tories and Labour, in contrast, are happily indulging in party politics to block progress in advancing legislative democracy.

The Conservatives living up to their anti-reform name…

The Conservative Party has fought the last three elections promising to introduce a mainly/wholly elected second chamber to replace the current House of Patronage. They signed up to a Coalition Agreement which committed their MPs to back up that promise with real reform.

But now they appear content to junk their own commitment to reform, if the Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan is to be believed:

the suggestion I’ve heard [is] that Mr Cameron is giving private advice to his colleagues about the consequences of rebellion. You may recall that last year, at the time of the European vote that saw 81 Tories vote against the Government, we heard of all sorts of threats made about careers being ended and chances of preferment destroyed. Rebels were left in no doubt that they were defying Dave, and would suffer as a consequences. Not so this time. I am assured that those MPs who have troubled to ask the PM in private have been assured that rebellion on Lords reform will do no harm to their career prospects. Just as Lib Dems were allowed by Mr Clegg to withhold their support from Jeremy Hunt, so Mr Cameron will tolerate his MPs withholding their support for Lords reform.

(Perhaps Ben Brogan and the Tories can point me to which part of the Coalition Agreement specifically exempts Jeremy Hunt from an investigation into whether he adhered to the ministerial code?)

House of Lords. Photo: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of ParliamentSo much for the Tories. I expected no better of their reforming instincts. They are called Conservatives for a reason, after all.

But even if 100 Tory MPs defy the Coalition Agreement, there’s no reason why Lords reform should fall. After all, there’s another party supposedly committed to the policy — the Labour party — even if they did manage to govern for 13 years with commanding majorities without finding a way of implementing it.

… And Labour living up to their anti-reform reputation

But all the signs are that Labour will cheerfully sacrifice the prospect of Lords reform for the chance to play politics, putting much more thought and effort into how to embarrass the Coalition than into how they could save Lords reform from the natural conservatism of Cameron & Co.

Yet surely, I hear you cry, Ed Miliband has professed himself sincerely to be personally committed to reform? Has he not written today that Labour “will play our part in seeking to bring about the historic reform that is right for our country”? Mark Ferguson at LabourList recognises these tactics for what they are — cheap political expedience:

An elected House of Lords is an ideal that is attainable, and helping in any way to stop it coming into being is a big thick line that should never, ever be crossed. This time, tactics can’t trump principle. …

What Ed Miliband proposes is that Labour will both vote yes and no. Labour MPs will vote for the Second Reading of the Bill but oppose the proposed timetabled – providing an opportunity for Tory rebels to back Labour and sink the bill. A whips trick. Too clever by half. Like on welfare reform Labour will try and have their cake and deny the cake’s existence.

We should relish this debate, because we’re in the right. Make the Tories argue in favour of priviledge, and against democracy. We will argue for democracy. For our principles. And for a reformist ideal that has been a part of what Labour has been about about since the earliest days of our party.

Ed Miliband says “democratic election is the best system for our country”. If so, then support it. No ifs. No buts. No tricks. No tactics. Just principle.

I’d love to believe Ed Miliband and Labour would take Mark’s advice, and put principle before tactics. But we’ve been here before. For years. Many, many years. In reality, far too many in the Labour party are as conservative as the Tories for radical, democratic reform to stand a chance.

The two main parties are addicted to power, so much so they don’t much care whether its democratically obtained or not. Lords reform, along with ‘big money’ political funding, is a further demonstration of the inability of the Tories or Labour to break free of their own vested interests and instead serve the interests of the public.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.