The Coalition Agreement does not commit Lib Dems to supporting boundary changes

by Stephen Tall on August 5, 2012

Over the last couple of months, Conservative MPs and commentators have made great play of the fact that the Coalition Agreement does not explicitly commit the Tories to voting for House of Lords reform. Let’s remind ourselves of its words again:

We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers.

Is there wiggle room there? Technically, yes. The words “We promise that all Conservative and Lib Dem MPs will vote for the proposals that are brought forward” are not there. But those words are missing from much of the Coalition Agreement. Including — just to pluck a random example out of the air — the commitment to support boundary changes. As LibDemVoice commenter Malcolm Todd observed here last month:

For those who claim (technically correctly) that the Coalition Agreement only committed the government to setting up a committee on Lords reform and not to supporting an actual reform bill, here’s what the agreement actually says on Commons reform:

We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum

Well, that’s been done now. The retaliation argument refers to refusing to vote for the parliamentary order that will be promulgated some time next year, implementing the specific proposals on boundaries that the Boundary Commission presents. I don’t see anything in the Coalition Agreement committing Lib Dems to vote for that, do you?

And yes, it’s a silly, picky argument. That’s my point.

So in terms of contract law it’s a score-draw. If the Tories can shoot down Lords reform with sophistry, so can the Lib Dems torpedo boundary changes on the same grounds.

Clegg v Cameron, Boundaries v Lords

Ah, say some Tories, but Nick Clegg has already committed to boundary changes, saying more equal sized seats are vital to a properly functioning democracy. True enough — though David Cameron promised Lords reform, not only in the Conservative manifesto but also in the first leaders’ TV debate, even chiding Gordon Brown for their 13 years’ failure to introduce even an element of democracy into the Lords (which sits a little oddly, even hypocritically, with Mr Cameron’s subsequent statement that Lords reform was a “third term” priority for the Tories).

So far, so check-mate. Up to this point I’ve simply noted the tactics of the boundary changes situation: that the Lib Dems are as able to make the same expedient claim to sink a Coalition Agreement measure we don’t like as the Tories can. Just as right-wing Tories fear the long-term consequences of Lords reform (wrongly from their point of view, as I’ve argued before), so too do Lib Dems fear the short-term consequences of boundary changes (rightly, as pollster Peter Kellner has warned).

Enough of tactics, what about the principles?

There are two wider points of principle, though. First, as Chris Rennard pointed out here, there is a clear link between Lords reform and boundary changes. The practical impact of reducing the size of the House of Commons is to increase the weight of the ‘payroll vote’ of government ministers; to combine that with the continuation of political patronage in the House of Lords is a big swing in favour of the executive (ie, the Prime Minister) and against parliamentary power.

Secondly, the Coalition Agreement can only work if it is honoured in its spirit. To subject every measure to a kind of lawyerly loophole-searching scrutiny — as so many Conservatives have done on Lords reform — is to doom this government to sclerotic failure. For many on the right, who feel betrayed by David Cameron’s failure to win the 2010 election and even more betrayed by his subsequent commitment to coalition government, that appears to be their aim (with honourable exceptions such as Gary Streeter).

My best guess of what will happen next is this: Lords reform will fall and the boundary changes will fall in due course. Neither event is good for democracy. The public should be able to elect those who make the laws we all have to live by; and the public should expect their vote to be worth the same no matter where they live. Political machinations have brought us to where we are, and it’s not pretty to watch… let alone be part of.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.