The Liberal-Democrats have achieved their second bite at the constitutional cherry. In order, I assume, to keep his flagging coalition together, David Cameron appears to have conceded Nick Clegg’s demand for reform of the House of Lords. This much-needed measure is now in the Queen’s Speech.
I very much welcome the inclusion of Lord’s reform in the coalition’s legislative programme. Being used to the European spirit of negotiation and compromise where ideas are not necessarily opposed simply because they come from the other side, I have no problem in coming out in favour of this one aspect of the Queen’s Speech.
The proposals as put forward yesterday are, indeed, very much as expected. At least eight in 10 members of the reformed upper house will be elected by a proportional system for 15 year terms. Initially, one-third of these will be elected at any one time to allow for continuity. There will be transitional period for existing peers to hand over to the new elected members while all hereditary members will be abolished. The titles currently in use – lord, baroness, etc – will be then be purely honorary. The size of the second chamber will be reduced from its currently ridiculously swollen 800 plus to a more manageable number of 300 or so.
As a longstanding campaigner for constitutional reform, I very much support the principles behind the proposals. Although I would prefer to see the whole of the second chamber elected, this should not be such a stumbling block that it prevents the whole package from actually happening.
So far, so good. There is a worked up outline of a bill in the Queen’s Speech which would indicate that the government is ready and prepared to go. Yet is this may, in fact, be the way this important matter unravels in the future.
It would be an understatement to say there is significant opposition to Lords reform amongst Tory MPs. The feral ultra-right is up in arms and David Cameron is also facing considerable flack following the Conservative defeat in last week’s local elections. The Prime Minister has, as ever, problems with his own side, made more acute because his spiritual home is probably with the oppositionalists rather than his more moderate colleagues. He thinks he needs their support and will, I am sure, do whatever it takes to keep his 1922 Committee beasts on board, just as he did when he pulled the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party Group in the European Parliament.
As ever, it looks as if Cameron is dealing with a difficult issue by saying and doing one thing in public and something quite different in private. Yesterday’s Evening Standard claimed that a source close to Cameron said: “This (Lords reform) is not a priority for the Government. We are not going to allow everything to be snarled up for it. If we can get bit through we will, if we can’t, we can’t.”
Cameron, of course, played a similar game with the referendum on the alternative vote. His undermining the referendum “yes” vote by favouring the other side was despicable double-dealing. It looks as if the same thing may happen again. Integrity is obviously not valued in the modern Conservative Party.
I find the attitude of this and past governments towards constitutional reform puzzling. Yes, of course it is difficult to get through and many backbenchers do not like it. Reform is, however, needed and should therefore be pursued. At another level, Prime Ministers who achieved such change also create their legacy. Lord Grey will be forever remembered for the 1832 Great Reform Act. Lloyd George still receives credit for female suffrage while Asquith, who opposed votes for women before the First World War, is now castigated for his stance. Since Prime Ministers seem preoccupied with what they will leave behind, I am a little surprised that Cameron hasn’t cottoned on to this one.