Cameron looks both ways on Lords reform

Labour Party

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.

On the Road to Fair Votes

Labour Party

Last year at Labour Party Conference, when Gordon Brown promised a referendum on changing the voting system, specifically holding a referendum on the Alternative Vote system (AV), I was absolutely delighted.  Today the Guardian provided this very helpful demonstration of how AV would work.

My twenty- five years of struggling to get even the very idea of fair votes for the House of Commons recognised seemed at last to be getting somewhere.  When you’re involved in what is often seen as a minority, not to say geeky, campaign it’s sometimes hard to keep your sprits up.  But we have, and we’re finally winning through.

Going that crucial step further, Gordon’s announcement in a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) yesterday that the referendum will be held in October 2011, was the next thing electoral reformers wanted to hear.  The Prime Minister has now said he will have a referendum, a pledge he will, I believe, do everything he can to honour.  It is now up to Gordon to find the parliamentary time before the expected Easter dissolution.

I understand that some Conservative co-operation may be required to make such time available.  However, Gordon has to come out on top on this one.  Having made such a public commitment, he really must see it through and get the law setting the date for a referendum passed before the general election in order that his target date for the referendum of October 2011 may be met.

Gordon has made it clear that the referendum would be restricted to whether to stick with first past the post or to move to the alternative vote.  There are, I know, those among electoral reform campaigners who think AV is not proportional enough.  I think we must embrace Gordon Brown’s initiative as the only change we are likely to get in the foreseeable future.  It may not go as far as we would like, but it’s much better than first past the post.

We must also all be aware that our opponents do not like PR.  Since there is little that is fair in Tory social policy, it is hardly surprising they don’t want fair votes.  Quoted in yesterday’s Guardian, William Hague showed his usual lack of imagination: “It’s not the voting system that needs changing, it’s this weak and discredited prime minister. New politics needs a new government.”

Things are very different in the Labour Cabinet.  Ed Balls, the schools secretary, is a supporter of AV, as is Home Secretary Alan Johnson, John Denham, the communities secretary, Peter Hain, Welsh secretary, Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell, and, last but not least, Ben Bradshaw, the culture secretary.

Though the introduction of AV is the most important policy demanding immediate action, Gordon’s speech yesterday did not stop there.  He also announced that he wants a written constitution by 2015, the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta; a right for constituents to recall MPs if found guilty of corruption: a draft bill introducing a mainly elected Lords; and approval for local government reforms, entitled Total Place, that he said could produce £15bn of savings. He also said he supported votes at 16, but gave no commitment to put the proposal in the Labour manifesto.

I believe constitutional reform is important for its own sake.  Britain is the only country in Europe which does not have a proportional electoral system for its upper house.  On the other hand, I remain to be convinced that a package of changes to the way parliament and other representative institutions are elected will achieve very much in restoring people’s trust in politics, except perhaps for the measure to recall corrupt MPs.  Gordon Brown is setting out a vision for a modern democracy.  As the only real modern, progressive Party in Britain, Labour members have, I believe, a profound duty to support our Prime Minister in this crucially important task.