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.

Attlee – A Life in Politics by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds

Labour Party

Now that Labour Party Conference is over and a new Leader elected, it may be a good time to think about a previous Labour Government, 1945 – 51, in fact, generally thought of as the most radical Labour administration ever.

Here is my review of  Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds book Attlee – A Life in Politics which has just appeared in the October issue of Total Politics. 

Clement Attlee, Prime Minister of one of the three twentieth century governments who dramatically changed our lives, was arguably Labour’s greatest Leader.  Yet unlike Lloyd George and Margaret Thatcher, he was no towering personality impressing his will on both Cabinet and people.  A keen amateur poet, Attlee himself summed it up in 1956:

“Few thought he was even a starter                                                                                                                                             

There were many who thought themselves smarter

But he ended PM

CH and OM

An earl and a knight of the garter”

Few would disagree that the 1945–50 Labour Government was the most radical Britain has ever seen – the National Health Service, national insurance and the modern welfare state, nationalisation of gas, electricity, the railways and the mines, not to mention independence for India and Pakistan.

Yet Attlee was an unlikely Labour Leader when he was first chosen in 1935. Irredeemably middle class with a solicitor father, Atlee had it all – Haileybury, University College Oxford, a comfortable legal career and the rank of major gained in the First World War. Yet he joined the Labour Party and became its longest-serving Leader. 

All governments have their bad times and Attlee’s was no exception. During the 1947 balance of payments crisis the Times ran the headline “Food cuts, Basic Petrol to be stopped; Rigorous Limits on Travel Abroad; Prospect of further economies.”  Things only began to look up when Britain received $3 million in American aid.

 In fact, 1947 proved the beginning of the end.  Having seen off the leadership ambitions of Herbert Morrison amongst others, Attlee won the 1950 general election with a reduced majority.  He then called another in 1951 only to be defeated.  Stepping down as Labour Leader in 1955, he never returned to power.

Attlee’s political motivation came from observation not personal experience.  As a young man doing voluntary work in London’s East End, he saw the very worst of pre-world war one social conditions. He never forgot and ultimately proved successful in changing our society for good.

Even if Attlee was not a particularly extraordinary individual, his career was spectacular.  Yet Thomas-Symonds fails to make the most of the years 1945–50.  The book’s prosaic title, Attlee – A Life in Politics, sums it up.  This is a quintessentially academic book, lacking any real passion when the subject matter provides huge scope for emotion, both good and bad.

 Thomas-Symonds method of describing events chronologically is not the most digestible way to present the material.  Analysis by subject would have made reading easier.  In addition, there was little sign of the new documentation we were promised on the dust jacket.

Perhaps the most glaring omission is any real attempt to look at Attlee the man.  Yes, he was quiet and private but he was also a prolific letter writer, an occasional poet and a family man.  Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds alludes far too sparingly to these aspects of Attlee’s life, just as he fails to draw out the characters of the other main protagonists; Morrison, Bevin and Bevan appear little more than ciphers.

Politics is ultimately about people.  If Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds had concentrated more on the personal he may have produced an interesting and enjoyable book rather than a merely competent one.