First the positive bit. A vote of 462 – 124 in favour of a Bill that has a second chamber predominately elected by a proportional voting system is a major step forward. This confirms the fact that there is a substantial majority of MPs who favour radical House of Lords reform.
But…the Bill may now be tripped up by petty party political games in the Commons. The Bill will get nowhere without a timetable for consideration of 60 clauses and 11 schedules. Rebel backbench Tory MPs colluded with opposition MPs to say that the Bill needed more than the ten days proposed by the government. But apart from lone Green MP Caroline Lucas, who suggested thirteen days was enough, none of them said how long they wanted. The truth of course, is that opponents really want the Bill to get stuck in the mud of endless filibustering and procedural devices to drag out consideration until the government gets fed up and withdraws the Bill.
The debate over the last couple of days has shown two things. First, a large number of Tory MPs oppose an elected second chamber. Some of them say they are in favour of a tidying up exercise, allowing “life” peers to retire. But their heart is not really in it. Despite their sabotage of a clear commitment in the Coalition Agreement I am not that angry with Tory coalition colleagues. The Conservative Party has a long and dishonourable tradition of opposing constitutional reform. But that’s what the Tory party is for – opposing change. From 1688 to 2012 it is quite hard for even a constitutional nerd like me to to think of any reform positively supported by Tories. Only the 1867 Reform Act, giving the vote to male urban heads of household, was promoted by a Tory PM, the politically mercurial Disraeli. Their opposition to reform earlier in the century caused riots in Bristol in 1831. They opposed further extensions of the male franchise in 1884 and were the most vociferous enemies of the Suffragettes. The in built Conservative majority in the House of Lords was used to obstruct all sorts of social reform, leading to the Liberal government of Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill to pass the 1911 Parliament Act, curtailing their Lordships’ power to delay legislation. In the intervening century it was indeed MacMillan’s government that introduced Life Peers to sit with the dukes and barons. But this reform has not stood the test of time.
But all reformers should be really fed up with Labour. The Blair government made significant progress on constitutional reform. Power has been devolved to Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London. PR, albeit the least radical version, was introduced in these devolved assemblies and for the European Parliament. But they botched Lords reform in 1999, abolishing the right of many but not all, hereditary peers to sit in the Lords. In 2007 the Commons voted for a fully elected second chamber but the Brown government left the issue to rot. For Labour, Lords reform should be seen as unfinished business.
I’ve no doubt that most current Labour MPs would prefer an elected second chamber. So why don’t they want to work with reformers on the government benches? Is it more important for them to sit back and watch an intra-coalition row? Or do they want, as Peter Hain has apparently suggested, to gum up government business for months, even if Lords reform dies in the process?
There’s a glimmer of hope, offered by some of the speakers in the debates. Both David Miliband and Alan Johnson made good speeches in favour of reform, warning their front bench not to squander the best chance in a generation of seeing it achieved. It must surely be possible for the government and Labour to come to an agreement over the summer, allowing plenty of time for the Bill to be scrutinised. Some pro reform Labour MPs that I have spoken to say that their price is a referendum. I’m not afraid of a referendum – the case for an elected second chamber is much easier to make than the case for AV in the Commons. But if they want a referendum, we need to be clear that they are going to throw their weight behind a Yes campaign.
Those who definitely oppose an elected second chamber think they have now killed the issue. I think we are far from that position. It’s clear that most MPs want reform. And with some grown up political cooperation we can achieve it by next year.
NOTE – if you are interested in Lords reform, you may want to read my blog of 28th June 2011, on the day that Parliament first discussed the Coalition Government’s early draft proposals, “Time for a British Senate”