Monday, 30 July 2012

Liberal Democrats don't "own" House of Lords reform

One of the lessons taught on management courses is the need to distinguish between importance and urgency. It is sometimes known as the "Eisenhower principle" after the WWII general and US president. Lord Glasgow, the hereditary peer who takes the Liberal Democrat whip, clearly was not aware of it when he asserted on "World at One" today that people in the country do not think that House of Lords reform is important. What he meant was that people believe that there are more urgent matters. When asked their views on reform, most agree that it is overdue. Moreover, all significant political parties at the last general election felt reform was important enough to include in their manifestos.

Obviously, the most urgent thing for one of the eight per cent unemployed is that next job. For the person who wants to start a new business or grow an existing one, it is a grant or loan on less than extortionate terms. However, it is difficult to see how more debating in the Commons is going to speed up either.

House of Lords reform is not that urgent that decks have to be cleared to push it through within days. It can be dealt with as a normal part of the parliamentary schedule. It is not, however, something which can safely be left to the next parliament, almost certain to be more complacent than the present one, as we get further away from the expenses scandals.

Lord Glasgow says he has written to Nick Clegg asking that the coalition should not proceed with the legislation, because the party will look foolish when it fails to pass the House.

There are two things to say about this.

Firstly, if the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party backs down now it will (rightly) attract cries of "yet another broken promise". Labour and the Nationalists will have a field day. They can rightly say that they (with a few exceptions, some honourable, some less so) supported the broad sweep of the coalition's proposals. The Liberal Democrats will stand accused of having said one thing in their manifesto and doing another when in government.

Secondly, and to me as a democrat more important, the Bill, having passed second reading, is in a sense now the property of parliament rather than that of any one political party. The Bill is based not on any one party's plan, nor even that of the coalition, but on the recommendations of a joint committee. There was a majority of all the UK parties in favour of proceeding with the Bill. So it would not only be politically bad but also morally indefensible for Nick Clegg to withdraw his support for giving the Bill  time for debate.

Of course, Labour behind the scenes could scupper the Bill by disagreeing with any sensible timetable. In that case, they should be called to account publicly. The Labour leadership - the majority of party members who clearly want reform can be excused - should be exposed for going back on their principles merely in order to embarrass the coalition.

Former Conservative health minister Stephen Dorrell spoke in favour of the Bill at second reading, sentiments reproduced in The Guardian:

The House of Commons provides an effective forum for enforcing the political accountability of the executive, but it is not an effective legislative assembly. Britain would be better governed if a reformed upper house had a democratic mandate to fulfil this role. This approach should appeal to a Tory instinct precisely because it is limited and incremental and makes no attempt to create a new constitutional blueprint. It builds on changes introduced over the last 100 years and does not preclude later changes in the light of experience; but in the meantime it aims to restrict the torrent of half-baked legislation by strengthening the democratic roots of parliament. What's to oppose in that?

Dorrell it seems to me represents the traditional solid centre of the Conservative Party. He has no great expectation of preferment these days, so his motives for speaking and voting as he did may be seen to be pure. The Tory "rebel" strength will practically not increase. The only reasons for not proceeding with the Bill are party political: Cameron to maintain a fa├žade of unity, Miliband to be awkward. The majority in parliament and in the country want reform; let us proceed with all - deliberate - speed.

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