Lords reform was always going to fail; but it could still destroy the coalition

Lords reform has, for over a century, been talked about. Alas, there have been some changes, notably when in 1999 the majority of hereditary peers were removed by Tony Blair’s new Labour government. That was always intended as ‘stage 1’ of reform, although nothing has changed since. We have seen a Royal Commission, public consultations and, as you will be aware, a mass parliamentary debate over recent days. However it was – and remains – inevitable that further reform won’t happen for several years yet.

At the 2010 general election, all three of the main parties pledged to reform the House, and just a few weeks ago the House of Lords Reform Bill 2012 was read to the house by Nick Clegg.

Arguments. Debates. Whips. This had all the ingredients of a typical backbench uprising from the very minute the Bill was read, and so to me it is no surprise that last night, Sir George Young revealed that the Bill would be dropped for the time being, as the coalition calculated rather obviously that they  no chance of winning the planned vote – after an unlikely informal coalition between backbench Tories and the Labour Party looked certain to embarrass Clegg and Co.

This turned out to be an even bigger rebellion than the infamous Europe debate at the back end of last year. This time, 110 backbenchers voted against Lords reform or abstained from the debate. Is Cameron losing control of his party? Likely. This whole reform process has been described by Conservative commentators as ‘wholly unconservative’.

I would disagree that reforms in general to the workings of parliament are unconservative. Traditional Conservative values are built upon a foundation of core democracy, and there is extremely little that is democratic about the House of Lords. There is in fact very little that I, and many Conservative supporters, hold against Lords reform in principle. We’d like to see a more robust way of selecting (or electing) members, and we, as the public, would like to be able to hold the Lords to account. However, Clegg’s reforms are a step too far, at the wrong time. Reducing the size of the Lords is fantastic – there is nothing wrong with that. But electing the vast majority of Lords and having them serve 15 year terms is a woeful proposal. This would simply be a way for failed ex-Commons politicians to prolong their careers, fat catting from the public purse for an extra 15 years. We’d see the likes of Lembit Opik probably elected. Good grief – Lord Opik of Montgomeryshire? No thanks, Clegg. We’d personally rather him continue his fledgling boxing career.

These proposals would have simply created yet another layer of career politicians. The beauty of the Lords as it stands is the fact that members are selected for the work they have done. Most have had life changing experiences, or lengthy careers. They bring expertise, experience and knowledge, allowing the House to carefully analyse policy and legislation fully. Replacing these skills with people who want nothing but a public pension is a dangerous proposal. Not to mention the fact that elected Lords would feel the need to flex their muscles against the Commons more often, creating conflict within our parliament.

I for one, am thrilled that these specific reforms have been dropped for the time being. Of course a second reading is likely in the Autumn, and Cameron will have no doubt bought out or bullied a few of his backbenchers by then, but I also hope that he uses the summer to talk to his deputy and discuss a less radical alternative proposal for reform.

However, the failure of this Bill could present a real challenge to the coalition. The Lib Dems came into this government with two major political reforms that they wanted to achieve; Electoral Reform and Lords Reform. The former was rejected by the public, and Clegg faces political oblivion for his party if the latter also fails to come to fruition – people will be asking in 2015; “What exactly have the Lib Dems contributed in the past five years?”.

Perhaps the biggest threat that the Conservatives face is that some Liberal Democrats have linked Lords Reform to the electoral boundary review. These are absolutely vital if Cameron wants any chance whatsoever of an outright majority at the next election, and so his backbenchers rejecting Lords Reform could prove critical in persuading Clegg’s party to reject the Boundary Review when it is voted on next year.

Interestingly, the odds for a general election in 2012 have halved from 16/1 to 8/1 since Monday morning. Could Lords Reform really be the root of a slow death for the coalition?

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