Ed Miliband’s decision to insist on Labour backing House of Lords reform at the Second Reading vote in the House of Commons is an important and welcome one. That it was opposed by senior Labour figures such as David Blunkett probably reinforces the views of many Liberal Democrats of Blunkett and co, but it should also remind us that Miliband’s decision and leadership on this is not trivial. It is something House of Lords reformers in all parties should welcome.
More cynical people may wonder if Labour support on the Second Reading will be a distraction tactic from them trying to sink Lords reform at a later date, whether with or without Miliband’s implicit backing. There are three main opportunities for that.
Timetable (programme) motion
Without a timetable motion, the Bill will be prone to filibustering. An unreasonably brief timetable would be fair to oppose (and of course the Lib Dems would if in opposition). Demanding an unreasonably long timetable would be a cynical way of trying to sink the Bill and would fit with Labour’s form in the last Parliament.
What Miliband has said so far is that he wants a reasonable amount of time for debate.
There will be plenty of lobbying and talking before that he has to put a number on that, but I suspect it will be more persuasive for Liberal Democrats to welcome the glass half full – second reading debate vote – than to talk up fears of glass half empty – what may happen on the timetable motion.
That is especially so as the comments of Labour peers suggest Ed Miliband has quite a fight to win in the Labour Party.
As I quipped on Twitter yesterday to Labour’s Chief Whip in the Lords:
Certainly is odd that the day after Ed Miliband says ‘we’ll support it’ you tweet lots of complaints about it…
… but I guess the virtue of being a whip is you know you can’t be sent to talk to yourself?
80% or 100%?
On this, I’ve certainly expressed glass half empty fears in the past, as previous comments from various Labour figures looked like the party was lining up to say, ‘if it isn’t a 100% elected Lords, we’ll vote down the whole package’.
But credit where it’s due, the official position of the Labour Party so far has not taken that turn. As with the timetable motion, there are grounds for caution but if we want to win this debate building on the positives matters.
Of course, it would be great fun if the government were to call the bluff of would-be filibusterers and simply say, ‘You want debate? Fine, take all the time you want. We’ll cancel the recess to give you all the time you’ve said you want’. That’s rather like how Palmerston got the 19th century’s big divorce Act through Parliament – keeping Parliament sitting through the summer.
Referendum or not?
Attitudes towards referendums are rather like those towards whether or not someone switching parties should trigger a by-election. In other words, people dress up their own immediate self-interest in words of grand principle that quietly get left to one side when self-interest prompts taking the opposite view.
Unlock Democracy’s suggestion on this is a neat one:
What is the principle behind holding a referendum on reforming the House of Lords, something promised in the three major parties’ manifestos and consistently enjoys support in opinion poll after opinion poll? It appears to be little more than a tactic by opponents of reform who are banking on being able to turn the referendum into another stick to beat up the Liberal Democrats…
What is all too often missed is that it is not referendums per se that are democratic, but the right for the public to debate and decide on a policy which would otherwise be foisted on them. The only principled reason to hold a referendum is that you can demonstrate that a sizeable proportion of the public actually want one. It is this principle, not grubby partisan advantage, which ought to inform parliament’s decision as to whether to hold a referendum on an elected second chamber.
In its evidence to the Joint Committee (pdf), Unlock Democracy proposed a solution which would both satisfy this and the Labour manifesto commitment to hold a referendum: include in the House of Lords Reform Bill a clause which will trigger a referendum if at least 5% of the public petition for one. This is what is most commonly known as a “citizen’s veto”. Not only would we then only go to the expense of holding a referendum if there was sufficient demand, but the referendum itself is far more likely to focus on the issue itself instead of becoming a proxy for something else.
Even so, this is another opportunity for Labour (and other opponents of Lords reform) to oppose the Bill without actually having to say in public they are against it.
That would not be a surprise given the public overwhelmingly backs Lords reform, and views on referendums often divide Liberal Democrats. However, any such decision is some way off – and for the moment, looking for what can unite the most people around Lords reform is the smart option.
The chance now for Lords reform is one that has been frustratingly rare over the past century, especially with a Conservative Party officially backing Lords reform and a Conservative Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister willing to use the Parliament Act to force through the Bill if the Lords tries to block it.
It’s one we should try to secure by winning over doubters rather than driving them away, and a good way to start is by lobbying your MP through this quick and easy website.