The importance of Lords Reform….
This has been a deeply frustrating week in British politics. Many will say House of Lords reform is an esoteric issue, a side-show to the current economic calamity engulfing Britain and the world and the suffering that causes and on the surface that appears to be true. However, appearances, as we all should know, are deceptive, they tell us half a story at best, at worst they tell us next to nothing. In reality, the battle over the future of the House of Lords cuts across every single issue. The ‘Other Place’ itself is an unelected, undemocratic cancer which fester’s at the heart of our democracy. It is a potent symbol of the power of patronage and of unelected, unaccountable raw power in this country, it is a totem of all that is wrong with Britain, all that led us to this place. Jesse Norman and his merry band of Conservative rebels understand its significance, that is why, being true to themselves and what they believe, they are fighting tooth and claw to defend it. They are wrong to do so but I applaud the purity of their actions flowing as they do from the sincerely held beliefs they have.
I cannot extend similar applause to Ed Miliband who used the opportunity to, in practice, take sides with those who oppose reform. His pathetic, contemptible game-playing was a cowardly act, the act of a man with no principles and convictions to fight for. He strode forward in defence of the ‘democratic rights’ of Mr Norman and Co to delay passage of this Bill through Parliament endlessly, thus ensuring something which he also seems to regard as a side-issue will take up even more of our legislative time. His stand has empowered the rebels, it has given them the whip hand and in all likelihood will enable to kill the bill. Labour MP’s voting for the second reading was an empty, symbolic act, a deferential nod to what they profess to believe, with their mouths anyway.
Furthermore, the wider consequence will be to further embolden the Conservative right in other areas. It is notable that Mr Cameron has started talking up the right-wing hatchet jobs done by Mr Gove and Mr Duncan-Smith in education and welfare respectively. So, as this government careers to the right as Mr Cameron launches a desperate bid to save his Premiership, Mr Miliband would do well to reflect on the part he has played in these events. Mr Cameron himself is now in office but not in government and this is the point. The Coalition may well become more unstable (a short-term tactical gain for Labour) but in the longer term we have fed a mighty beast and in the longer term, Labour will pay the price, probably at the polls, for Mr Miliband’s short-sightedness. The next time the welfare bill is cut, people should remember this vote, because this is the vote and the issue that led directly to that outcome, and they should remember their support for the tactical ‘genius’ that made that happen.
The governments proposed reforms to the House of Lords are terrible; 15 year terms, the maintenance of a much reduced unelected element are a nonsense. Now, thanks to Mr Miliband, it seems they are to be watered down even further. However, they do represent a step-forward from the situation we currently have (unlike Alternative Vote, which didn’t) and therefore are supportable on those grounds. Furthermore, they open up literally a whole world of possibilities for those who wish to see British politics truly transformed (electoral reform, for example, would be put stunningly back on the agenda) and it is this that would have compelled me to defy Mr Miliband and vote with the government on its timetable motion. The reforms are the beginning of a journey whose end is not limited by the scope of the reforms themselves. Mr Norman and his cabal understand this in a way Ed Miliband clearly doesn’t and once again this is why they are fighting them so hard. It is depressing how long-sighted people on the right are compared to people on the left who can’t see 5 millimeters beyond the end of their own expansive, dogmatic nose.
So, what is to be done? This is a battle progressives must win to have any hope of winning further changes elsewhere. If David Cameron were serious about Lords reform (which he isn’t) it is probable he’d tack on a referendum so the advice would be to start the Yes campaign now. However, I don’t think Mr Cameron will offer that concession, so supporters of reform have to organise as if it were going to happen. This means particularly pro-reformers in both the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties coming together; the latter to ensure this government presses ahead, even to the point where they will walk out of the Coalition if necessary, Nick Clegg won’t do this unless he faces a major grassroots rebellions, and supporters of reform within the Labour Party have to force the leadership to stop playing Party politics with our democracy. In other words, we need to lobby for Labour MP’s to be going through the division lobby with the government when the timetable motion is next laid down. I have no hope or expectation that Mr Miliband will change his tiny mind, so, the only game in town becomes to ferment our own rebellion on the Labour benches, enough of one to strike down unholy alliance of the reactionary Mr Norman and the opportunistic Mr Miliband. If you believe in democracy, if you believe that our legislature should be elected and democratically accountable then there is no other show in town, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to change British politics for good and all, and it says it all about Mr Miliband that all that interests him is puerile games.