Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

New girl in the Lords V – and on the night bus home

At last the world knows a little of what we’ve been doing in the Lords, though more thanks to stories of campbeds and breakfasts than due to the nature of the struggle.

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Yet serious plots are afoot. This government – by diktat and the use of its majority (which it has in both houses, despite having failed to win the general election) – has unilaterally decided to reduce the size of the Commons, something we would decry around the world if tried there, but somehow passing unnoticed by our press (While cutting 50 seats from the Commons, of course, they’ve added 50 to the Lords). The figure of 50 is odd; the Tory manifesto wanted a cut of 65, the Lib Dems sought 150. A compromise of 50 makes no sense – until you realise that is the figure that damages Labour most. Ten of those seats will be lost in Wales, a quarter of their parliamentary representation, a complete negation of the long-standing recognition that this nation, with its own language, challenging geography and special history, requires a particular representation.

Worse follows. The government has decided on arithmetically equal constituencies (allowing only plus or minus five per cent of the fixed figure), riding roughshod over county or borough boundaries, history, geography (rivers, islands, mountains will make no difference), even wards or sea, let alone the under-registration of certain groups. Save for two Scottish seats (neither of them Labour) and now, thanks to the Conservative Lord Fowler’s amendment, the Isle of Wight (again not a Labour seat), every other of the 597 seats must be numerically defined.

There will be a colossal redrawing of boundaries for this first adaption to 600 seats (and done without public enquiries as the bill also abolishes those), but then, in a form of permanent revolution, these will subsequently alter every parliament to ensure the mathematical equality is not lost. Rare will it be for an MP to represent the same seat for more than one parliament and, on the first occasion, virtually every MP will have to challenge neighbouring MPs for the newly drawn seats.

There is one other issue in the bill which particularly offends Scottish and Welsh members, which is that the referendum on AV (with, incidentally, no other choices offered, such as PR or STV) will take place on the same day as Welsh assembly and Scottish parliament elections.

Is it a wonder that the Lords has refused to allow this 300-page bill to slip through our house without a single amendment (other than Lord Fowler’s)? The government has a healthy working majority, and wanted to ram it through as it had in the Commons. The only weapon the Lords has is time. Which is why Labour said to the government: of course you can have the bill, but only if you make some changes. Frankly, what is the point of any second chamber (elected, appointed or even hereditary) if it is simply to rubberstamp what the government has put through the Commons, with no ability to improve?

And so we did our duty, by scrutinising the bill and seeking to improve it. While the government benches had bridge parties, talks and entertainment over night, we debated. Sometimes for 24 hours. Once I left at 2.30 am, and finding Westminster devoid of taxis, took the 24 night bus home, musing how my new job had not turned out quite as I’d expected!

Negotiations do continue with the government, which should lead to some oral hearings for boundary reviews, though little else is forthcoming. But at least that’s some reward for our collective loss of beauty sleep.

 

Read Dianne Hayter’s other contributions to the Life in the Lords column

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Dianne Hayter

is the author of Fightback!: Labour’s Traditional Right in the 1970s and 1980s, published by Manchester University Press

2 comments

  • “Ten of those seats will be lost in Wales … requires a particular representation.” Wales doesn’t need special consideration. We live in a democracy where everybody is broadly equal, the ConDem plan will make us very equal by only 5%. Our Parliamentary boundaries do need a thorough overhaul, first we need to decide what type of electoral system we want for the foreseeable future. If the people demand a proportionate system like AV+ then the boundaries will have to change to accommodate it. Using AV+ with 10% top-up, if we want 650 MP’s then there will be 585 directly elected and 65 from a list. This will mean the boundaries will have to be redrawn for 585 constituencies. The ConDem methodology is flawed. To achieve their 5% parity they will have to cross parish, district, county and regional boundaries. This will immediately confuse us the electorate. Somebody could pay their council tax to Hampshire (or whatever district council) yet their MP represents a primarily Sussex seat. When they visit their MP (probably a white male) about a local issue, his staff will have to deal with another group of councils adding to the confusion. Will the new ConDem methodology of 5% parity also apply to future boundary reviews of local councils – will we see Parish councils equalised? Maybe a few roads or streets will be added to a neighbouring Parish to make the councillors more representative.

  • Pot and kettle come to mind with these spurious comments on “This government – by diktat and the use of its majority”… New Labour and Blair have done more damage to this country whilst in office than any other government in living memory. What we have seen in recent weeks are the pathetic efforts of the has been non entities in the Lords.

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