Room for a more assertive parliament
David Cameron finds himself in a pretty bad place this week, between desperate Lib Dems and disgruntled Tory backbenchers. Today, the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform reports. A bill on Lords reform should be a central plank of the Queen’s Speech coming up on 9 May. Having lost out on delivering any sort of electoral reform, the Lib Dems need to deliver in the one area which has defined them over the years and which Nick Clegg has taken personal responsibility for in government. However, a robust rearguard action is clearly being fought by Tory backbenchers. Andrew Rosindell MP tells us that he could never vote for something which would see Baroness Thatcher removed from parliament. Nadine Dorries MP ramps it up further by blogging that David Cameron will not be leading the Conservative party into the next election if he pushes on with these plans. Arguably neither of these are mainstream Tory MPs, but the rot goes further. Last week’s 1922 committee of Tory MPs was as leaky as a Parliamentary Labour Party meeting! We learned that only one Tory backbencher actually supported the plans for reform.
The tribalism in me relishes this serious problem for the coalition. We could stand back and watch it going wrong, but we mustn’t. We need to prove that we have the plans to govern, not just the ability to oppose. There are many – including in our own party – arguing for no progress on this. I think they are wrong. Let’s look at the arguments being used against reform.
‘It works well at the moment’ is one argument. There are certainly many dedicated and talented peers who contribute an enormous amount to public life in the House of Lords, but do we really think we couldn’t have a more legitimate, more effective second chamber. I didn’t get involved in politics because I was inspired by the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to policy.
‘It’s not a public priority at this difficult time’. Many of those using this argument didn’t think it was a priority in easier times either! Furthermore, while reform of the House of Lords may not be top of people’s list, the voting public do have a right to expect politicians to be able to multitask. Priorities matter, but so does a comprehensive plan for putting things right. And the House of Lords does need to be put right. I often talk to young people about how parliament works. I feel pretty feeble explaining that the House of Lords developed first to safeguard the interests of the aristocracy and that now it is largely what Andrew Adonis vividly described as a House of Cronies, because we can’t quite agree how to make it better, more democratic and more legitimate.
‘Reform will make the second chamber more assertive’. Some argue as if this is self-evidently a bad thing. I agree that it will and I don’t think it is a bad thing. As a minister, I was immensely frustrated by the defeats and concessions that I had to make as legislation went through parliament, but if I’m honest I’m more surprised at how little I had to consider in advance the views of parliamentarians or to engage in a serious way with them.
In our system the executive remains powerful and the House of Commons will continue to determine who forms that government, but there is plenty of room for a more assertive parliament overall.
We must be arguing for change – even as we enjoy the discomfiture of Nick Clegg and David Cameron.
Jacqui Smith is former home secretary and writes the Monday Politics column for Progress
Andrew Adonis, Conservatives, David Cameron, House of Lords, House of Lords reform, Jacqui Smith, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Margaret Thatcher, Nadine Dorries, Nick Clegg