It’s encouraging to see serious Labour figures like Jacqui Smith and Ben Bradshaw out of the starter’s gates arguing for the party to follow the principle of progress over partisanship on the issue of Lords reform. They show how Labour can be a force to bolster, not block, reform.
The report from the joint committee on the Lords has unleashed all the anticipated reactions from all the usual quarters.
Labour – which honorably campaigned on a specific referendum pledge – are now being joined by people who dress up their implacable opposition to reform by also calling for a referendum. The fact many of the very same people dismissed last year’s referendum as a waste of time and money is conveniently forgotten, such is the establishment’s urgency to protect the status quo.
Had there been a majority Labour government after the 2010 general election then no doubt such a referendum would have taken place and the UK would be preparing for our first elected upper house.
However, that was not to be. The question for Labour now is firstly whether achieving any Lords reform will be an improvement on the current arrangements and secondly whether the process issue of a referendum should be allowed to become a veto issue on the progress a largely elected upper house represents.
The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour all set out their commitment to more democracy in the House of Lords through their manifestos. To be sure, there were differences in how to implement change, but it really is dancing on the head of a pin to deny the common substance of the idea that more people should be elected than appointed to the upper house.
Just at the point where there should be a super-majority for change, the public has seen a lot of leaks and political infighting orchestrated by people who don’t like change very much. Some commentators even say it will be a coalition-buster.
The temptation for tactical politics is naturally very appealing. But as Labour MP Malcolm Wicks said this morning at a media briefing from the committee majority: ‘Parliament is at its most short-term and pathetic if it’s just about giving Clegg a bloody nose. If this is lost, it’s gone for a generation.’
The reform proposals may not be perfect and there are aspects of some of them which would certainly have been different under a Labour-led government. But they are a vast improvement on the status quo. If Malcolm Wicks is right and the establishment manages to pull together an odd coalition of MPs who think the reforms are both too timid and too far-reaching, will anyone remember in a generation that the deputy prime minister had a setback in 2012?
And complicating the politics further is the notion that defeat on Lords reform will see the Lib Dems offering a tit-for-tat defeat to the Conservatives on constituency boundaries. This belies the fact that Nick Clegg has basically said he regards the coalition agreement as a programme, not a menu to pick and choose from.
Analysis of the daily squabbling and gamesmanship could go on and on. In the end, we can’t forget what this is all about.
If you hold the power to help decide how Britain is run you should be elected by us, the British public. That’s democracy.
Darren Hughes was a minister in the Helen Clark government and a Labour MP in the New Zealand House of Representatives. He is now director of campaigns and research at the Electoral Reform Society
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