Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Tactics or lasting progress?

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


Photo: UK Parliament

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Darren Hughes


  • A referendum should included an option for abolition of The House of Lords. Any concocted formula for deciding its compostion can only be undemocratic or a recipe for state inaction on important issues. The USA is a major example of how a two chamber legislature leads to neglect of needs.

    New Zealand is a democracy so we could remain one without a second chamber.

    Of course open, serious and expert consideration of proposed legislation is essential.

    Restoration of the professional independence of universities from having to bend to commercial interests in order to get grants could be part of that consideration.

  • I could not agree more. We must avoid the temptation to be tribal and just score points on Parliamentary reform, concocting awkward alliances with the rabid Tory right, hereditaries and those whol just want to keep their ermine for life (real or fake fur). We have a real opprtunity here, it is not perfect and we need to press amendments, but in the end it is a lot better than anything the Labour government produced – and it will split the Tories. When we’ve lost the amendement for a fully elected upper house, clegg needs our full support. We must be seen to be above petty partisan opportunist politics and we have to show ourselves as credible.

  • Why are we arguing for a referendum? We have had two referenda in 40 years – on EU membership and the voting system. The suggestion is not to abolish the second chamber but to change it, albeit radically. Asquith sought no referendum for his changes; Macmillan did not when he introduced life peers; and Blair did not when he got rid of most of the hereditary peers. All of these moves, in their way, made a fundamental change to the Lords. Why would we now waste energy and money on a referendum?

    But also, why have 20 per cent of peers appointed and why not do away with current life and hereditaries immediately the election for the new house takes place? How can we accept that new democratic member should coexist with the few still there by birth and the others by patronage?

    And how will the aims of the committee be met by 20 per cent? Even not allowing for the bishops, it will be impossible to include those groups – women, those of other faiths, experts etc etc – that the committe envisages.

    And, please, let us get rid of that archaic title – the House of Lords. Let’s make it The House of the Senate or some such if we want to retain the notion of the Houses of Parliament to encompass both houses. The new members would then carry after their name MHS or MS – Members of the House of the Senate or Members of the Senate – rather than the offensively unegalitarian prefix “lord” or “lady”.

  • Alas, ‘democracy’ as a slogan has abolished political thought – especially about the notion of democracy. “The will of the people” might (might?!) be clear and unambiguous in a unicameral legislature….ha! ha! I don’t think….. But with TWO chambers what does the “will of the people” mean? schizophrenia? if they always agree, why have two? If they don’t, how is the disagreement to be resolved?
    by JUDGES?
    Admirers of the US Constitution should note that until 1912 or so, Senators were conceived of as states’ ambassadors, rather than as party representatives. The odd, almost unique, character of the two major US parties in any case ( strange amalgams of ad hoc electoral alliances, with no policy making function, certainly no ongoing or representative policy function, oddly yoked with an ongoing pork-barrel system of minor vested interests) precludes the relevance of any US model for us.
    Frankly, Michael Foot and Enoch Powell were right to ally when they sabotaged ‘reform’ of the HoL. Increasing its popular mandate attacks HoCommons democracy, and cannot but attack it – that is a zero-sum game.
    Just as Wolfe Tone rightly described ‘England’ as effectively a republic in the 1790’s, so since 1911 if not earlier, the UK has been in effect a unicameral political democracy. The crass sloppiness of parliamentary ‘drafting’ let alone amendment, seems barely better than the pork-barrelling lynch rule of our own dear Conference’s ‘deliberations’. The political class has been deeply venal since at least the rejection of the reform of the Bank of England in the 1825 crisis, let alone the Limited Liability Acts of 1844 onwards. Monopoly a la Elizabeth I and James I (/VI) has postured as ‘socialism’, ‘commanding heights’, ‘regulation’ … Chickens are still coming home to roost – in the ongoing economic as well as financial crisis which rightly preoccupies the British people a million (only a million?) times more than this constitutional posturing and flimflam..

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