So, as predicted following the slaughter earlier this month, the Government has finally issued its White Paper on House of Lords reform – and, unsurprisingly, it’s a dog’s breakfast. Like the Coalition itself, it aims to mix the radical and the conservative, and in the process manages to ruin the whole thing.
The key plank of the changes is that henceforth the four-fifths of the “Lords” – for want of a better name – will be elected, and (in the waggish words of the White Paper) “The peerage would revert to being an honour.” The remaining fifth will be appointed, as at present, and some of the Anglican bishops will continue to be tacked on. It is astonishingly naïve of the Government to think that an Upper Chamber could operate if some members are seen as more legitimate than others; indeed – effectively, it is claiming that the opinion of the Prime Minister, who will be doing the appointing, is worth the same as one fifth of the entire electorate. That’s hardly democratic; if the NO campaign is to be believed, the defeat of the AV referendum was a victory for the principle of “one man, one vote”, yet it is already unravelling.
In fact, the whole Bill betrays a contempt for the electorate. Even though the new Upper House will (ostensibly) be more legitimate, its powers will not change – it will only be able to delay legislation by up to a year, and still won’t even get to vote on Budgets at all. Which does rather raise the question, what’s the point? Come election time, how will wannabe Lords canvass – “Vote for me, I promise to be an effective scrutinizer”? The Coalition fails to realize that just as actions have consequences, so having elections implies granting a mandate to govern. Quite apart from being a constitutional crisis waiting to happen, these elections would dilute the vote to the point of worthlessness.
But we have been here before – one need only look as far back as 1998 for the last piece of similarly botched constitutional legislation. Just as Clegg is forever harping back to Lloyd George’s Parliament Act of 1911, Tony Blair’s Scotland Act was in large part passed to remedy the failed one of twenty years prior, in the dying days of the last Labour government before his own. Had he the courage, he should have gone for a full federal state (just as Clegg ought to have pressed for a fully-elected Lords, with veto powers). But instead, we ended up with the iniquities of the “West Lothian Question”, with Scots effectively represented twice. On top of that, by failing to make the Scottish Parliament collect its own taxes, we now have a situation where over 80% of MSPs are left-wing: is this any wonder, when the parliament cannot reduce taxes? The lessons of the Blair government are that it is better to have no reform than to have a bad reform: the Constitution is a fragile beast, hardly improved by blundering idiots who think they can solve historic grievances in about thirty seconds.
Why can’t we fix constitutional problems with a wave of a magic legislative wand? Answer: because it’s hard (as Nick Clegg is about to find out in Parliament). It’s not fashionable to say so, but the British state works, by and large. The Lib Dems in particular seem to be infected with a combination of paranoia and naïvety: the failure to achieve Liberal reforms is put down to vested interests, to the system being biased against them, rather than the truth – that both they and their ideas are unpopular. Six months ago, it looked like the AV referendum might have passed, but the more people learned about it, the less they liked it. The British people seem to be instinctively small-c conservative. Neither electoral reform nor Lords reform is going to win anybody’s vote – the only people who care about such things aren’t swing voters anyway. It’s clear that the only reason Clegg is pressing ahead with this particular reform is shore up his flagging support within his party, which seems a dangerous abuse of parliamentary power. See the Hunting Act for another Blairite precedent.
Parliamentary reform in the current climate ought to be focusing on restoring trust in the aftermath of the expenses scandal. But with a few high-profile exceptions – Lord Paul, Lady Uddin, Lord Hanningfield – the tsunami which hit the Commons left the Lords largely unscathed. One of the arguments put forward by “Yes to Fairer Votes” was that this was attributable to the “jobs for life” culture created by safe seats, and there may be some truth in that. Given that, it’s bizarre that YES’s principal backers, the Lib Dems, would put forward a Bill precisely designed to entrench such a culture – not only will Lords’ mandates be for an absurdly long fifteen years, but they will be prevented by law from standing the next time round. Under the new system, there is to be no reward of the good nor punishment of the bad; given the proposed electoral system for the new House, a candidate could sneak in with 12.5% of the vote, and receive a guaranteed £60,000 salary for the next fifteen years for doing precisely nothing. To say that this hasn’t been thought through properly would be an understatement.
You have to feel sorry for the Lib Dems really – like Gordon Brown, they have aspired to power for years and years only to find they’re not very good at managing it. The tragedy of coalition politics is that encourages politicians to tend to their parties, rather than the public, hence the focus on constitutional affairs. Clegg should have the guts to admit that his reputation is irreparably tarnished; any change to it can only be for the worse. But Cameron is equally remiss in encouraging him. Hopefully, Parliament will see these flawed reforms for what they are, kick them into the long grass, and move on. We already have enough problems to be getting on with.