I am rather an admirer of Andrew Rawnsley, and greatly enjoyed his book Servants of the People. But his article yesterday on Lords reform is so chock-full of errors and false assumptions that it demands a response. So here below is a brief analysis and rebuttal of the piece.
The greatest obstacles to Lords reform sit in the Commons
by Andrew Rawnsley
There were almost no issues on which all three of the biggest parties were of the same mind at the last election. But there was one which united them in near perfect harmony. Tories, Labour and Lib Dems were agreed that the House of Lords was indefensible. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg concurred that it was absurd for a country which is supposedly a mature democracy to have one half of its legislature populated by prime ministerial appointees with a rump of hereditary peers. All three parties made manifesto commitments, broadly along the same lines, to give Britain a revising chamber which was fit for the second decade of the 21st century.
Er, no. The key phrase in the Tory manifesto simply says “We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current house of Lords”.
Note that even this statement does not commit Tory MPs to voting for Lords legislation, let alone one on which there is no consensus. Despite the Government’s best efforts there is clearly no consensus here—the Joint Committee had an unprecedented minority report, signed by six Privy Councillors.
This apparent consensus was rather wonderful and terribly deceptive. Just how deceptive we will discover this week when the government publishes its legislation to reform the Lords. The battle is set to be one of the most tortuous and ferocious of the coalition's life, and also one of the most revealing. How the struggle is waged will be a significant character test of each of the party leaders. Ed Miliband will have to choose whether to be true to his reformist beliefs or to bend to those Labour voices who urge him to hang principle and pursue the short-term oppositional possibilities of causing trouble for the government.
No. Ed Miliband believes there should be 100% elected Lords, and a referendum on such a major issue of constitutional reform. It would betray, not be true to, those beliefs to support the Lords Bill, which will have neither of those features.
David Cameron has a decision to make about whether he is prepared to be robust enough with Tory opponents of reform to push it through parliament and fulfil an important pledge to both the voters and his coalition partner.
See above. It is a fantasy to suggest that this Bill was a pledge, let alone an important one.
For Nick Clegg, the test is simpler, but that does not mean it is easier. The Lib Dem leader yearns to prove to his party and himself that he can deliver at least one major constitutional reform to show for their time in power.
The most obvious centre of resistance is the House of Lords itself, a very self-regarding institution. The esteem in which peers hold themselves is not always without justification. There are subjects – science is a good example – where the expertise in the upper house is palpably superior to anything that can be mustered by MPs. Defenders of the Lords can always point to some highly distinguished individuals who make impressively wise speeches which would be genuinely missed.
This is just damning with faint praise. The truth is that there is almost no area in which the Lords does not have some persons or people with greater expertise and experience than in the Commons. Look at the Financial Services Bill—the most important attempt to reform the City of London for at least a generation. The Lords debate on the Bill has been far superior to that in the Commons, and has included former Chancellors, Permanent Secretaries at the Treasury, and senior figures in finance.
What apologists for the Lords prefer not to highlight are the many members of the bloated upper house who rarely make any contribution, and the large proportion of debates which are mediocre, complacent, stale, ill-informed and distorted by the inevitable bias of a chamber inhabited by men and women of mainly advancing years who do not have to stand for election. Recent scandals have also reminded us that peers can be just as prone to temptation as MPs – the more so, because, unlike MPs, they do not have to answer to a single voter. As Walter Bagehot observed back in the 19th century: "The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it."
This is a straw man. No-one seriously disputes that the Lords should be reduced in size, scrutiny beefed up, criminals evicted and political patronage reduced.
The issue is whether you need election to make the relevant changes. You don’t: all these measures could be made without elections. It is simply disingenuous to run the two issues of reform and election together, and pretend that one requires the other.
Even if it were the epitome of ageless sagacity, that would not trump the democratic principle that those who make the laws that govern us should be elected by us.
Only on a very naïve conception of democracy—it is also a crucial democratic point that in the UK when you elect your MP you are electing the government. That will no longer be true once we have an elected Lords. We have the world’s oldest democracy. But we don’t demand that the Queen or judges or ministers are elected, because their legitimacy comes from custom and tradition, inherited public standards of behaviour, and from accountability to elected politicians. My Times op-ed last week has more on this.
Before they acquired their titles, many of the peers agreed. To pick two names not at random, consider David Steel and David Owen. In the days when they were respectively the leader of the Liberals and the leader of the SDP, both their parties campaigned for an elected upper house. Now that they are peers of the unelected realm, the Lords David have become hostile to reform. I pick on those two, but I could have cited illustrations from all parties. Men and women who were champions of the democratic principle become converts to legislators-by-appointment once their bottoms are resting on the claret benches.
It’s that straw man again. Lords Steel and Owen are pro reform, but against election. The reason why appears to be that as peers they understand more about how the Lords works, and appreciate better how it works within the British constitution.
So Mr Clegg must expect windy opposition from the Lords for the same reason that turkeys don't vote for a premature yuletide. In the end, though, overcoming the opposition of peers will not be his stiffest hurdle. When the Commons is determined on reform, the Lords has always backed down in the past. Moreover, the government will be offering a retirement plan of extraordinary generosity to ease the pain of the departing peers. The pace of their replacement by elected representatives will be so glacial that the last of them will not be gone until the election of 2025. That must be the longest goodbye in constitutional history. Whatever else Nick Clegg can be accused of, he can hardly be said to be doing it in a mad rush.
His most difficult opponents are not in the Lords but down the corridor in the Commons. It has been resistance to and division about change among MPs that has repeatedly smothered previous attempts. Mr Clegg along with his Tory partner in this enterprise, the constitutional affairs minister Mark Harper, have tried to learn from this history. The government's proposal is for an upper chamber which is 80% elected, 20% appointed. This will not satisfy everyone. For democratic purists, it ought to be all-elected. For some, that is too many potential party hacks. For others, the continuing presence of some bishops will be objectionable. You can't please all of the people all of the time, especially not when it comes to Lords reform. The merit of the proposal is that it is a decent attempt to find an all-party consensus.
No. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats looked at a partially elected Lords, and rejected it. That’s why their manifestoes are for 100% elected.
Opponents advance some objections which are childish and some which deserve to be taken more seriously. Among the sillier claims, there is the contention that this is not the right time to be bothering with an issue that interests the public rather less than the state of the economy. Well, it is never the right time for Lords reform, which is why more than a century has elapsed since HH Asquith's government first proposed an upper house "elected on a popular basis". Reform of the Lords is not going to rescue us from recession, but not reforming the Lords won't make any difference to the health of the economy either.
On the contrary, much important legislation—e.g. on energy, on adult social care, on higher education—will be held up by debate over Lords reform. All the more so if an attempt is made to push this major piece of constitutional legislation through the Commons on a whip, without a referendum, and with a short timetable and guillotined votes.
A more serious concern among MPs is that a largely elected Lords will be emboldened to be more defiant of the Commons. You will hear a lot of the dread words "deadlock" and "gridlock". This animates Labour opponents of reform as much, if not more so, as it does Tory antis. Part of the answer to that anxiety is the different mandate proposed for members of a reformed Lords: a single, non-renewable 15-year term. To further quell these fears, an unequivocal assertion of the supremacy of the Commons will be written on the face of the legislation.
No. Senators on 15 year terms will be a new and expensive class of unaccountable politicians, from a government committed to cut the cost of politics. There has been lots of expert testimony that “unequivocal assertion of the supremacy of the Commons” will make no difference, since it just begs the question what will happen when the newly elected Lords starts to flex its muscles. What will very likely happen is a constitutional crisis.
A vocal group of Tories is fiercely opposed, but there are many Conservative MPs who are really quite sympathetic to reform – if they can get over their disinclination to do anything which might help the Lib Dems.
Again, this confuses reform with election. But actually there aren’t many Tories sympathetic to the Bill. That’s because it is not a conservative piece of legislation.
Then there are other Tories who are not all that bothered one way or another and will follow the prime minister if he gives them a sufficiently clear lead. What's troubled a lot of these potentially acquiescent Tories is the anxiety that elected lords will turn into ersatz MPs rivalling them for attention in their constituencies. David Cameron's ear has taken a considerable bashing from his backbenchers about that. As one of the prime minister's aides puts it: "They fear they'll turn up to a village fete in their constituency and find that the elected lord has beaten them to it."
The search for a way to soothe the nerves of these Tory MPs has led to much behind-the-scenes bargaining between Messrs Cameron and Clegg. The prime minister's friends, wanting to advertise his mettle to his party, describe the solution that has emerged as a demonstration of "David wringing concessions out of the Lib Dems". Nick Clegg's allies counter that it just shows how flexible and reasonable he has been in pursuit of the ultimate goal. The government will now propose that the new Lords are elected from regions in a similar fashion to Members of the European Parliament. So MPs need have no fear of being upstaged in their individual constituencies. In another change to the original plans, I also understand that there will be a "cooling off" period to prevent a member of the Lords standing down and immediately seeking election to the Commons.
Nonsense. The effect of Lords elections is that in every area of the country there will be at least FOUR elected politicians: councillor, MEP, Senator, MP. In Wales, where there are also two classes of Assembly Members, there will be six elected politicians!
These are compromises that are designed to satisfy reasonable people. They won't win over diehard opponents. But then nothing will.
This is just silly. It is not a "diehard position" to oppose a poorly thought-through piece of legislation which will create 300-450 new elected politicians at a cost of £400-£500 million every five years—compared to £91 million cost for the Lords over the past five years—at a time of massive economic crisis. On the contrary, it is common sense.
An early target for the anti-reformers will be the "timetable motion" which the government has to secure to have a hope of steering the legislation through parliament. If that motion is lost, in the words of one very senior Lib Dem, "the whole thing is stuffed". The battle will be over before it has begun.
It is easy to see Lords reform as a cause which deeply matters only to the Lib Dem leader and his party. That is certainly how it will be depicted by those on the Tory and Labour benches who want to sabotage this latest effort in a long line of attempts to democratise the second house of parliament. Yet this struggle asks a much bigger question than whether Nick Clegg can save his face. What is at stake is whether MPs are capable of rising above low and narrow perceptions of party self-interest to deliver on an election promise that was made by the overwhelming majority of them. What sort of Lords we get ultimately depends on what sort of Commons we have.
See above passim. I am afraid this says more about Andrew Rawnsley’s personal views than about the merits of Lords election or reform, or the wider national interest. Is there any question, above all at the present moment, to which the answer is really hundreds of expensive new elected politicians?