Two episodes shape my feelings about reform of the House of Lords.
The first took place in March 2000, when I happened to be at the House of Lords on the night that peers defeated the government’s proposals to repeal the infamous section 28 ban on teaching school pupils about homosexual relationships. Standing at the Peers’ Entrance was like watching the Night of the Living Dead. Backwoodsman were shuffling out of the House of Lords having defeated a government elected by a massive popular landslide, in order to defend the enactment in law of their own noxious prejudices. It was a truly appalling sight.
The second is from spring 2010, in the dog days of that Labour government, at a meeting of the Orwellian-titled Democratic Renewal Council (in reality a standard cabinet sub-committee concerned with democratic and constitutional reform). Cabinet ministers were meeting early in the morning to hammer out a common position on reform of the House of Lords and the voting system of the House of Commons. It was hoped that a government statement on a Lords reform bill could then be made in the week before the election was called, although in reality the meeting was called to settle what would appear in the Labour manifesto. After lengthy discussion to-and-fro, in which the balance of opinion was broadly with the reformers, Nick Brown, then the chief whip, declared he would be delighted if simultaneous referenda were held on electoral reform and Lords reform, in order, as he put it, that ‘We could then lose both!’
I have long held it self-evident that the UK should join the rest of the advanced democratic world (apart from Canada and one or two other mixed cases) in electing its second chamber. Unfortunately, many people in the Labour party do not share that view. Labour has long been divided on Lords reform, despite the party’s episodic hostility to the upper house and its own democratic reform credentials. The short Labour manifesto of December 1910 stated boldly to the electorate:
You are again being asked to return a majority pledged to remove the House of Lords as a block in the working of our Constitution. Do it, and do it emphatically. The Lords must go.
By 1945, however, Lords reform did not feature in the Labour manifesto, and even in 1964 only fleeting reference was made to preventing the Conservative majority in the upper house from blocking reform (indeed, in this era, the key piece of Lords reform was undoubtedly Macmillan’s 1958 Life Peerages Act, which enabled the Lords to survive as an institution in the meritocratic age). The 1997 Labour manifesto was more specific in its proposal to remove hereditary peers, but it was only in 2010 that Labour finally committed itself to ‘a fully elected’ second chamber:
We will ensure that the hereditary principle is removed from the House of Lords. Further democratic reform to create a fully elected Second Chamber will then be achieved in stages. At the end of the next Parliament one third of the House of Lords will be elected; a further one third of members will be elected at the general election after that. Until the final stage, the representation of all groups should be maintained in equal proportions to now. We will consult widely on these proposals, and on an open-list proportional representation electoral system for the Second Chamber, before putting them to the people in a referendum.
This represented quite a considerable advance for the party, which was a testament to Ed Miliband’s efforts as the lead author of the Labour manifesto. It does not mean that all of the PLP backs this position; patently there are many opponents of Lords reform among its ranks, ranging from committed unicameralists to those who simply don’t get up in the morning to worry about democratic reform. But Labour’s formal commitment is to support Lords reform, even if in reality it has forced the government to withdraw its programme motion by siding with the Tory rebels.
It leaves Ed Miliband with an interesting conundrum. Does he now negotiate with the government to gain full debate on the bill on the floor of the House, and vote to allow its progress to the Lords, perhaps by securing a commitment to a referendum (which could well be lost, if the AV experience is anything to go by?) Or does he continue to exploit Coalition disarray, knowing that the bill will get mauled in the Lords and that he has little control of his peers in the upper house? If so, what pretext does he use? The referendum pledge?
There will be support for both options in the PLP, although the majority of Miliband’s own senior backers in his leadership campaign, such as Peter Hain, John Denham and Hillary Benn, are committed reformers. They will want him to make progress. Others will scoff at that and ignore the bitterness from Liberal Democrats across the floor. In my view, Miliband should align his own personal democratic commitments with the medium term tactical considerations he faces, rather than the short-term ones – keeping open the prospect of an alternative coalition after the next general election. He may well need the Liberal Democrats, as John Curtice points out.
For what it’s worth, it seems to me that if the government abandoned 15-year non-renewable terms in favour of something more democratic, then a number of objections to the bill could be overcome. Most of the rest are well dealt with in this excellent briefing from the Campaign for a Democratic Upper House, which is well worth a read.