Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bringing forward the consensus-building

This is what the coalition agreement says about electoral reform:
We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum.
And this is what it says about House of Lords reform – note the difference in language, and in the strength of the commitment:
We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers. In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.
I think the problem is that the Lib Dems have read too much into this Lords agreement. The Tories will be keeping their side of the bargain even if they vote against Nick Clegg’s reform bill. “Bring forward proposals” means very nearly nothing.

But John Rentoul doesn’t agree:
This is a quirky reading of the Coalition Agreement, with which several of the Tory rebels persist. What would be the point of promising to “bring forward proposals” just so that everyone could say, “nice proposals”, and put them in the bin?
This is a fair question, and if (as looks likely) Tory opposition does kill this bill, the Lib Dems would be fairly justified in thinking that the spirit of the agreement had been broken.

But the answer to John’s question is that the point of promising to bring forward proposals only for them to be binned is that it was a piece of constructive ambiguity that smoothed over the signing of the coalition agreement. That is now unravelling.

There is, though, another small matter. The Conservative 2010 election manifesto promised:
We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords
So while the coalition agreement doesn’t require Tory MPs to support the reform bill, their own manifesto requires them to try to build support for something along those lines.

A tricky thing to do for the many of them who’ve never wanted an elected Lords. But they should have thought about that before the election.

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