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.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Lords reform: grand plans fail, so keep it simple

Given how fiendishly difficult it has proved, year after year, decade after decade, to get House of Lords reforms through the Commons, let alone through the Lords, it strikes me that if you’re going to get anywhere you’ll need to be sneaky.

The government’s proposals, in brief: over the course of three general elections, they would replace the hereditary and life peers with ones elected through a party list system to serve 15-year non-renewable terms. These party peers would make up 80% of the new House, and 20% would be ‘great and the good’-style non-party appointees with expertise in various worthy fields.

As I say, pretty much a complete overhaul. And yet…

Most of what these reforms would achieve could be done much more easily, by making just two changes to the current House of Lords:
  1. Fix the numbers of new appointees to match party vote shares at the last election (with 20% non-party worthies). That gets you the proportionality based on election results.
  2. Change the length of a peerage from life to 15 years. That gets you the regular turnover. (If it’s less of a wrench for them, I’m happy to let former members keep their titles.)
Job done. No endless debate about the merits of election vs appointment or about different electoral systems or about the supremacy of the Commons. The change would be nearly as big as that envisaged by the government, but it would be legislatively far simpler. Quick and dirty and effective.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that the government’s plan is good even in theory, just that my plan would get us most of the way there a lot more easily. And of course there are other things you might want to change about the Lords (me, I’d kick out the clergymen). But the more you try to change in one go, the more fronts you’ll find yourself fighting on.

Keep it simple.