Nick Clegg has rarely sounded as angry as he did yesterday when he let rip at Labour "dinosaurs" in the House of Lords who had been up all night, impeding the progress of the Government's Bill on electoral reform. Some peers were heard fretting that Labour's tactics could be the final provocation that brings on the abolition of the Lords and its replacement with an elected second chamber.
On the face of it, it seems outrageous that unelected peers should obstruct a piece of legislation designed, inter alia, to give the people a democratic say on whether they want to change the system for electing MPs.
The situation is none the better for the barefaced claim by Charlie Falconer, leader of the peers' revolt, that this is somehow not a "filibuster". A filibuster is defined as "the obstructing of legislation by means of long speeches and other delaying tactics", which makes it hard to imagine what word Lord Falconer would think more appropriate to describe a marathon bore-in from 3.48pm on Monday until 12.51pm on Tuesday which covers only eight out of more than 80 opposition amendments to a Bill. It should be known henceforth as Falconer's Filibuster.
But before we run away with the idea that this is the Lords acting as a roadblock to democracy, we should look back to the origin of the farce. There, we find that it was the Government which first started mucking about with the democratic process with the conscious intent of denying people a proper chance to express an opinion on what they are up to.
One half of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill concerns the proposed referendum on whether MPs should be elected using the Alternative Vote system, a measure that neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats supported until they entered into their coalition. There does not seem to be any compelling reason why this must happen on 5 May other than the obvious one – it will ease Nick Clegg's relations with his party. But if that is the Government's preferred date, let them go ahead. However, the Bill does much more than just prepare for a referendum. The referendum is chaff that draws attention away from a much more controversial plan – to introduce rigidly redrawn constituency boundaries to correct the advantage Labour has over the Conservatives on the current parliamentary map. Contrary to what some of the more fanatical exponents of electoral reform seem to think, MPs are not sent to Parliament purely to wear their party labels. They are also there to represent their constituents, so it makes sense if their constituencies resemble the communities recognisable to the people in them.
Inhabitants of the Isle of Wight, for example, do not think they live half on the island and half in mainland Hampshire. Cornish people do not think they are partly in Devon. People in Anglesey do not suppose that their island is a suburb of Bangor. But all these absurdities and many more will enter into the new constituency boundaries if the Government's rigid proposals are implemented.
This is a bad scheme and even if it were improved, there is no need to rush. The next general election is not due until May 2015, which allows plenty of time to consult the public before the boundaries are redrawn. If this consultation results in a few seats being reduced in size to meet local sensitivities, it is difficult to see why that should be a great setback for democracy.
This issue has become urgent solely because the Cabinet is adamant that two separate matters must be covered by one Act of Parliament. The solution is obvious: they can split the Bill in half, keep to their schedule for a referendum and muck about with parliamentary boundaries later.
Then their lordships could go to bed at a sensible hour.Reuse content