Steve Richards: It's now or never for Lords reform – and it looks like never

How long can this continue? All three parties affecting support for reform, but then no reform

Share

A historic milestone will be reached later today when MPs vote yet again on the latest proposals to reform the House of Lords. There is much speculation on what will happen to the Coalition if the key vote on the legislative timetable for the proposals is defeated. Such speculation is futile. Every now and again I wonder how much more the Liberal Democrats can take and each time they respond by continuing to breathe life in the Conservative wing of the Coalition while knocking nails in their own coffin.

I hope Nick Clegg reflects on the endless dissenting, noisy interventions from Conservative MPs during his arduously reasonable speech in the Commons yesterday and compares them with his parliamentary party's polite support for much of the Tory legislative agenda. But whether such reflection will lead very far is less clear.

What is much clearer is that if this attempt to secure a largely elected second chamber is blocked, neither the Conservative nor Labour leader can go into another election affecting earnestly once more to support Lords' reform. They would be laughed at. The pledge appears like clockwork in each manifesto. Like clockwork, nothing happens once the election is over. It cannot go on like this for another election and another parliament. It's now or never.

The chances are that it will be never. Lords reform is like Europe. In the Commons, there is nearly always a majority in favour of both.Even now, there is a majority of MPs in favour of a pragmatic pro-European approach, as there was in the 1980s and 1990s, but that majority has never managed to unite and put the case to deeply sceptical voters. As for Lords reform, the impotence is more wilful. The majority theoretically in favour has not even been able to unite to get any proposal through the Commons, let alone put its case to the wider public.

There is one honourable reason for the paralysis. A significant group of MPs and peers are genuinely opposed. They do not pretend to be otherwise. Not surprisingly, they are horrified by the current proposals, but would almost certainly be equally alarmed by any alternative reforms seeking a largely elected second chamber.

They form an unofficial, informal alliance with a less principled group who feel obliged for different reasons to affect public support for an elected Lords when they are really opposed, or could not give a damn, or are only offering support for reasons that have little to do with the reforms. This includes the leaderships of the two bigger parties, both of which are supposedly supportive. David Cameron and George Osborne are desperate to secure the extra seats at the next election that the boundary review of constituencies will deliver. They will do almost anything to ensure that the Lib Dems do not veto these changes, including pretending to almost enthuse about Lords reform.

Conversely, Ed Miliband will do almost anything to prevent those changes from going ahead, including almost supporting Lords reform and hoping the Lib Dem MPs will blame the Conservatives if and when the proposals are blocked, so that they seek revenge by vetoing the boundary changes. In their very different ways, both Cameron and Miliband have radical priorities in other policy areas. Both want to form or retain relations with senior Liberal Democrats and do not want to be seen ditching these particular Lords reforms. Yet neither will shed tears if they do not go ahead. More precisely, neither is keen for elections to a second chamber in 2015 as Clegg envisages.

There are limits to how long this game can be played – all three parties affectating support for reform, but then no reform. So let us assume that the current proposals fall at some point and that neither Cameron nor Miliband can credibly go into another election promising an elected second chamber. What happens next? Many Tory rebels propose very limited change to the Lords, such as setting a retirement age. This is the worst of all worlds, as the most effective Lords are often in their seventies and eighties. Look at David Owen and Shirley Williams who, in their separate ways, sought to amend the NHS Bill to make it slightly less revolutionary than originally proposed.

I bumped into the always interesting and thoughtful Conservative MP Jesse Norman the other week after I wrote in favour of an elected second chamber. Politely, he suggested every word had been wrong: if I was opposed to a non-elected chamber as part of the legislature what about an advisory non-elected senate, with no formal role in the legislature?

At first, I thought his suggestion was a logical next step given the near impossibility of securing support for an elected second chamber. Then the same old questions arose. Who would appoint the advisers and for how long? Would the senate reflect party composition in the Commons? Would many specialists agree to take part when the role was so limited? In the end, an elected chamber with a clearly defined and narrow role is not only the most democratic solution, it is the least problematic.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

Twitter: @steverichards14

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice