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


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.

Twitter: @steverichards14

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