Leading article: Labour has questions to answer on Lords reform

Political expediency cannot be allowed to scupper much-needed modernisation

Share
Related Topics

Nick Clegg's proposals to modernise the House of Lords were never going to have an easy ride. For all the main parties' manifesto commitments, most politicians are insufficiently interested to take on so formidable an issue, and those that are disagree violently as to what reform should look like.

The result, all too often, is that political expediency takes over. And so it was that although the principle of the legislation passed with a comfortable majority in the Commons on Tuesday night (despite a 91-strong Tory rebellion), when it came to the technicalities of timetabling the consensus came unstuck. With the rebels' ranks to be swelled by Labour, the Coalition faced a sure defeat, and the all-important "programme motion" was dropped.

The withdrawal may save the Government a shred of dignity. But in practical terms, the effect is much the same as if the vote had gone ahead and been lost. Either way, the outcome is catastrophic. For Nick Clegg, it undermines still further the attempts to persuade Liberal Democrat activists (and, of course, voters) that there is anything to show for propping up a Conservative-led coalition. For David Cameron, the fiasco is the clearest sign yet that he is losing control of his back benches, that the instinctive rebellion of the Eurosceptic fringe is seeping into all areas of the party. With the prospect of a reformed House of Lords more remote than ever, however, it is Britain's democracy that is the biggest loser of all.

The question, then, is what next? As things stand, a timetable will be put to the vote again in the autumn. The suggestion is that Mr Cameron may, by then, have his MPs in line. But it is far from clear what new pressure he can bring to bear on the recalcitrant, or if he really wants to. Meanwhile, the Deputy Prime Minister must review his options. He can water down his plans, to woo the Tories. He can try to address some of his Labour opponents' more substantive concerns, agreeing to a referendum, say. Or he can stick with the existing Bill, and extend the timetable so there is more opportunity to debate and amend it.

It is here that Labour comes in. The Opposition's position is, to put it kindly, a nuanced one. Ed Miliband is outspokenly pro-reform, hence Labour MPs' "aye" in the second reading vote. Hence, too, the charges of opportunism prompted by its rejection of the programme motion. With Lords reform putting unprecedented strain on the Coalition, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, given the opportunity to turn the knife, principle was sacrificed for a quick, political win.

Not so, according to Labour insiders. Constitutional changes are too complex and too far-reaching to be rushed through the Commons in 10 days, they say, pooh-poohing Mr Clegg's claim that the "guillotine" is vital to ensure opponents do not talk the Bill to death. Perhaps. But the result is undeniable: Lords reform is all but off the table.

There is a straightforward way to resolve the matter: Mr Clegg must call Labour's bluff. After nine months with a cross-party committee, the substance of the Bill should remain unaltered. If the time allowed for debate was too short, it must simply be extended. Ed Miliband's aides claim he does not want the best to be the enemy of the good. Mr Clegg must give him the opportunity to prove it.

Whatever else, the reforms cannot be allowed to founder. Not because the Coalition will totter. Not because the Liberal Democrats will struggle to bear the loss. But because, arcane as it may seem, if we miss this opportunity then the blot on our democracy of an unelected second chamber will remain for another generation. It is to this that Mr Miliband must bend his mind.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Forget charging by the page - with books, heart matters more than heft

Katy Guest
Nai or Oxi: whether Greece says Yes or No today its citizens will continue to struggle  

Greece crisis: Referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its lack of genuine legitimacy

Rupert Cornwell
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test