But it is simply false to claim that the "people versus the peers" was the issue last week behind the rejection by the House of Lords for the fifth time of the Government's Bill to alter the proposed system of electing members to serve in the European Parliament. The truth is that the new method of electing MEPs that the Government is insisting on is itself an affront to democracy and deserves the maximum legitimate opposition.
Consider: it is a system of proportional representation under which voters will no longer be allowed to vote for candidates but only for parties. It is not proportional representation itself - although I freely admit to a strong dislike of that system - but the particular form of PR that the Government wishes to introduce that persuaded me to vote against my own party. The so-called closed-list system (which incidentally was not mentioned in the manifesto) allocates seats on the basis of the number of votes cast for each party. Imagine a region with 10 seats: according to the votes cast, party "A" may be entitled to five seats, party "B" to three and party "C" to two.
Fine. But who then become the MEPs? Each party has its own method of selection. In the Labour Party they are to be chosen by a small anonymous committee of party nominees, a joint panel of officers of the regional party and members of the National Executive Committee.
The dangers of such a system are self-evident. The reliable Yes men (or women), the friends and intimates of those in high places, are obviously advantaged. The unorthodox, the awkward squad, the difficult ones are out.
Equally damaging is the fact that the chosen MEPs will henceforth feel accountable - and be accountable - not to the electors but to the party group who selected them. I certainly don't want a party represented only by rebels and mavericks. I want balance, and for that I put my faith in the electors and the rank and file party members - not in an appointed and anonymous party selection panel.
There is little balance in sight at the moment, certainly not from Labour Party spokesmen. After five successive defeats, the Government is pretending that all its troubles have been caused by the wicked, reactionary vote of Tory hereditary peers. Certainly those peers helped to defeat the Government, but the truth is that, if the Tory peers alone had voted against the Bill, the Government would have outnumbered them and defeated them as long ago as 20 October and as recently as 4 November. The Opposition won not just because of the hereditary peers but because the independent cross-benchers voted on both those occasions overwhelmingly with them - and against the Government.
In the next session, the Government proposes to introduce a Bill to abolish the hereditary peers. That is a reform I strongly support. But the Government has assured Parliament and the country that it does not seek a reformed House of Lords in which one party has an overall majority, but rather one in which peers of no party, or cross-benchers, continue to exist in some strength: it would be a reformed House, in other words, that would prevent a Government with a huge majority in the Commons from obtaining an automatic stamp of approval. I welcome this, as I say; but if the Government is to win the argument and to persuade the country that its intentions really are as it states them to be, then it should now show a real regard and sensitivity to the votes and opinions of cross-benchers.
Meanwhile, does one really need to remind ministers what the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts decreed? Apparently one does. The Acts permit the House of Lords to amend, to revise and to delay Commons legislation. But it allows the Lords to do so only for a year - and that period with the European Parliament Election Bill is now ended. So, the Government, if it insists, can have its way almost without further debate when the new session begins after this week's opening of Parliament. It does, however, run a risk. The election for the European Parliament lies only seven months ahead. It may be that it will not be possible, in spite of the Government's use of the 1949 Parliament Act, to make the necessary arrangements for an election under the new system in time. But that was a risk it always knew it had to take.
So why has the Government pressed on, so persistently and so inflexibly, with this extraordinary measure? It could easily have obtained all-party support in the Lords for the alternative "open list" system of proportional representation, in which the electorate votes for named candidates. That would have got rid of the first-past-the-post system, which is what our European allies have long wanted us to do. Is it really so worried, as much of the media suggest, about the cohesion of the party, about the internal discipline of its MPs and MEPs, that it is prepared to risk not just losing the Bill but irritating its European allies whose goodwill it normally pursues with almost embarrassing zeal?
And what about the Liberal Democrats, who are no less keen on seeing an end to first-past-the-post and who view a referendum on PR as manna from heaven? Is the Labour Party prepared to offend, if not alienate, them - all in order to impose a system that would place future MEPs permanently in the grip of a small selectorate of party officials who would have the power, if the MEPs should offend them, to terminate their parliamentary careers? I simply don't believe it. Is it, then, a fear by the Government of loss of face and authority on this issue; that it will be thought to be weak and over-accommodating if it agrees, so late in the day, to back down? Or is there some other dimension, some other ingredient in the whole dispute which has yet to be revealed?
There are many lessons to be learnt from this miserable affair. First, the Government must in future consider more carefully the merit of its proposals and the strength of its arguments rather than the size of its voting majority in the Commons. Second, the dispute will strengthen the case for changing the composition of the House of Lords only if the Government can find a way of replacing the hereditary peers with men and women whose method of appointment, selection, or election give firm guarantees to the nation that they will be people of ability, experience, judgement - and, above all, of genuine independence.
As for members of the House of Lords themselves, they should learn that, when issues arise of constitutional importance and where, in their best and most serious judgement, the Commons has got it wrong, they can expect to outface the Commons only if their judgements can no longer be ridiculed or dismissed as the mere opinion or prejudice of those who owe their right to vote to the accident of birth - to the fact they are eldest sons of eldest sons.
Lord Shore of Stepney served as both Trade and Environment Secretary in the 1974-1979 Labour government.Reuse content