With some honourable exceptions, members of the Parliamentary Labour Party behaved disgracefully in Tuesday’s debate about House of Lords reform. It was almost as though the act of Nick Clegg rising to his feet in the commons led to an outbreak of amnesia on our benches. Perhaps it is just that we’ve come to enjoy beating up the Deputy Prime Minister more than fulfilling the traditional aims of our party. Either way, the unedifying sight of Labour MPs positioning themselves on the conservative – and, at times, the Conservative – side of the debate was too much for this constitutional reformer.
For more than a hundred years the Labour Party has been committed to reforming the House of Lords. It wasn’t until 1999 that we succeeded in abolishing the hereditary peers; even then, 92 of them managed to survive the cull and, ironically, became the only 92 to have won any sort of election to gain a seat in the upper chamber.
In the 1997 manifesto, the abolition of hereditary peers was promised as part of a wider package of reforms that never really materialised; the Wakeham Commission on Lords reform joined a long list of lofty tomes in the annals of parliamentary history to never make it onto the stature books. In 2001, our manifesto promised to complete Lords reform. As Ben Bradshaw noted in the commons on Tuesday, that pledge was almost fulfilled thanks to the perseverance and determination of one of our party’s most committed constitutional reformers, the late Robin Cook. The 80% elected, 20% appointed mix proposed by Clegg on Tuesday was almost delivered by the second ministry of Tony Blair.
Our longstanding commitment to Lords reform and the close proximity between the Clegg proposals and our own record in government made Tuesday’s debate all the more farcical. Although our last manifesto contained a commitment to a fully elected second chamber, we know from hard experience that our noble Lords aren’t going to go without a fight.
I favour a fully elected second chamber. Appointed legislators have no place in a twenty first century democracy. I would have them elected for a single term, on national party lists, by the Single Transferable Vote. I would want our main parties to ensure that their nominees contain people from all walks of society, with a wealth of knowledge and experience to maintain the tradition of the second chamber as the scrutinising place, grounded in expertise.
There are, of course, legitimate arguments for a different mix of elected and appointed peers, the voting system that might be used and the role of the second chamber. Mike Gapes took to the floor on Tuesday to advocate a unicameral system.
That debate needs to take place, but it needs to happen on a serious, bi-partisan basis. Savaging Nick Clegg on an area where the Labour Party broadly agrees with him does our democracy a disservice, sets back the prospect for reform and – incidentally – doesn’t help us win the next general election.
Ed Miliband asked the Liberal Democrats to work with Labour where we agree on education and health reforms. Perhaps it’s time to practice what we preach and extend the olive branch and work with Nick Clegg to deliver on the promises we made in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010. Our politics will be better off for it.